For India’s non-Bollywood music scene, the early 1990s were little more than an extension of the closing notes of the 1980s. The new decade may have promised a freshness of purpose and offered a vestige of hope for the straggling rock and pop movement (if one could accord it any motion at all), but the truth was, not much was really happening. Sure, there were the usual college gigs, occasional rock festivals and the like—but in terms of any serious growth in the prospects of existing bands, popular or less known, and incentive for aspiring bands and solo artistes, it was pretty bleak.
Then a bolt shot through the ether. The ray of light for makers and lovers of sounds not created by Bappi Lahiri, Anu Malik and their kitschy kin arrived in the form of Star TV’s expansive satellite footprint. The channel’s singular incursion was closely followed by its bouquet of affiliates. But the affiliate that mattered most to those indie music makers and lovers was, of course, MTV. First glance wasn’t half bad either (except perhaps the short-lived Yo! MTV Raps). Although a considerable chunk of airtime was given to sugar-loaded Cantopop ballads emerging from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and big-maned grunge outfits from Indonesia and Malaysia, the bulk of the channel’s programming featured bands we sought and loved: Van Halen, Pearl Jam, Counting Crows, REM, Def Leppard. And some we didn’t: Milli Vanilli, Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer (okay I admit it, You Can’t Touch This was cool, billowing harem pants notwithstanding).
But the real shot in the arm came when MTV trained its sights on India as not just a mass market to squeeze, but a creative catchment area to draw from. And the reservoir was itching to blow its banks. My band, Rock Machine, was fortunate to feature as India’s first act to hit the hallowed portal. After our video Top of the Rock first aired, a flood ensued. Everyone scrambled to get a video together. Beleaguered bands tried to scrape together pennies, pretty solo singers sought out benefactors, the less attractive ones tried to convince reluctant record companies to insert music video clauses into their contracts.
Tuning in: Parikrama has been performing regularly at the Independence Rock concerts in Mumbai. Photo by Akshayraj Uchil.
We were luckier than a lot—and maybe a little smarter than a few. Rather than heading down the futile road of record label sponsorship, we opted for corporate sponsorship instead. We proposed tie-ups that went off-screen. The sponsor would fund our music video; we, in turn, would offer exposure to the sponsor through alternative avenues: interviews with the media, their logo on our merchandise, doing a free concert (or two), displaying banners at our gigs featuring said sponsor’s logo, maybe even producing a jingle or two on the house. But there was one thing that we were firm about: no product placement in the video. It helped that MTV’s broadcast policy disallowed it—and they were unflinching.
This exciting new medium attracted film-makers eager to go beyond the 30-second commercials they were producing and explore the open canvas of interpretive art via 4-minute music videos, no holds barred. We were lucky to be able to ally with some brilliant directors whose vision made an indelible imprint on the airwaves. India was now very much on the map as a fount of sonic and visual talent.
The “scene” had officially begun. We finally had a credible platform for non-Bollywood music. The medium crossed languages, inevitably.
To begin with there were the English-language acts: the socially conscious and always entertaining Remo Fernandes, feisty Mumbai gal Jasmine Bharucha, Bangalore metalheads Millennium and Delhi band Parikrama, to name a few. Mumbai’s Colourblind came and went in a blink but left a significant mark in their slickly produced, self-titled album. The Hindi movement was more prolific, however—there was money in the national language. Suneeta Rao had a bunch of videos, most notably the evocative Pari. Alisha Chinai channelled Biddu’s cheesed-up compositions, Daler Mehndi convinced south Indians to go Punjabi, Baba Sehgal melded gibberish with some form of rap and Raageshwari liberally flashed her pearly whites while singing a song that her daddy wrote for a video that her bhaiya directed. Lucky Ali permeated the airwaves with some of the most refreshing songs and sounds we’d heard in a long time. And Colonial Cousins mashed classical idiom with pop sensibilities delivered in easy morsels.
Channel V, meanwhile, had edged its way into the music broadcast spectrum and was giving the unseated-and- relaunched American music television giant a run for its pixels. By this time, however, broadcasting principles had suffered something of a setback. Raageshwari’s video seemed like a barely veiled commercial for a cola behemoth. Just a few years earlier both music channels would have sent the beta videotape right back to the sender. Not so any more. They seemed quite comfortable with the cola company’s ubiquitous red-and-white logo screaming out from behind the prancing Raageshwari.
That, right there, heralded a change in philosophy.
The second half of the 1990s saw the beginning of the end of music TV as we had briefly known it. Hindi pop soon saw its demise along with the record companies that tried to inflict upon people a slew of half-baked semi-talents.
But rock ‘n’ roll never dies.
The decade continued to see more and more indie music emerge from bedrooms and hostels. Whether boasting a video or not, bands were playing across the country. Kerala’s 13AD—with the virtuosic Eloy on guitar— crossed paths with my band (now called Indus Creed, renamed around the time we released our video Pretty Child) in different parts of the country more than a few times. Kolkata’s Shiva worked their way through the cover band circuit of the east and north-east. Other Kolkata bands, such as New Horizon and Krosswindz, saw line-ups alter and morph…but they plodded on.
Some artistes found their way to Bollywood. Remo’s voice was first imprinted on A.R. Rahman’s Humma Humma to great success. He managed to milk that opportunity without subverting his own independence, a rare feat to achieve when the lure of lucre is so high. Other indie music aspirants crossed the fence, totally and without remorse: KK took his soaring voice and used it well in Bollywood, briefly interjecting his flourishing career with a couple of non-filmi pop albums. Mohit Chauhan, a current Bollywood fave, found his way to playback after the end of Silk Route, the Hindi folk-rock act he sang for. Vishal Dadlani, of the Bollywood power-pair Vishal-Shekhar, spent his early music years as the founder and frontman of Pentagram, the industrial-rock band that was born in the ashes of the decade.
Pentagram still exists, Remo still plays, we relaunched Indus Creed last year after a 12-year hiatus, and there is frequent talk of Lucky Ali returning with new material.
The 1990s were a period of unceasing change, much of it turbulent. It saw the rapid rise of a wildly fertile scene, and its equally quick decline. But the milestones set then still poke their heads above the potholed path. Independent, non-Bollywood music is seeing an unprecedented fecundity these days. Whether that’s despite or because of the 1990s will remain moot.
Uday Benegal is a musician and writer, and the frontman of the band Indus Creed.
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