It has all the elements of a classic rock video. Strapping young man running in the rain. Check. Dark washed out background. Check. A pretty girl trapped in a dingy room. Check. Yet, despite the requisite cast of characters, and a catchy chorus (a head-banging “nada, nada, nada”), the words do not sound all that familiar. Unless, of course, you know Malayalam. In which case, you might be aware that the song Nada Nada is by the rock band Avial, the words mean “walk, walk”, and even, perhaps, that the video has been viewed 117,034 times on YouTube (always a good measure of pop culture coolness).
Admittedly, the language is known only to the residents of Kerala and the Malayali diaspora, and is generally not the preferred first choice for a bass-breaking, guitar-smashing style of music.
Urdu is one of the languages of Da-Saz’s music
But in the past few years, regional languages have become the preferred choice for a clutch of India’s rock bands. “Singing in English is not going to get you anywhere. Nobody wants to hear an Indian sing in English; they can’t relate to it,” says Tony John, who sings, and handles the turntables and synthesizer for Avial. “It’s not our culture or anything.” Before coming together in 2003, members of the band, who bill their music “alternative Malayali rock”, had tried their hand at English songs. Yet, despite varying degrees of success, the band eventually decided to return to what it knew best. “We are comfortable in our mother tongue and it reflects who we are, as well as the time and space we live in,” John says.
Though bands here have always incorporated a certain degree of regional variation in their repertoire, it wasn’t until 2005 that the idea began gaining ground, championed by bands in the North-East, and picked up by Bengali groups such as Cactus and Chandra Bindu and Punjabi pop idol Rabbi. “Singing in regional languages isn’t so much of a trend, rather it happens in spurts,” says Sam Lal, editor of the Indian edition of the American music magazine Blender. “They don’t sing about fast cars or driving down Sunset strip but about things that we can identify with,” Lal explains.
Soon, others too cottoned on to the idea of singing in their mother tongues. “It’s amazing; singing in Kannada I can cross all age and social barriers,” says multilingual rocker Raghu Dixit, whose decision to move to India in 2000 was spurred partly by the overwhelming response he got after singing a Hindi song on a Belgian radio station. He didn’t quite realize the extent of its popularity, however, until he sang at the MySpace launch in Mumbai this April. “I started to explain the lyrics to the audience, only to have them scream back that they already knew the meaning and would I just shut up and sing,” says Dixit, who achieved the unthinkable when he got college students thumping to lyrics by Saint Shishunaala Sharif, a 19th century spiritual poet.
Avial is the torch-bearer of Malayalam rock
And as they borrow liberally from old texts, more bands are beginning to realize the creative potential of matching rock riffs with folk or traditional lyrics. “The words in our songs are 13th century Malayalam. It is old folk Malayalam and it works very well with the rock combination as both are very raw forms and gel well,” John says.
Then, there are those who have discovered that the best source of poetry lies within. Mou Sultana, a Bengali artist who will release her debut Bengali rock album, Mou, later this year from Phat Phish Records, and who records and writes her own lyrics, says, “Keeping the authenticity of the classic Bengali language as it is, I started writing in the modern sophisticated way that we speak—funny, sarcastic, colloquial, rhythmic, yet glamorous.”
Da-Saz, a nine-year-old multicultural collective based in New Delhi, has also jumped on the bandwagon, recording in Punjabi, Urdu, Hindu and Farsi. “Most people choose to take the rock structure, but it is not so great to fuse. In electronic music there is such variety, and it becomes a great platform,” says Lionel Dentan, the Swiss-born musician who plays the synthesizer and other instruments for the band. And though the lyrics, composed by Dhruv Sangari, their vocalist and a Hindustani classical and qawwali singer, are mostly alien to the other band members, who are from Russia and Spain, they don’t seem to mind.
“We don’t understand the words, but Dhruv explains them to us. Words aren’t so important. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was popular despite the fact that most people had no idea what he was saying,” Dentan says.
At a time when India is being applauded for everything from its growing economy to its youthful workforce, its languages are getting a much needed boost from these purveyors of cool. “It’s a mass movement that is happening,” Dixit says. “Youngsters are suddenly realizing that our country is also hip and cool. It doesn’t matter what language you sing in, you just have to be able to sing with conviction.”