Letter from... my musical experimentations

Letter from... my musical experimentations

Photo: Hindustan Times

There’s no escaping Bollywood music in Mumbai, but there is still a lot of other stuff one can listen to, with just a little effort

Arun Janardhan
There was much stink and excitement recently when the news came through that the British rock band Coldplay is to perform in Mumbai on 19 November, also World Toilet Day. Of course, as in most cases, excitement also led to people getting pissed off.
So, the rumours started—the tickets would be so expensive that people would need to sell body parts to get in, they would cost between Rs25,000 to Rs5 lakh—and there were memes on Coldplay’s surge pricing. The issue was soon put to rest officially that the tickets would be free provided people register and participate in a set of activities towards organizer Global Citizen India’s goals of education, gender equality and sanitation.
Music gets people of this city interested and talking—though a Coldplay concert is very much an event to be seen at, whether or not you are a fan. The city has also had a rocky relationship with concerts—Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali has been at its receiving end more than once with his concerts getting cancelled due to political pressure. Music lovers are known to complain about the lack of events and venues in the city.
But what connects a big, bustling city to music in everyday life? What kind of a relationship can an individual form with music in the city (besides personal listening devices)?
You can find music or rhythm in day-to-day activities, if you choose to. Like the rhythmic clacking of a train on tracks, the ringtone of the chap sitting next to you, the sound of birds on those rare, quiet mornings, the periodic tweeting of a machine—in particular, the petrol pump from across the street, which has a machine that checks air pressure in tyres rather loudly—the doorbell, the printer spewing out paper periodically and so on.
I decided two months ago to open my mind further to music, to listen to it more carefully, but also to try and explore this city’s relationship and involvement with it. This journey can be divided into the following four sections—my neighbour, Venkatesh Kumar, blueFROG and religious festivals.
Like I mentioned a few weeks ago, the inevitable Ganesh Chathurthi procession accompanied by dhols from the next building did not arrive in the middle of the night this year—since 4 September (the day before the festival) was a Sunday, they brought the idol in sooner. What woke me up this year was the man living downstairs.
This neighbour is an enthusiastic late-night partier and, inevitably, the music from his walls makes its way to where I sleep, and this happens many times a month.
So, this month’s experimentation was to sleep through the thumping drumbeats, to allow that rhythm to sync with my heartbeat so it doesn’t become a hindrance but an asset. His music, week after week, does not change much, which helps. But sadly, I am far from getting it right.
Some Sundays ago, First Edition Arts, which curates live music, organized Prabhati, a concert with Hindustani classical vocalist Venkatesh Kumar at King George School in Dadar East. Any trip to the area has to be preceded or followed by a South Indian meal—which on this occasion was at Mani’s—but I digress.
This was my second Kumar concert, but better than the first, which was too short. In this under-three-hour performance, the singer could exhibit his range more freely, and like any great musician, left you feeling that there was more to his repertoire than exhibited.
The audience, though not filling the auditorium completely, swayed in appreciation and raised their hands suitably in rhythm to signal how moved they were by the music. Later, I listened in to conversations on the last piece, whether it was a Brindavani Sarang or Madhuma Sarang.
First Edition Arts is trying to popularize Hindustani classical music through concerts and video recordings uploaded on their YouTube channel, and to get people exposed to the music before they get hooked on to it.
In the roughly three to five years that they have been doing this, they have discovered that the average age of their online audience is between 18 to 34. This reinforces their intentions of providing entertainment where young people want it—on the Internet. Their shows are only in Mumbai at the moment and reasonably priced.
First Edition Arts co-founder Pepe Gomes is aware that they are competing with the powerful and popular Bollywood music and that their audience is niche. Their model sustains itself through sponsorships and they hope to organize smaller, more intimate baithaks in the future.
A few weeks later, another Sunday, was the last day of blueFROG in Lower Parel. The live music venue, the first of its kind in the city, entertained Mumbaikars (who could afford it) for about a decade before they decided to shut shop. blueFROG got together Western musicians from here and abroad in the most innovatively designed and acoustically smart venues in the city.
Ranjit Barot, Nikhil D’Souza and other jazz and rock bands played for over eight hours at a setting that saw a full house by late evening. The music, though pulsating, still seemed secondary to the occasion, which marked the end of a great musical journey.
“The club’s trajectory,” wrote Bhanuj Kappal in Mint, “is similar that of the city’s live music scene. In 2008, everyone was convinced that independent music was just on the verge of breaking into the mainstream. blueFROG’s ambitions—a massive venue, record label, studio—indicated a general belief that indie music would soon be a worthy challenger to Bollywood. Sadly, it hasn’t turned out that way.”
A few weeks later, I was back facing the familiar, unchallenged Bollywood terrain: an annual street-side music fest, which also happens to be a religious festival. During Ganesh Chathurthi, in pandals and in processions, music blares through their impressively sophisticated loudspeakers. Some do the traditional, pious bhajans, but most stick to Bollywood numbers, which are perhaps easier to dance to, particularly when headed to the sea on the last day for immersion.
This year’s favourite is, not surprisingly, the super energetic Zing Zing Zingat from the big Marathi hit movie Sairat. It has replaced Deva Shree Ganesha from the 2012 film Agneepath as the most played (at least in my neighbourhood), which is frankly a relief after listening to it for three years on a loop.
It’s difficult to escape from Bollywood or film music in Mumbai, but there is still a lot of other stuff one can listen to with effort. You can voluntarily listen to music (like attending a concert) or be forced to (like through roadside loudspeakers), but if you can seek and find music in everyday sounds, it just makes life a bit more lyrical.
Wait, is that the trendy Kala Chashma song playing in the background?
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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