Given the stereotype that women don’t belong in rock and metal bands, how are girls in city bands faring?

In a recent interview in the NXg, “girl-dominated” band High Heels And a Shotgun said, “We don’t get heard much. I mean because we’re pretty young and female, people don’t really give us a chance.” This got us thinking about how women in the Chennai music scene really fare.

Yes, the gender issue creeps into every profession and pursuit but how much does it influence the scene in our city what we were trying to find answers for.

Gender in focus

Aditi Sriprasad, of High Heels, has more to say: “When we are introduced to an audience the highlight is invariably that we are an ‘all-girl’ band, not our music. People are surprised that we cover quite a range of music.” Though they were aware of the stereotyping they would face when starting out, the support and opportunities they’ve got so far, she says, has been good. Opportunities come through performances at clubs, pubs, festivals, competitions and other events, where the majority of performers and audience are men.

“I think it’s got to do with our culture. Our culture is wary of women getting into arts apart from the traditional ones,” points out Natasha Pinto, a keyboardist and vocalist adept in several genres. She adds: “Another reason is that music is not a part of our education system. If somebody picks it up, it is because of their own interest; that too much later.”

It was pure passion that drove NXg Rockstar 2011’s Best Lead Guitarist (Metal) to pursue music, despite gender-based challenges. Aarabhy Surendran of Shadjaw is a self-taught guitarist who picked up the instrument after watching Slash of Guns N’ Roses wield his magic on TV. Now recognised and appreciated, Aarabhy’s rise to fame hasn’t been easy.

“I always get compliments like ‘for a girl, you’re pretty good’. For every positive feedback on Facebook, there are also comments like ‘Just because you are a girl, you think you can get away with what you play.’ The gender issue has always got in the way of genuine feedback,” she says, frustration quite obvious in her tone.

Perhaps this is what got her band manager to warn me: “She finds the term ‘female musician/ guitarist’ offensive. She prefers to be treated as an equal. We call her ‘The Dude’.” Aarabhy laughs off this comment but says she had to push through many barriers and face rejections to get where she is now. “I am gearing up for the IIT entrance. I want to study at IIT-M, as my band mates are now in Chennai. Also higher studies means putting off my marriage, which will in turn give me more time for my music.”

Unequal numbers

What worries many, like Natasha, isn’t discrimination but the inequality in terms of numbers. For instance, something as simple as hanging out, talking about the latest sound technology, music trends and watching videos on YouTube is more common among boys. “Women with interest in these areas are few and far between. So I invariably end up hanging out with boys,” is Natasha’s point.

Popular musician-cum-lawyer Kavitha Thomas, who was part of the all-girl band Mantra, has an answer with regard to the numbers. “As women, we get slotted into the usual genres of pop, jazz and the like. Sometimes the female tone isn’t necessarily best suited to type of singing required of rock; sometimes it’s the best tone you could hope for. But practice definitely makes perfect. Insecurity and being conscious of carrying it off is what usually stops a female artist from reaching towards the rock scene. It was acceptable for girls to sing songs sung by women artistes, which meant I got to sing Alanis or Sheryl Crow who are rockers in their own right but not what I had in mind. Today, I sing tracks by artists like Guns N’ Roses, Deep Purple, Steely Dan and Led Zeppelin, and also do Sinatra and Ella while also playing around with versions of popular artists like Rihanna, Gaga and John Mayer. There is no bar! The bar is set by people who are ignorant of how much women with a good ear and great vocal cords can accomplish.”

For the better

Change is here and how! The city is seeing a steady increase in the number of women musicians; so we can hope the term “all-girl” rock band and female metal guitarist will raise fewer eyebrows. Shema Mariya Abraham of Colour Chaos agrees: “There’s a sudden explosion of female musicians. We’re being recognised for our music. As a feminist band we are happy to learn that about 60 per cent of our audience are women. Women from across the country encourage us and send us e-mails appreciating our work.” That’s a big step from having been dismissed by the industry for being a bunch of girls performing rock to becoming recognised artists.