Indie, apathy and everything in between

This past year saw the rise of hip-hop and experimental music with rock sinking further into the shadows

This past year, that ‘Indian indie’ — that vague, much abused label — stopped making sense completely. But it’s always been a problematic term. Indie, short for independent, originated as a descriptor for underground punk and rock scenes that followed an autonomous DIY approach to making and releasing music. Their ‘independence’ was the result of a commitment to creating a parallel, ethical and artist-oriented (and often anti-capitalist) music scene. Now the line between indie music and the mainstream has blurred. In India, the film industry is utterly dominating the musical mainstream, and classical and devotional music occupies what little space remains. Any musician working outside of these circles is independent by default.

To each his own

In 2017, Bollywood stars headline stages at supposedly indie festivals and indie artistes release singles on big corporate labels. The indie vs. (Bollywood) mainstream binary is more a clever narrative fiction than a reflection of how things actually work. Earlier this year, everyone from Shubha Mudgal to Arijit Singh spoke about their efforts to support indie music at a music conference (side note: music conferences seem to be the new music festival, there seems to be one every month). I almost choked on my drink when I heard Sony DADC managing director Rajat Kakar describe Universal Music India — which he used to head — as an indie label. All of these people have their own definitions of Indian indie, encompassing everything from regional folk to Dhinchak Pooja to rap megastar Badshah. Might as well call it Indian Non Bollywood Music (INBM), as Narendra Kusnur suggested in this paper earlier this year. I vote that we retire the term indie, and refer to distinct music scenes by their own terms. It’s time that the industry and music critics accept this new paradigm.

Making it big: (Clockwise) New Delhi rapper Prabh Deep, ‘Gully’ rap star Divine, and underground hip-hop artiste Enkore.

Making it big: (Clockwise) New Delhi rapper Prabh Deep, ‘Gully’ rap star Divine, and underground hip-hop artiste Enkore.  

Rap and rock

Perhaps the most exciting of those scenes is Indian hip-hop, which continued its march to the top of the musical food chain in 2017. While the mainstream media focused on Badshah’s hit non-Bollywood single Mercy and his Major Lazer collaboration with ‘I Wanna Be Free’, as well as Ranveer Singh’s cringe-worthy rapper affectations, it was the hip-hop underground that produced some of the year’s most exciting and innovative music. ‘Gully’ rap star Divine topped the iTunes chart with hit single ‘Farak and made his Bollywood debut with the Nucleya collab ‘Paintra. Naezy continued to release singles and toured the UK, while New Delhi rapper Prabh Deep released one of the best albums of the year in Class-Sikh. And all over the country, artistes like Swadesi, Khasi Bloodz, Enkore, Kru172 and Seedhe Maut released exciting new music and took their brand of fiery underground hip-hop live to club and festival stages. But rap’s rise has come at the cost of Indian rock which, having already lost ground to the EDM explosion, finds itself increasingly relegated to the sidelines. Rock musicians and fans will ascribe this to the language barrier — most Indian rock is still sung in English — and to shifting audience tastes, and there’s truth in that assertion. But the bigger problem is that Indian rock — like in the West — has run out of ideas, with only a handful of acts putting out music in 2017 that wasn’t safe, derivative or completely insipid.

Indie, apathy and everything in between

Sonic overtures

It’s a great time to be a fan of experimental music and sound art, with left-field producers and groups pushing sonic envelopes. Kolkata experimental noise-makers JESSOP&CO released a couple of fantastic tapes, with A Perfect Example Of Dislodging making it to The Quietus’ Top 10 tapes of 2017 list. Noise merchant SISTER, avant-garde composer Spankeol, psychedelic improv act Infinite Jar Space, noisecore act TVTalkaos, and experimental electronica acts Disco Puppet and The Sine Painter have put out fantastic, genre-bending records this year, making inroads into the live music scene.

There has been much to celebrate within Indian music in 2017 — the return of indie labels like Azadi Records, Consolidate and Nrtya; the flood of cutting edge international acts adding India to their tour calendar; the rise of streaming services giving DIY artistes a platform to build their own audiences without needing massive marketing budgets.

Indie, apathy and everything in between

Blind eyes

The biggest failure of Indian music this year — both Bollywood and otherwise — has been its unwillingness to grapple with the social and political context within which it exists. I didn’t particularly expect film music composers to take a political stance, what with the big money at stake. But it has been particularly disappointing to see India’s more alternative scenes respond to the one of the most politically divisive years in the country’s recent history with studied indifference and apathy. Apart from a handful of acts — The Ska Vengers, Deepak Peace, Mr India, T.M. Krishna, Prabh Deep — the music community has abdicated its responsibility to reflect on and critique politics and society. That task has largely been left to cultural activists from the Dalit and Ambedkarite movements who often bear the brunt of state and non-state repression for their art. On the other hand, upper-class, upper-caste musicians whose privilege would protect them from the worst of such repression sit comfortably and silently on the sidelines. I hope to see that change in 2018. It’s time that India’s musicians realise that there is no such thing as apolitical art. In silence lies complicity.

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 8:56:22 AM |

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