Women in music: Life on the indie stage

Sexual harassment, pay disparity, body shaming — the Indian music scene is rife with instances of discrimination, but female artistes are slowly turning things around

January 29, 2021 06:29 pm | Updated 07:18 pm IST

(Clockwise from top left) Monica Dogra, Shilpa Natarajan, Pragnya Wakhlu and harpist Nush Lewis

(Clockwise from top left) Monica Dogra, Shilpa Natarajan, Pragnya Wakhlu and harpist Nush Lewis

In the autumn of 2016, Shilpa Natarajan flouted the unwritten rule that “women artistes are expected to wear dresses and heels”, and showed up on stage in pyjamas and a T-shirt. “This pressure to dress up and look a particular way is not on male artistes,” says the Chennai-based vocalist and composer, who had opened the Mainstage Festival in Chennai with her parody band, Beef Sapad Trio (BST). When organisers asked her if she would change, she simply stated it was her costume as Barbie Q, her alias when she performs with BST.

In the year gone by, when everything had turned digital, this divide was even more stark. Female artistes were particularly disadvantaged because of trolling. American singer Monica Dogra had posted on feeling insecure about her career (because of social media trolls), while Mumbai-based singer Aditi Ramesh spoke about fielding unpleasant emojis and comments while on a live gig for Vh1. “As a female musician, I’ve heard the words, ‘You’re a girl; people listen to your music because of your looks. Men are the ones really struggling’, more than once. To a teenager finding her way, it is not difficult to let these ideas under your skin and wonder if you’re worth anything,” says upcoming Bengaluru-based vocalist, Frizzell D’Souza.

Know your worth
  • Changing self-perception is also helping. “As women realise their own potential, the way the world views them is changing,” says Acharya, the Mumbai-based event manager who has travelled the country with her female percussionists. “Men who never approached female artistes for collaborations now want to work with them.” While this is by no means a validation for the work that women artistes do, it is perhaps a signal that the men are less insecure of their place. And that’s a soundscape to make better music.

So, how are women changing the narrative in 2021? Today, more and more female musicians are subverting the politics and economics of the Indian independent scene by reclaiming their agency. Like Mumbai-based hip-hop artiste Ashwini Hiremath, who goes by the stage name Krantinaari, and rapper Pratika Prabhune, of the hip-hop collective Won Tribe. They are working on the release of a rap song titled ‘ Raja Beta ’, which is “inspired by many incidents that took place last year when patriarchy overtook social justice and even law enforcement”. Elsewhere, Sonia Acharya, director of Women of Rhythm, India’s largest organisation of female drummers, has a fixed fee for her upcoming artistes, which is at par with what male artistes are paid.

Rapper Pratika Prabhune and hip-hop artiste Ashwini Hiremath (aka Krantinaari)

Rapper Pratika Prabhune and hip-hop artiste Ashwini Hiremath (aka Krantinaari)

Raising questions

Indie music in India gained momentum only as recently as a decade ago, with a steady increase in the number of music festivals. And it is still far from being woke. As a woman music journalist, and former editor of Rolling Stone magazine’s India edition, I was accustomed to the scene being a boys’ club. From gig photographers and artiste managers to event managers and technicians to journalists and artistes, men outnumbered women. Back then it didn’t cross my mind to question the status quo or bring up topics like body shaming or pay parity.

It was in 2012 that I first learnt of a sexual harassment case in the music industry, only to find that few men would step up and support the victim. She was advised against going to court and warned that things would get messy if she filed a case. “The organisation where I was employed stopped working with the man [an event and artiste manager], but they didn’t want to get involved if I filed a case,” says the victim, who wishes to remain anonymous. It wasn’t until the #MeToo movement in 2018 that women musicians, and journalists like me, began talking about these happenings.

Monica Dogra - vocalist, songwriter and composer

Monica Dogra - vocalist, songwriter and composer

Body positive

No woman artiste, be it a global music sensation or a local indie vocalist, is spared the indignity of being questioned about how she looks or what she wears. Grammy-nominated sitarist , Anoushka Shankar, recently lashed out at a troll who commented on a photo that she had posted on her social media page.

“If you visit the social profiles of female artistes, you will see how audiences are driven towards their physical appeal more than anything else, an inherent trait of a patriarchal society. The viewership on videos and photos will be skyrocketing, while their musical content is often ignored,” says rapper Prabhune. “Sometimes the content isn’t even up to the mark. I think that comes from our habit of ‘social ranking’, ‘influencing’, and straight up objectification of women [something that is absent among Hindustani and Carnatic musicians, where prowess is valued]. Seldom are women appreciated solely for their music or art.”

Percussionists with Women of Rhythm

Percussionists with Women of Rhythm

Calling out oppression

However, women are now leading the change both on stage and off it. “It is only when women write or post something that challenges the norms that they are trolled. But this, in turn, exposes double standards and triggers conversations around sexism, which will bring about change,” says Acharya.

When talent speaks
  • When Ritnika Nayan launched Music Gets Me High (MGMH), a music consultancy firm, in 2007, there were few women working in the indie scene. “Back then, I had to go the extra mile to prove that I knew what I was talking about. I feel these days, things are getting better. More women are choosing to work in music and are starting their companies/bands,” says Nayan, adding that it is still challenging “because if women succeed, most assume it is because we used our womanly charms and not because we are talented and capable.” MGMH has moved on to programming music for events and Nayan states that she promotes artistes based solely on talent. “The idea of equality isn’t that women get favoured; it is that we are given the same opportunities. And that’s what I like to create.”

Lawyer Priyanka Khimani, chairperson of Women in Music’s (WIM) India chapter (started in 2019), is one such ‘warrior’. Though the pandemic has delayed her plans, she says this year “my focus will be on addressing practical work-life issues. For starters: creating a membership-based access to legal support so that all artistes can have access to advice and assistance while negotiating deals”. Globally, WIM has set up mentorship programmes for women, created campaigns to represent women artistes at music conferences, and launched a video series to support victims of sexual harassment.

Companies with women in leadership positions are also building a stronger support system for their peers. Digital music network TuneCore’s country head in India, Heena Kriplani, has an equal opportunity workspace ever since she joined the company in January 2020. “I use my station to showcase women at every opportunity. I’m a firm believer in a 50% representation model. When people say ‘Let the best man win,’ what they don’t get is the years of unequal opportunity it has taken to make that man the best,” she says. “Equilibrium more than equality is important. It will take a lot of muscle to even out the playing field and it is on all of us to do it,” adds Mumbai-based Kriplani, who has been part of the music industry for two decades.

Where change is still needed

Pay parity: Gender inequality hits where it hurts the most. At 31, Rihanna might be the richest female musician in the world today, with a net worth of $600 million, but her male hip-hop counterpart Jay-Z hit the $1 billion dollar mark two years ago.

In India, women are still fighting for space on stage. Shilpa Natarajan says that in Chennai, a woman artiste can perform at certain hotels and malls only once a month, while male musicians are booked for multiple gigs at the same venues all month. And while both genders are paid approximately the same (₹4,000 for a pub gig), the men can increase their income dramatically with more performances.

Shilpa Natarajan

Shilpa Natarajan

The bro culture: Over the last few years, the indie music scene has witnessed a series of sexual harassment cases. In 2017, Khodu Irani, the owner of High Spirits, a popular music venue in Pune, was accused of body shaming and harassment by several women. In 2018, Vijay Nair, co-founder of Only Much Louder (OML), the artiste and event management agency, was called out. Of the 50-odd artistes and bands that perform at NH7 Weekender, organised by OML, only a few, including Shoumik Biswas (aka Disco Puppet) and Delhi-based indie music label, Azadi (which has 11 artistes on its roster, including rapper Prabh Deep and Mumbai hip-hop collective Swadesi), took a stand and refused to perform in 2018 and 2019.

A few Mumbai bands and stand-up comedian Karunesh Talwar were among those who refused to perform at High Spirits. “The way the situation was handled, with no statements or comments from the management, just shows that they were in denial and supported Khodu. Which just leaves a bad taste,” says Ashwin Sharma, artist manager for Hindi prog rock bands Coshish and Paradigm Shift.

Pragnya Wakhlu

Pragnya Wakhlu

Three years ago, when Delhi-based vocalist/composer Pragnya Wakhlu performed at a show in Jaipur, she was allegedly harassed by the organiser of the show. “When I mentioned it to the head of the organisation, she made me feel like a troublemaker. And none of the men I knew called him out for his behaviour. I felt very let down,” says Wakhlu, who regrets not publicly calling out the man.

Sexual harassers continue to find support. Less than a year after the allegations made news, they were denied, dismissed and the scene was back in business mode. “There is a culture of bro-ism in the indie scene,” says Dogra. “The culture around alcohol, drugs and fast friends is what made me want to distance myself from it because I felt that my mental health was getting affected. I feel threatened as well and, of course, I’ve encountered sexual predators.” The industry still has a long way to go.

The writer is an independent journalist and a faculty of journalism at FLAME University.

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