India’s hasn’t any street-cred. Bring up Jamaica, that dinky, crime-ridden, no-account island state, and people think of groove, dreadlocks, and weed: everyone secretly wishes they were Jamaican, and they wish for it because it’s cool. India isn’t cool.
And there’s Nigeria: hardly a bastion of prosperity and justice, it nevertheless has to its credit a funk comp from ten years or so ago, a comp which had all manner of geeks on the internet drooling over West African bassplayers for years. No such luck for India, we have the Raghu Dixit Project instead. Ethiopia – of all places – birthed Mulatu Astatke, a man rightly dear to every serious jazz fan’s heart. Brazil evokes street parties and football, and Nepal, hill-state tourism; Thailand is beaches and hookers, and South Africa has Charlize Theron. But no one takes India seriously, and nobody believes we’re capable of anything beyond cows, moustaches, god-men, and Ra One. What’s worse, they’re probably right.
What India is suffering from, then, is a crippling image problem, and the fact that people automatically connect it to Bollywood and badly tailored shirts is going to be a stubborn, omnipresent roadblock for all the cool little Indian groups if they ever take it into their heads to try and sell their music abroad.
Such Indian bands who do tour outside of the country do it either by aggressively embracing film-industry kitsch, or by hawking an elephants-and-mystics vision of India which is great for scoring arts grants from the British Council, and bad for almost everything else. This underlines two important points: it is necessary to stress on being Indian in order to grab eyeballs – you can’t out-Brit the Brits on their home turf, and even if you could, why would anyone pay attention? – and that everyone who has ever tried it so far has made an almighty mess: Indian groups may be known for their studiousness, their technical abilities, and for being exotic and Oriental, but they’ve never sold on the grounds of being cool, interesting, or sexy.
But the best pop being made here right now is precisely all those things. India isn’t a single homogeneous country, any more than Japan is all sushi and porn with the fun bits blurred out, and the smart, snappy rock ‘n’ roll the best groups here make owes nothing to the subcontinent that has traditionally been visible from the outside world: it is born of the internet, 50’s American R&B, the automatic alienation felt by every English-speaking city-bred Indian, and a harrowingly dull student experience of a kind that only this country could dream up. For the first time in a short and embarrassing history littered with artistic misfires, there are bands here who successfully marry something of being a city-dwelling Indian with rock ‘n’ roll cool, without having to lean on clichés from either end to prop up their identity. And, even though everyone here tends to play this down in favour of trying to escape to an imitation First World of pubs and festivals – it’s not a lot of fun growing up in an Indian city if you’re pop-inclined – I happen to think that a storyline built about this is just the thing groups here need in order to be heard, just like it was a storyline which first got the Sex Pistols heard.
This country, against all the odds, happens to do a fair line in pop music these days, and it would be a shame if this music didn’t go farther than the small corner within which it awkwardly ekes out a living. To do this, though, it will need to both detach itself from what we’ve traditionally been known – and usually mocked – for, and to substitute it with a smart, convincing, fashionable idea that markets in other countries can latch on to.
The fact of it is, there’s enough in the scene now to spin a small sub-culture out of. And all cultures look ridiculous if you come at them with enough distrust; it’s just that some successfully work an air about them of being worth buying into, and some never do. It’s worth buying into a lot of these groups; now try telling that to the rest of the world.