Spin-Doctoring the Subcontinent

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.

20 thoughts on “Spin-Doctoring the Subcontinent

  1. In the whole article, you’re talking about countries being recognised by their artists. In the same breath, you’re ignoring one of the oldest cultures alive. I’m not being the stereotypical RSS Indian here. Just stating that India is recognised, not by the Raghu Dixit Project, or The Shakey Rays, but by people like Ravi Shankar and Amjad Ali Khan.

    George Harrisson(Beatles, pioneers of rock’n’roll, mind you) was fucking trained by Ravi Shankar.

    It’d be awesome if our indie artists got recognition. I’m all for it. But please, spare me the woe tale of how India is nothing but Bollywood. I hate Ra.One as much as you do, but that does not give me the right to say there is nothing better happening.

    Also, tiny little question, does ‘popular perception’ define your and your friends’ ant’s eye view of the world or does it constitute actual, solid research?

    Just asking.

      • Sales figures don’t count when you’re talking indie. You’ve got to take into consideration that a lot of the audience are students like me, who listen to their favorite artists online because they can’t afford to buy the album. Or go to gigs where the artists are performing.

  2. @Shibesh

    There are just two points here.

    1. It doesn’t matter what’s actually happened in India; the average English pub-going punter still tends to think it’s all cows and people pooping in the open. Yes, Satyajit Ray won the French Legion of Honour et cetera; but the day something Indian is assimilated somewhere else as much as manga, or faux-Rasta cool, or Union Jacks on guitar amps have been, we can assume that India isn’t quite leading in the pop culture stakes.

    And I can’t stress the words pop culture enough, because of course curry is big in the UK, and American universities take Indian physicists very seriously, but that’s not about pop bands, which is what this site is about.

    2. In order to be heard outside, Indian groups will need to surmount what I believe is a genuine PR issue. Sure, Indian classical is big, but that’s an entirely different audience (you’ll find the Beatles and Ravi Shankar thing was more the exception than the rule, famous though it is.) If classical music informed pop tastes, then Beethoven fans would listen to the Scorpions too; after all, they’re both German.

    Once again, this is about perception, and it is limited to the pop music business.

    I hope this makes sense, and thanks for writing in.

    P.S. I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that thing about “one of the oldest cultures”. That’s the usual lashing-out line, isn’t it? 🙂

    • And the very fact that, in spite of all the good things, there’s a generally negative perception floating around sort of proves my point about there being an image problem, doesn’t it? That’s what PR issues are made of.

    • See, now this comment makes sense. And I agree with of your points.

      My point was that this sensibility needs to come out in the article above. Reading that pissed me off and led me to assume you’re just one of those idiots who keep on crying about ‘negative, negative, negative’ and fails to get a wider perspective about things.

      All I can say as an outsider to the whole pop culture scene is that more than PR, they need visibility. I know of a hundred brilliant bands, who get nowhere near the amount of attention KRK does. And that’s saying something.

      Not a follower of the site, was linked to by a friend of mine.

      P.s. Yeah, the ‘oldest cultures’ trick is the oldest one in the book. Leaving it out in a ‘lashing-out’ comment is blasphemy! 🙂

  3. Question: Is it that important that audiences outside take your Indian home-made pop seriously? And even if it were – it wouldn’t hurt the musicians, of course – wouldn’t a universally applicable prerequisite for that be that our own audiences do?

    Until our own alienated-city-bred-english-speaking young people get around to buying all of this alienated-city-bred-english-speaking pop music, there’s just no context for exporting some ‘cool’ surfeit, is there?

    • Until we get those Shankars and Shalinis around town doing it to the Shakey Rays record, this is all just idle talk. Until the Fish Eyed poets feel like their Shantis and Ravis really care, this is just day dreaming distraction.

      • What if they only start giving a shit once the Brits and the Yanks tell them it’s good stuff? I have a feeling this music might work better as an export than as domestic fodder. The Fish-Eyed’s music is more Brit than it is Indian Rawk anyway.

        Even if that’s not true, it’s worth thinking about how to spin it to a decent story – even a larger local audience would need that, they’re too sold on the Indus Creed idea of rock right now.

      • Fair enough. But that’s a predicament right there, isn’t it? That we have to decide between the local audiences being gullible fools or cynical fadsters. Neither of those things ties in well with what good musicians set out to do.

        I thought a lot about the critical mass any of these underbands would need of their audience in the internet age – about 10000 is what I arrived at. Not facebook likes, but 10000 people being aware of your music *locally* will do it – at any point, enough of them will sustain an interest in what you’re doing and the number will only rise from there, no matter how poorly you sell wares. But the hardest part will be getting to that figure. Everything else depends on this.

  4. What all these dirty-dirty things you are telling, Shankar is hearing Shaking Rays and now wanting to do it with me, o paavam.

    • Vaadi yen kappa kizhangu. Come my little yam, let us roast some sweet loving until you sing tunes from your big belly.

    • Madam kindly to be advised it is very dangerous to do intercourse with the Shaking Rays which is thereupon known to be produced Shaking babies like their drummer full of grooves and such things but not sitting down one spot. Also kindly do not to be performing any manners of intercourse upon theirs musics because how will you know which way to go put every direction going shake shake shake. Hold steady please. Kindly to be taking 2 tablets of Diddlydont 3 times a day after food and come and see me next Saturday Night. Shake shake.

  5. It doesn’t mean anything if outsiders think highly of your pop until you do. It’s a self-esteem sort of thing. In Europe (and the US) it’s a common perception that the way to make big record sales is to tour Germany first. It’s what Hasselhoff did, so did N’Sync. But look at those examples. On the flip side, where I live, there’s a great culture attending gigs, no matter how tiny they are, just to, for example, check out a new band launching an album, no matter how contrived or terrible (and yes, there’s feedback that follows that). In general, it’s the community spirit that keeps the music alive almost, and every now and then, someone comes along and blows everyone’s minds. You can’t have that without have a scene or a support-network of sorts in the first place.

  6. @ Priscilla.
    I’m not entirely sure if that’s flattery. But it’s gonna take a lot more than that to have me. I like to be wined and dined before, with a little bit of Rock’nRoll on the side, just for good measure.

  7. Some of those links that came up are hilarious! Moop, you’re blog just spoke to me. It said you’re commenting too much. Stop. Dafaq?

  8. And not even in the metaphysical sense, whatever that is. It actually spoke to me.

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