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Who killed Indipop?
Tune into any radio station. What do you hear? Bollywood. Now press another button. More Bollywood, but if you're lucky, a different song. There are eight FM stations in Delhi and Mumbai but listeners are assaulted with the same songs day in and day out as if there's a secret pact between the radio jockeys to share a common playlist.
Music television channels like Channel V and MTV aren't much better, having been reduced to showing drivel in the name of reality television. When was the last time you saw a music video on Channel V or MTV? Still scratching your head? Don't worry, there's nothing wrong with your memory.
Things were different 15 years ago, even though there were just two FM stations playing in India. A new phenomenon had taken over the country and whether you were in Chandigarh or Kolkata, you couldn't escape the magic and rapture of Indipop. In the early 1990s, India's first rapper, Baba Sehgal, had us all grooving to Thanda thanda paani and Main bhi Madonna. In 1992, his Dil dhadke was the first Indian music video to be shown on MTV Asia. 1995 gave us Alisha Chinai's Made In India and the video of a bare-backed Milind Soman steamed up the tube every 15 minutes. Daler Mehndi made listening to Punjabi cool as he danced and jigged his way to the bank with Bolo ta ra ra ra as the highest-grossing non-soundtrack album in Indian music history. Old but popular film songs were remixed and repackaged and Q-Funk, the first remix album that launched new voices and names like Shaan, released in 1995 unleashing a new wave of remixes. Mehnaz Hoosein captured India's beauty pageant craze with her depiction of a coy girl turning into a beauty queen in Banoongi main Miss India. Lucky Ali with his soft voice and soulful melodies brought Middle Eastern influences and the sounds of the desert to his album Sunoh. Bollywood could do little more than stand and stare. Of course, Indipop wasn't just a post-lib child of the 90s. Its roots went back to the 80s. Biddu, the man behind Carl Douglas' hit Kung-Fu Fighting and Tina Charles' rise as a disco sensation, knew how to spin a tune or two and is often credited with introducing India to pop music through the foot-stomping Disco Deewane and Alisha's Made In India.
Biddu's explanation for the success of pop in India is simple: pop gave fans what Bollywood couldn't. "In the early 90s, Hindi film music was pretty stagnant, " he says in an email chat. "In the 80s, when I believe Hindi music was at its nadir, there was a breath of freshness in two albums that took the public by storm. One was Qurbani, especially the song Aap jaisa koi, and a few years later, the non-film album Disco Deewane. "
But until the 90s, pop although present, had a limited audience. Gary Lawyer and Remo Fernandes had found the going difficult. With the arrival of MTV and music videos, a revolution kicked off. Remo has long been a torchbearer of Indian-English pop.
Unafraid to criticise the establishment, his 1992 album Politicians don't know how to rock 'n' roll was composed after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination and at a time when the Babri Masjid was still standing but in peril. Don't kick up the Rao, was one of the songs in that album. Today, as the nation deals with the Babri verdict, his accusatory cry against politicians and their cynical games resounds afresh. Remo says pop music was a creative avenue to express something. "It was original, a breath of fresh air after the stagnant Bollywood fare which mostly comprised copies of Abba, Boney M and other Western disco hits at the time. The pop videos too appealed, most were mini-stories within themselves unlike Bollywood songs which were usually a jhattak dance or a hero-chases-heroine routine. "
Artistes grew from strength to strength. Alisha gave up playback for pop. Shaan increased his repertoire from singing to music composition and song writing and soon had best-selling albums like Tanha and Aksar to his name. Mehndi's Tunak tunak tun was the first music video to make use of bluescreen technology in India and he was even able to negotiate a record Rs 20 crore contract with Magnasound. But the joy ride lasted only for a few years before Bollywood became savvy enough to incorporate the look and sound of pop music into its productions. And even though bands like Viva and Aasma were launched, they couldn't last for long.
"Within six years, Bollywood picked up these new ideas, and because films have a bigger budget they were able to go one better, " says Biddu. "Plus the video could feature the stars of the film rather than an unknown pop singer. Who would you rather watch - Shah Rukh miming or Jo Bloggs singing?"
"Bollywood recruited or rather swallowed up all the pop artistes!" says Remo. "Who most gladly moved over to Bollywood, as though it was a 'promotion', and totally stopped making pop albums of their own. Therefore Bollywood music became poppified, and pop music became Bollywoody. The distinction between the two slowly faded. But why only pop musicians? Bollywood devours all our artistes. Why don't we have a contemporary poet or dancer whose poetry readings and performances our youth flock to see? Because our best poets and dancers are writing lyrics and choreographing for Bollywood. Similarly, we don't have a pop music scene, because all our pop artistes have become full-time Bollywood music directors or playback singers. "
Baba Sehgal, who is ready with a new hip-hop and rap album after a hiatus of seven years, says a lack of conviction is what is holding back the growth of independent music in India. "Fifteen years ago, music companies had conviction. They backed artistes, " he says. "Today no company wants to support an artist. Pop music has become sad music. "
Sonu Niigam is one of the few to have tasted success in the rival camps of Bollywood and pop. He has an articulate view on what went wrong with Indi-pop. "By the late 90s, films had changed and film music sounded more like pop music. Today, for an album to succeed it needs to stand up to Bollywood in sound and style, " he says. But it would be unfair to paint Bollywood out to be the sole ogre. Pop shot itself in the foot with its own foolishness and by failing to build on its initial success. "There's no dedicated agency or department that studies the market, " continues Niigam. "Recording companies in India have no Artist & Repertoire departments. A band like Colonial Cousins had such potential but they just fizzled out after one album. Why? Because they were never given a market that matched their profile. Anyone with enough money could make an album. Cheap and tacky videos were suddenly inundating TV channels. The common man soon realised that he was being dished out mediocre fare and moved away. "
Biddu agrees with that view. "The trouble is when success happens, people jump on the bandwagon, " he says. "Often those who jump on lack the talent or depth. They are just copy cats and people soon tire of them. There wasn't enough depth of talent to keep the pop scene going. Unscrupulous record companies eventually killed the goose that laid the golden egg. "
Alisha never tasted the wild success of Made in India again and had to turn to Bollywood to give her another big hit - the soaring Kajra re in 2005. Mehnaz moved to Seattle to start a new life as the lead singer of Manooghi Hi. Shaan became a successful playback singer for every actor from Shahid Kapoor to Saif Ali Khan as did Lucky Ali, and pop music slowly receded into the recesses of our minds.
In Bollywood's defence, it has made rapid musical strides in the last decade. International sounds have been localised and genres like hip-hop and R&B aren't just played in America anymore. Young directors, more in sync with the tastes of the youth and possibly more sure of themselves aren't afraid to gamble on new sounds.
A singer like Shibani Kashyap, the voice behind AIR FM's signature tune, believes that pop music still has a future. Kashyap achieved national success with her debut album Ho Gayi Hai Mohabbat in 1998 and was praised for her playback singing in Waisa Bhi Hota Hai (2003) and Zinda (2006). "There's a huge movement on to bring pop music back into the mainstream, " she says.
"At the recent Nokia Music Connects 2010 in Mumbai, there were music label honchos, regulatory bodies, advertising gurus, event managers, artiste managers, corporate heads and top-notch creative professionals from the music industry, from both India and abroad to discuss some very pertinent issues regarding the music scene in India. I can sense something changing. People are sick of Bollywood. They need to hear something new, like what Indian Ocean managed in Peepli [Live]. It's true that the pop scene has suffered but there's a movement on to revive it. "
The first step in the revival should be to stop calling it by the generic name 'pop', says Niigam. "Stop calling it Indipop. Pop is a genre of music and it isn't whatever that isn't filmy. The right phrase is independent music. Also, times have changed and we have to adapt. CDs and cassettes are no longer the way to go. We have to use and actively promote going digital. "
And digital is where the action is. Last year, Remo released a single, India I cry on YouTube and Facebook. Sehgal is active on the internet and blogosphere and agrees that the internet is the way to go. India's first online music daily, NH7. in, is a new attempt to critically track and record every going on in the world of indie music in India.
Remo half-jokingly recommends a mutiny. "What it would take is for all us pop artistes to unite and refuse to make music for Bollywood. We should exclusively create our own albums instead. But do you see that ever happening, even in your wildest dreams?"
Even if the rebellion doesn't materialise, what pop music needs is a bold new voice to make itself heard above the din of Bollywood. Till then, Zandu balm is what will play on our radio.
TOP INDIAN INDIE ACTS
Pop may have died but these indie acts should be on your iPod if they aren't there already
An extraordinary group whose bedrock of classical is layered with folk, rock, Sufi and jazz. If you've heard 'Desert Rain' (1997), the first-ever live album released by an Indian act, you know what we're talking about. Their music for 'Black Friday' and 'Peepli [Live]' is a class act.
The torchbearer of the quintessential Indian rock experience. Although they have yet to release a full album, Parikrama's fusing of the tabla and flute with guitar and drums makes them a tough act to follow.
The first Indian act to play at Glastonbury in 2005, Pentagram, started in 1993, is one of the oldest rock bands in India. Their unique video for 'Voice' which featured clips sent in by fans made them a household name. You can't not like their electro-rock.
Euphoria is credited with introducing rock culture to India and also making rocking in Hindi cool.
Wildly talented, this bunch of young guys has seamlessly intertwined Indian classical with jazz and occasional bursts of rock. Bring on the Hindustani blues.
RAGHU DIXIT PROJECT
No genre is outside the pale of this motley crew. Their mixing of Sufi with classical phrases is unlike anything you've heard before.
SHAA'IR + FUNC
Knitting electronic with soul, poetry and even lavani, this electrorock duo is cutting-edge.
The Real McCoy. A Shillong blues band inspired by blues, blues-rock, soul and funk, Soulmate have travelled across America leaving a trail of impressed fans in their wake.
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