A Passage From India
Tushar Menon brings us progressive tales from the Indian subcontinent
Rolling Stone India reckons Indian rock is in crisis. Tushar shares his thoughts...
The cover story in the September issue of Rolling Stone India is on ‘The Crisis in Indian rock’. At the time of writing this piece, I should confess, I only have access to a 1200- word excerpt that was published online. But unless that remainder of the article in the print version consists of frenetic back-pedaling, the online excerpt will do just fine.
The article, penned by my former commissioning editor, now Editor at Rolling Stone India, Lalitha Suhasini, makes a bold and provocative claim. The thesis (and I paraphrase) is that last two years have not produced bands of sufficient quality to headline large-scale festivals and that there is a dearth of talent in the Indian rock scene.
While I am tempted to refer to the history of such proclamations from mainstream media publications, I would rather focus on this argument and try to highlight why I believe it is flawed. I take issue with the inference of the second claim from the first. I contend that there is no significant link between the talent inherent in a musical scene and the existence of bands which could headline large-scale festivals. Moreover, using `festival headlining’ as a barometer for the quality of music is especially unfair for Indian bands because the structure of the Indian rock scene is very different from elsewhere in the world.
Rolling Stone India is a mainstream media publication. It is easy to understand why a criterion for success is presented in terms of large-scale festivals. They provide an easy way to gauge commercial success. But getting to a stage where a band can headline a festival is not merely a function of the quality of the music.
This is a situation prog rock fans are familiar with. A band needs support from agencies at all levels, and this includes small venues supporting young bands, media promotion on television, radio and publications (like Rolling Stone India), as well as the promise of financial support. Shrikant Srinivasan, guitarist of Coshish sums it up: ‘It takes years for a band to reach that level, and there are various reasons why people are not willing to take risks. But that does not mean there is a crisis.’
Interestingly, Suhasini draws attention to all of these points in her article. She quotes several people expressing similar sentiments, like Suyasha Sengupta, from Ganesh Talkies, who says ‘Bands like Skrat and PCRC have the power to influence an entire generation.’ Yet the very next paragraph opens with ‘But the fact remains that there are no new promising artists or rock bands’.
It is almost a truism to say that is a mistake to equate quality (or ‘talent’) with commercial success. What complicates matters further, and makes the commercial-success-to-quality-inference even weaker is the way that bands in India operate. The rock scene owes much of its existence to colleges all over the country, who sponsor medium-to-large scale cultural festivals of which a rock competition is usually an element. This is a common way up for a rock band in India- to play a few competitions, build up a fanbase to the point where the band later headlines such festivals. There is an almost discrete jump from competition-level band to headline-level band. But to go from being a college-festival headliner to a commercial-festival headliner is to enter uncharted territory. We have neither the history nor the infrastructure to allow for that transition to happen in any standard way. Take a look at the sort of band that would headline a festival like, say the Bacardi NH7 Weekend. This year’s line up includes headliners like Megadeth and A R Rahman. The former is an international band which has been going strong for thirty years, with fifteen albums under their belt. The latter is one of the biggest film-music composers in the world. There is virtually no band in the Indian rock scene which can compete, and for good reason. The Indian rock scene is still in its teething phase. Very few Indian rock bands have more than four albums under their belt, and there are virtually no venues which cater to a band which is bigger than a college-festival headliner but not quite at the commercial-festival headline stage. So how on earth can one expect to see commercial-festival headliners emerge, ready-made cash cows, from such a situation?
Suhasini is, of course, aware of all of this- much of her article dwells on similar points. Which makes her article all the more self-undermining, as is further demonstrated by the inclusion of this quote from Indus Creed’s Uday Benegal, ‘People are going to events and not to watch bands. It’s brands over bands.’ Unfortunately, Suhasini’s argument is not that there are no brand-worthy rock bands in India. It is, instead, that there are no young talented rock bands in India. And that is a demonstrably false conclusion to an invalid argument.