Rock Bands, Rock Brands of India
On her International Institute dissertation fieldwork grant, ethnomusicology graduate student Chloe Coventry traveled to Bangalore, in the south Indian state of Karnataka, to study the city's local rock music.
Published: Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Note on video clip, above: Parachute XVI, a pyschedelic blues outfit admired for its virtuosic style and experimental compositions, played earlier this year at B Flat, a club in Indiranagar, Bangalore. (Ananth Menon, vocals; Gurudarshan Somayaji, drums; and Ganesh Krishnaswamy, bass)
By Chloe Coventry
I'D BEEN TO Bangalore once before, in 2007, to do some exploratory research into the city's five-decades-old English-language rock music culture. When I returned in 2009 with an International Institute dissertation fieldwork grant, the scene was resurgent, rallying after a city-wide ban on live rock music performance that had been in effect for all of 2008, an effort to control alcohol consumption. The music was audible and visible not simply in performances around the city, but in a variety of mediated forms and locales. I was struck right away by the ubiquity of rock music images: in advertising, in various media, as well on clothing and other consumer goods. In addition to interviewing participants and attending shows, I was documenting the quotidian life of rock music images and sounds in Bangalore in 2009–10, elements that made up the city's "culture" of rock music.
My research, therefore, included interviews with marketers as well as musicians, analysis of commercials as well as performances, and of T-shirts and jingles as well as songs. I observed how Western popular music was used as the soundtrack for consumption in Bangalore's upscale malls and boutiques. Likewise, TV commercials used rock music signifiers, such as mohawks and electric guitars, to sell products from motorcycles to tea. Transnational companies such as Nokia and Pepsi were still more actively aligning themselves with rock culture, marketing their products to middle-class youth by sponsoring local rock competitions. Simultaneously, transnational visual and print media were betting on Indian rock: Rolling Stone launched an Indian edition in 2008, and on MTV, which in India was largely devoted to film music, a new reality show called "Desi Beats Rock On" auditioned young Indians for a rock band that, the creator told me, would "find the Indian-ness" in the genre. Even the film industry was taking an interest in rock, as the 2007 Hindi movie "Rock On!!" portrayed its version of the archetypal rock band story of friendship, success, dissolution and fracture, with a particularly filmi bent.
In spite of rock's widespread popularity, participants in local rock music scenes in Bangalore and other large Indian cities were often stymied in their attempts to gain recognition and success within the country or abroad. Well aware that the majority of Indians were listening to and buying film music rather than rock music, the national popular music industries for years, and with few exceptions, had discounted locally produced genres of rock music. Consequently, participants in the rock music scene were also turning into entrepreneurs. Availing themselves of the Internet and social media, they started record labels, rock music schools, and online publications, and generally began coalescing into what was frequently called an "independent" musical industry, albeit one that was frequently sponsored by the advertising of multinational corporations.
Some Indian rock musicians, supported by this nascent independent network, were also looking for wider audiences, forging international networks via social media, and in some cases doing small tours abroad. In making these forays many rock musicians ran up against a different problem: how to distinguish themselves musically on the international stage. Singing mainly in English, many of the classic, progressive or heavy metal bands in Bangalore sounded virtually indistinguishable from bands in the United States or Europe, and it was not uncommon for music professionals and audiences to ask, "Why don't you sound more…Indian?"
While a question like this provoked chagrin and annoyance among my interlocutors – many of whom had grown up speaking English along with Hindi or Tamil, watching American TV shows and Indian films, and listening to rock as well as classical or film music – it was also a main topic of debate. In almost every corner of the scene, musicians, promoters and producers talked about Indian rock music's "dire" need for "originality." As a topic that arose frequently during interviews, "originality" became a lens through which to focus my questions concerning the role of mediation and commodification in the development of Bangalore's rock music culture. Setting aside any reductive notion of musical imitation or globalized cultural homogeneity, it was clear that rock music not only had been introduced into the country via commoditized media, but was also in part made intelligible as a contemporary musical culture by virtue of its history as a mediated form and its symbolism as a luxury commodity. There was thus a tense-yet-productive juxtaposition of, on the one hand, anxiety about sounding "Indian" and "original" and, on the other, the indisputable role of Western music and media in shaping Indian rock's sounds and meanings.
These issues clearly influenced bands' musical output as well as their reflexivity about their music and Indian rock in general, complicating the trope of creativity versus commercialism that animates so many rock music discourses. For every conservative pundit decrying rock music's lax moral ethos or Americanized sounds, for every music industry insider questioning whether rock could be an "authentic expression" of the Indian experience, for every advertiser implicitly claiming a "rock lifestyle" as synonymous with having the right jeans or cell phones, there were young people who understood and described rock music as all of the above – while also claiming it as their own creative expression of identity and agency. In my dissertation I hope to unpack the ways in which rock music in Bangalore mediated these dynamics and to gain some insight into the thoroughly enmeshed relationship of rock music and consumer capitalism in the context of globalization.