A riff to the long lost art of gui­tar

Is gui­tar mu­sic in In­dia dead? The demise of indie-rock can be blamed on a lack of ideas, the tow­er­ing shadow of Bol­ly­wood and the rise of rap, R&B and elec­tron­ica. Bhanuj Kap­pal re­ports

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Bhanuj Kap­pal is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Mumbai who writes about mu­sic, protest cul­ture and pol­i­tics.

Rock can no longer com­pete with the fast-grow­ing rap scene’s sense of danger and an au­then­tic­ity which cuts across class lines that indie-rock never man­aged to cross

Early last month, David Longstreth of Amer­i­can ex­per­i­men­tal indie-rock band Dirty Pro­jec­tors took to In­sta­gram to dis­cuss the state of indie-rock, ques­tion­ing whether the genre had be­come “both bad and bou­jee [bour­geois]”. In a slightly ram­bling note, he ar­gued that af­ter more than a decade of push­ing the bound­aries of both rock and pop­u­lar mu­sic, indie-rock had be­come both mu­si­cally un­der­whelm­ing and “also bad like sar­trian bad faith, out­wardly obe­di­ent to an ex­pired par­a­digm that we know in our hearts makes ba­si­cally no sense”.

The post sparked a spir­ited dis­cus­sion, with the Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pec­knold pitch­ing in to say that there was noth­ing “cut­ting edge” in the modus operandi of con­tem­po­rary indie-rock. It didn’t take long for this in­ter­est­ing dis­cus­sion to turn into a slag­ging match as younger artists chimed in to de­fend indie-rock and to call Longstreth and Pec­knold “out of touch”.

On Twit­ter the next day, mu­sic writ­ers had a field day jok­ing about the “day indie-rock died” or dust­ing off their old hot takes from the last time some­one posed the “is rock dead?” ques­tion. Bat­tle lines were drawn, bar­ri­cades manned and any pos­si­bil­ity of rea­son­able dis­cus­sion was buried un­der the 140char­ac­ter Molo­tovs be­ing hurled from both sides. I found my­self think­ing of Longstreth’s ques­tion a few days later, as I lis­tened to Mumbai indie-rock­ers Blek’s long-awaited sec­ond EP. Re­leased six years af­ter their crit­i­cally-acclaimed de­but, it had all the el­e­ments that made Blek one of the most ex­cit­ing acts around when they broke through in 2011. The in­fec­tious grooves are still there, as are the nods to Bri­tish indie-rock and dance-punk. The gui­tars gleam and chime, clean whole­some basslines rum­bling in com­ple­ment. Over it all, front­man Rishi Bradoo – a lit­tle wea­rier, a lit­tle wiser – lays down alt-croon­ing vo­cals about love and heart­break.

When Blek emerged, this sound was ex­cit­ing and (rel­a­tively) fresh. Six years down the road, it sounds dated and unin­spired. As I lis­tened to the record, I couldn’t help but think that Longstreth had a point. Indie-rock – and gui­tar mu­sic in gen­eral – has run out of ideas. And as a re­sult, af­ter decades of over­whelm­ing dom­i­nance, it has also lost its hold over the mu­si­cal main­stream. Or in In­dia’s case, what­ever mu­si­cal main­stream ex­ists un­der Bol­ly­wood’s tow­er­ing shadow.

Rock’s place as the av­enue for cut­ting edge artistry in the pop world has now been over­taken by rap, R&B and elec­tron­ica, even as the few rock left­overs re­treat into nos­tal­gia and retro­ma­nia.

The last wave of ex­cit­ing young gui­tar bands in In­dia came early this decade, when acts like The Lightyears Ex­plode, Blek, Peter Cat Record­ing Co, The Su­per­son­ics and the F16s looked like they were gear­ing up to be the reign­ing kings of a rapidly-ex­pand­ing indie scene.

In­stead, we’ve seen them ig­nored by pro­mot­ers hun­gry for ac­ces­si­ble, bar-friendly mu­sic, break up (The Su­per­son­ics), lose steam (The Lightyears Ex­plode) or con­tinue to ped­dle a sound that was barely fresh when they started, to mid­dling suc­cess (The F16s, Blek).

EDM acts like Nu­cleya and Dual­ist In­quiry have taken over the head­liner slots; ex­per­i­men­tal elec­tron­ica and bed­room pro­duc­ers have taken up the man­tle of be­ing cut­ting edge, and rock can no longer com­pete with the fast-grow­ing rap scene’s sense of danger and an au­then­tic­ity that cuts across class lines that indie-rock never man­aged to cross. Even the peren­ni­ally-safe pop-rock space has been taken over by folk acts and Hindi pop bands, much more ac­ces­si­ble to the av­er­age In­dian than the desi ver­sion of Bryan Adams. Which leaves In­dian rock in a cul­tural no man’s land. Be­fore I get lynched by a Twit­ter mob, let me clar­ify that I’m not writ­ing gui­tar mu­sic’s obit­u­ary here. It still ex­ists in the mar­gins, liv­ing off the nos­tal­gia of 30-some­thing scen­esters and a new gen­er­a­tion of rock kids who have grown up on a diet of pasty-white Amer­i­can indie. And In­dia’s metal and punk scenes still of­fer the sense of trans­gres­sive fris­son they al­ways have to small and de­voted au­di­ences, with bands like Hoirong and Sky­har­bor stick­ing to their pro­gres­sive guns.

But much like in the West, rock mu­sic in In­dia is lost in the wilder­ness, bereft of even a spark of new mu­si­cal ideas. It doesn’t help that many of In­dia’s rock mu­si­cians refuse to even see the ele­phant in the room, con­tent to rip off clas­sic rock tropes that were al­ready old when they were still in their di­a­pers, while shar­ing lud­dite memes about how DJs aren’t real mu­si­cians be­cause they only press play.

But per­haps it was in­evitable. Un­like Amer­i­can and Bri­tish indie-rock, which de­spite its over­whelm­ing white­ness main­tained a link to blue-col­lar com­mu­ni­ties un­til re­cent times, In­dian rock has al­ways been by and for the priv­i­leged ur­ban up­per-classes. Un­der­neath the out­sider pre­tence was a com­fort­ably bour­geois in­te­rior that very few artists were able to move be­yond. Their tra­vails are not the tra­vails of eco­nomic or so­cial ex­clu­sion but of be­ing well-off, bored and Angli­cised in a coun­try that was none of the above.

This was all well and fine as long as ev­ery­thing stayed in the same up­per-class bubble. But as that bubble ex­pands to in­clude new au­di­ences from smaller towns and lesser means, their creative bank­ruptcy in both con­tent and form stands ex­posed. In the West, women and peo­ple of colour have al­ready started a fight­back, re­claim­ing rock mu­sic from the stran­gle­hold of the young white male voice that has lulled it into its cur­rent coma. Artists like Wax­a­hatchee, G.L.O.S.S, and Speedy Or­tiz are sub­vert­ing indie’s “elec­tric white boy blues” by bring­ing in new voices and a newer, more in­clu­sive sen­si­bil­ity.

In In­dia, where indie-rock has never reached out to any­one other than bored rich boys in the met­ros, I don’t see that hap­pen­ing any­time soon. So yeah, In­dian rock isn’t dead. But maybe it de­serves to be. Long live the usurpers.


Gui­tarists raise their in­stru­ments af­ter es­tab­lish­ing a Limca record for the largest gui­tar en­sem­ble (with 5,406 play­ers), in Guwahati, In­dia, June 2012. But the pop­u­lar­ity of gui­tar mu­sic is on the wane in In­dia.

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