What compels some indie bands to sing in Hindi?
The Indian indie industry has only a handful of bands singing in Hindi. We speak to a few of them to find out what makes them tick
On Thursday night, we were at a gig that featured Young Marco, a Dutch DJ who had come down to the city. Our experience, to a certain extent, typified the Indian indie scene - around 100 people were getting a taste of what it means to be on a dance floor in Amsterdam, while occupying the venue in Khar. The audience (including us) was appropriating a completely western sensibility, dancing to electronic sounds.
But in the beginning of this year, on January 2 and 3 to be precise, we had found ourselves in a different situation. We had previewed gigs by two bands back to back - CityHaze and Aswekeepsearching - which occupy the same Indian indie space, but compose their music with Hindi lyrics. That had triggered a thought we have been mulling for a while now. What does it mean for bands in this country to make essentially western music, but sing in a language - Hindi - that is completely our own? What triggers that choice when most other musicians in the fraternity are writing songs that people from London would understand better than someone from Ludhiana? Indie music, to be clear, is still a niche market in this country. But the direction that it's taking is towards an unfiltered American or European route. So, what then compels some bands to stand out and sing in the vernacular?
The first reason, we realise after talking to CityHaze again, is an innate sense of comfort with the language. Samyak Singh, the Mumbai-based band's vocalist, tells us, "See, I come from Lucknow. So when I write in Hindi, my flow is better because I'm used to the language. Also, my initial exposure to music was through ghazals and stuff like Lucky Ali. It was only later that I started listening to Van Morrison or Bob Dylan."
He continues, "But when we started with CityHaze, the reason why we wanted to sing in Hindi is that the whole singer-songwriter soundscape hasn't been explored in the language. So, it gives us an edge when we play, because the other bands singing in Hindi are usually folk-fusion ones, who sing about Kabir and other similar themes. Writing about day-to-day stuff in Hindi, we felt, is something that hasn't really been done too much."
Singh adds, though, that the usually gloomy subject matter of the band's songs initially made it a struggle to entice promoters and get regular gigs. "The indie scene in the big cities basically consists of a lot of rich kids who dig the West. It is insulated from all the problems surrounding us. So, if I go to a pub in Mumbai and sing about losing my conscience, people will be like, 'Dude, what the f*ck are you doing? I just bought a pint for 250 bucks and want to have a good time.' That's why we loved playing a gig in Baroda recently, where people are hungry and if you talk about issues, they will eat it up."
He also says that at the same time, the recent surge of indigenous web series has opened up a new avenue for the band to earn its bread. "The western sound doesn't work for a lot of these directors. So to put it simply, if someone wants a somewhat classier version of Bollywood, they might come to us because our songs would make sense with their visuals."
It might also make more sense for a band to sing in Hindi if their music is addressing socio-political issues, since their message would then reach the masses more. Underground Authority is a Kolkata-based band that sings in both English and Hindi. Adil Rashid, its guitarist, says, "We released a song called I am an Indian a few days ago. Most of it is in Hindi and a lot of people who probably don't speak English could relate to it and became aware of the issues that we are talking about. So, that was a win for us."
He adds, "But then we also released another song on the Rohingya crisis which was completely in English. And that worked out as well. So, as a band, we have decided to keep making songs that have a societal context, and the language doesn't matter." Indeed, music, in other words, has its own dictionary and lyrics at the end of the day are just a form of garnishing that can even be completely left out. In that sense, then, what language a track is being sung in is less relevant than the notes that make up its composition.
Arjun S Ravi, who founded an independent music blog and directed a documentary on the history of Indian indie music called Standing By, agrees. He says, "Language is just a medium, and you should use it in a way that enhances your music rather than it being a reason why you think your songs will be accepted. It's fine for indie bands to sing in Hindi as long as the basis for them to do it is because they think their songs sound better that way. That question of artistic authenticity is where I would put language in. Is it organic or is it being used for more social media hits? That's what a band needs to ask itself."
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