What India's girl bands want

May 05, 2013, 06:22 IST | Moeena Halim

Delhi-based punk rockers seek inspiration from the '90s American underground feminist band Riot Grrl, Assam's The Hurricane Gals sing local favourites, and the Naga sisters, with the help of their folk songs, take on the role of cultural ambassadors. The all-girl bands, like their counterparts in Chennai and Mumbai, sing in the hope of bringing about change. But will India's patriarchal society leave female musicians alone or is this just a scratch on the surface?

Eighteen-year-old Mumpy Thakuria was one of five daughters living in the Thakuria house in Guwahati, Assam. That was before she chose music over family. About two years ago, when Thakuria was offered a position as keyboardist with the Assamese all-girl band The Hurricane Gals, her parents were quick to take a stand. “They told me if I decided to play with the band, I’d be thrown out of the family,” she recalls. With instruments lying around the house, the young girl had taught herself to play the harmonium. “My sisters and I were allowed to use the instruments when we were at home.

It feels terrible when some guys who have no idea what we do try to act as if they know us and create drama. It is not fair when people say it’s easier for girls to pull crowds, because this is not true

But playing publicly was a strict no-no,” reveals Thakuria. Her decision to leave home, she claims, wasn’t as difficult as one would imagine. She admits with a hint of bitterness that her parents’ decision had much to do with her being a girl. “I know they would have supported me if I was a boy. Everything I do seems to upset them. But it isn’t the same with boys. Everything they do is great.”

Girls allowed
Thakuria is the only one among the seven girls in the band to face strict opposition from her family. Consider the recently banned Kashmiri teenage girl band Pragaash, and the Assamese keyboardist seems lucky to be able to perform at all.  Mumbai-based musician Merlin D’Souza, who is part of all-girl band Indiva, believes that gender discrimination is prevalent only in the smaller towns. “Societies in metropolitan cities are unlikely to react this way,” asserts the 51-year-old pianist.

The girls from Delhi-based The Vinyl Records

And yet, only a handful of girl bands exist in the country – metros or otherwise. Part of the problem, opines Mithy Tatak, drummer from Delhi-based The Vinyl Records, is India’s unchanging patriarchal mindset. “People attempting to stop girls from playing music only highlights the hazards of India’s patriarchal society,” she says.

Tired of an overdose of boy bands, Tatak claims that she and her bandmates decided it was time to carve their niche in the world of punk rock — a genre that rarely sees female fans, let alone female performers. “It is important for girls to come out, make their own music and create a space for themselves,” asserts Tatak, who plays with vocalist Cheyyrian Bark, guitarist Banu Jini and Minam Tekseng on the bass guitar. “It was a challenge that excited us.”

Indiva’s first single Suno, released earlier this year, talks about  women’s empowerment

Where are the instrumentalists?
While the girls from The Vinyl Records, hailing from Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, met at music school in Delhi, other female musicians aren’t as lucky. Shalini Mohan, the only female musician in the Bangalore-based band Lagori, believes the problem lies in the fact that fewer women take up instruments. “Female musicians seldom learn to play the drums or bass guitar. But a band needs a combination of instrumentalists. Even if you find women who play instruments suited to your sound, it is tough to find them all in one place,” elaborates Mohan, who plays bass guitar for the band.

Getting the girls together for the band was no mean task for Mamoni Kalita, lead singer and director of The Hurricane Gals. Kalita and her drummer friend Arju Begum decided to form a girl band in 2008. “But it was easier said than done. It took us two years to find female musicians who would fit the bill. If you take into account all of India’s female musicians, you will find that barely five per cent are instrumentalists,” admits Kalita, seconding Mohan’s sentiments. Kalita’s band now comprises an incredible mix of the Western and traditional. “We have Kaveri on the Assamese dhol, Mumpy on the keyboard and Ipshita on bass guitar,” says Kalita.

Assamese band Hurricane Gals will release their first album in June

At first fight
But finding suitable players was just the first of Kalita’s woes. “After all the girls got together, and we managed to convince our friends and family to loan us enough money to buy instruments, we had everything we needed to make music. But no one was willing to give us the opportunity to perform. We would practice determinedly every day, but cry about not being able to showcase our talent,” recalls the vocalist. “Before we bagged our first gig, during one of Assam’s biggest festivals, we had to literally beg the organisers to let us perform. He relented and gave us 12 minutes. While we waited our turn on the road outside the premises, no one even offered us a cup of chai,” remembers Kalita. The girls rocked the performance, and as their 12 minutes extended to 30, the gig ended with a standing ovation. 

That first performance was closely followed by several others, including television performances for an Assamese television channel. The girls are now a household name in Assam, but the cynicism hasn’t ended. “We’re still four girls in the midst of hundreds of male musicians. They laugh at us all the time. But the more they laugh, the better it is for us. We take it on as a challenge,” says Kalita. In the past three years, Kalita and the girls have faced several humiliating, chauvinistic comments. The one incident that has stayed with them involves a well-known Assamese band. “We respected them a lot, but they just dismissed us as a bunch of girls who were singing for a lark,” she says, adding that the band began practising even more after that incident. 
While Kalita and her girls prefer to dress modestly as they’d feel “uncomfortable wearing mini skirts,” the Tetseo Sisters, Nagaland’s first and only successful girl band, enjoy dressing up for their performances and put in a lot of thought to their costumes, headgear and so on.

But this often gets them unwanted attention. “People comment on our piercings, makeup and the hemlines of our costumes. It feels terrible when some guys who have no idea what we do try to act as if they know us and create drama. It is not fair when people say it is easier for girls to pull crowds, because this is not true. It is important for us that the music should make the difference and not what we are wearing or the fact that some girl is on stage,” says Mercy Tetseo. The four sisters, aged between 19 and 30, have had to work hard and long against many odds to get where they are now. “We have been called cultural ambassadors of the Northeast, which is a responsibility we take very seriously,”  says Tetseo.

D’Souza, who plays the piano and writes songs for Indiva, says the trick is to never let the nasty comments get to you. “When we uploaded our single Suno on YouTube, we got a lot of comments — both encouraging and extremely hateful. But there was one that still makes me laugh. ‘You women ought to be in the kitchen doing the dishes,’ it said,” she says with a laugh.

Finding your voice
Shalini Selvarajan, one half of Chennai’s girl duo Colour Chaos, reveals that they faced a sort of reverse discrimination. “When we first started out, lots of people supported us merely because we’re girls and the concept was still outlandish to them on some level. Later, this mildly condescending attitude changed to appreciation and enjoyment solely because of the music we made and nothing else,” says Selvarajan.

The duo is currently busy working on their first album, which is scheduled to release in June. The album has a combination of songs dealing with angst, love and change. “Much before these gruesome rapes were sensationalised, we had written a song called Colours of Chaos that has the lines: ‘What can I do as a woman? (Must I) Cry at the rape of my nation!?’. This song, to us, echoes the frustrated cries of the women of our nation who want to stand up and change things for the better,” reveals the vocalist-cum-guitarist.

As an all-women band, Mumbai band Indiva felt compelled to sing about women’s empowerment too. “Earlier this year, we composed Suno, which is about suppressing a woman’s voice,” says D’Souza. The song, uploaded on YouTube, got such great responses that the girls have been invited to perform in Dubai at a conference for the empowerment of women this weekend.

The youngsters from The Vinyl Records won’t be left behind. “We want every woman to break out of the stereotype and stand on her own. Most recently we performed at The Loudest Gig in Delhi, raising our voices against the injustice and crime against women. Our song Apocryphal is about encouraging women to do exactly what they want to, without worrying about what people will say. If we had worried ourselves with society’s opinions, we wouldn’t have made it this far,” asserts Tatak.

While Tatak’s band sings their punk songs in English, the Hurricane Gals say much of the same things in their mother tongue Assamese. “One of our songs tells young girls to follow their passion,” says Kalita, who is excited about the band’s first album release in June. The Chennai girls, also releasing their first album in the next two months, believe this is just the beginning. “We’re the first all-girl acoustic act to start recording an album and taking things a step further, but women musicians and bands are slowly becoming mainstream and not an oddity, and that’s super,” concludes Selvarajan.

But Selvarajan has the advantage of being in the city. And while the girls bands from across the country bring in the third wave of feminism, a lot needs to be done about the mindset of the nation at large.  

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