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The (im)possibility of underground in Delhi

January 13, 2011

Ok guys, now it’s time to bash me up! I wonder if you agree! PS. Do not say I missed out on the whole electronic scene which is quite strong here – it’s a matter of definition. For me most of these things are NOT underground, which obviously quite good.

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I remember the feeling of being completely out of place, when a hotel bellboy, complete in uniform, opened the door of my old Indica cab and greeted me with a bow. Everything around was dripping with gold and luxury, and I was in my hoodie and sneakers ready for some heavy bass party that a few independent DJ’s were supposed to drop that night in this place. I didn’t expect it to be a five-star hotel bar.

Nobody else seemed to be bothered with this crack in the entourage. A strange co-existence of reggae & dubstep, alongside a collection of wines with price tags starting at20 000Rs a bottle was completely natural.  Welcome to New Delhi nightlife.

In over two years, I haven’t discovered any place, which could be called ‘alternative’ in the European sense of this word. Perhaps Café Morrison, with its rocky ambience and live rock bands comes closest to this definition, although it would have definitely been a bit ‘passé’. Also TLR in Hauz Khas: a bohemian melting pot of creative people, (although prices are far from the level acceptable for any ‘bohemy’).  But there’s nothing here which is close to a small, shady, greasy café/pub with a bunch of geeks discussing queer architecture, smoking cheap cigarettes, sipping even cheaper beer and listening to a mix of raw electro, industrial and punk. Instead – all the potentially ‘alternative’ movements are immediately ‘tamed’. High heals and d’n’b go well together in Delhi.

Why is it so? Two or three decades ago one could blame lack of exposure, but now – with satellite television, internet and world magazines – not any more. Especially since everyone here speaks English, there is no reason for Delhi to be even a day behind London in terms of cultural trends. But it is, and not a day, but at least a decade if not more.

Some claim it’s the lack of infrastructure – places where alternative bands / DJs could experiment and expose themselves to public. It is true, but on the other hand, it’s not without reason that independent rock bands were baptised ‘garage bands’. If there were a need, venues wouldn’t have been a problem.

***

When I was 16, I was a punk. Or at least – I considered myself as one. More, The Clash type than Sex Pistols (in my negation of social norms, I neglected also the punk uniform, wearing strictly no logo/no writing clothes), but if you look at the kind of time pass (?), books I was reading and music I was listening – yes, I was a punk.  Endless nights I spent with friends roaming around town drinking cheap wine, breaking into old abandoned factories and messing up with the police, (yet somehow always avoiding serious consequences).  Our rebellion – although shallow and adolescent- was fuelled by constant inflow of music, zines, books and movies, telling us to think independently and question status quo. But for each of us, our rebellion started at home, against our parents and limitations imposed by them.

In India most of my friends stay with their parents. Not only at the age of16, but even in their 20’s or 30’s. Even if they get away for a while to study or work, most of them inevitably return home or bring their parents to live with them.  They want it. It’s the values they’ve been raised with – to stay close to the family and take care of it. And it’s beautiful; it’s something we have lost in the west by pursuing individualism. But on the other hand – this very personal need to rebel and express oneself is in the roots of any independent movements.

No wonder hence that most of the phenomena that could be referred to as underground in Delhi are actually fuelled by foreign blood. Reggae Rajahs key persona is Iraqi, BassFoundation DJs are from the UK and the Netherlands, Stiff Kittens’ brain is British, Dualist Inquiry is educated in US, TLR is run by an Indian, but one who lived in London for a long while etc. At very last – there would be some influences from those more prone to the underground North-East, Kolkata or Bombay. (That doesn’t mean there’s no good music in India – check out HUB, the recently published anthology of electronic music in India!)

There is more important aspect blocking the rise of underground.  The question of social status.  Punk and most of its later incarnations are essentially working class movements. In India – the working class is not given the opportunity to participate in global culture. They don’t have the means to express themselves. It’s reserved for the highest social strata, the SEC A+, and even if castes have been abolished long back, the fear of doing things inappropriate is overwhelming for many ‘upper class’ people. On the other hand, there is a ‘glass ceiling’ for the lower classes, that doesn’t allow them to do many things. So those who have need to rebel – can’t, or their rebel remains hidden from us. Perhaps there are desi equivalents of ‘punk’, but they are not structured yet into a movement which would be prevalent in a domain. And those who can – don’t need to, so even if they are fascinated with and using the forms of expression characteristic for the ‘western underground’, it’s just the form that remains.

Results? The club where you go out, has to reflect your status, that’s why they are all so posh and plush and glittery.  A small greasy place wouldn’t do. It’s sometimes cool to go to dhaba once in a while, but it’s more like in Pulp’s song Common People. ‘You want to live like common people (…but) when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall /if you called your dad he could stop it all’.
When I told my friend running a lounge in here, that the trendiest clubs back home are all basement, raw post industrial establishments, with old worn out second hand furniture, he looked at me astounded and asked “So why do people go there?”

Similarly I can’t imagine a boy from a respected family becoming a bartender in a club, even as a part time student job, while in Europe, it’s the ‘cool bartenders’, often from the best universities, who are creating the atmosphere of best places.  Can you imagine coming down alone to a bar and having a chat about life with a bartender in Delhi?

But both things are changing rapidly. I’ve met a DJ recently who grew up in Khirki village to become a resident in a popular nightclub. His music taste is still fairly adolescent and mainstream, but it means that the aspirations of the lower middle class are changing and it might be a beginning of a revolution! At the same time, more and more ‘upper class’ Indians are becoming increasingly comfortable with breaking out of their ‘bubble’ and are also seeking for new experiences, finding it both in the world outside as in their own tradition.

It’s all boiling in the villages: Hauz Khas (Delhi’s own tiny Soho, like my visiting friend referred to it), ShahpurJat, Khirki… These are the melting pots, where the posh is mixing with the common and the ethnic with modern/western. Like Purple Jungle’s accessories – desi inspirations transformed via pop art lenses of a firangi. There’s still scope for more of this in music. Like Bant Singh Project – fusion of village protest song with electronic music. India needs its Diplo or maybe Malcolm Maclaren to dig out this hidden energy, help it grow and structure and then show it to the world.  Perhaps the revolution that can start here would change not only India, but the whole world?

Article written for the First City Delhi, January 2011

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. SRC permalink
    October 7, 2011 4:12 pm

    I just read the post, although it is an old one. And as an Indian, it is funny to read some of your observations. Western music, even grunge and punk, is widely seen as elitist. Unfortunately, this is a stigma that it can never totally escape. So the question of “rebelling” via western music would be bewildering to most middle-class Indians. it would be seen as escapism, and self-indulgence. Being dirty and wearing torn clothes and strumming a $800 guitar is not seen as creativity, it is seen as a “choice” made by spoilt, rich kids.

    Indians rebel in Indian ways. “Underground” already exists, has existed for thousands of years. Ever heard of the “Tantrics”? Tantric culture is seen as too edgy and dangerous for regular people. Other rebellious Indians who want to make it on their own, run away to try and find a place in Bollywood. That is really where all classes meet in a common culture. And the rare ones who succeed there become, sigh, un-rebellious. Not so different, then, from western rock musicians.

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