Written in response to the article “Don’t Believe Everything You Hear” in Tehelka, April 17, 2010
Thermal And A Quarter is a Bangalore-based rock band with delusions of world domination since 1999. We read Inder Sidhu’s outcry against “the media’s hysterical coverage of Indian rock bands” with familiar feelings of resigned amusement and piquant regret. While Sidhu makes some pleasant noises and points available fingers at the usual suspects, he disappoints us by stating the obvious and therefore fails to offer us any fresh insight into what actually ails the rock scene. What ails the media we already know.
First off, Tehelka could have attempted to address the question: What is uniquely “Indian” about the Indian rock scene? You get really excited about Indian writers in English, so why can’t an electric guitar and English lyrics employed to express Indian themes excite you as much? Is the Indian rock “movement” — as some like to call it — merely about the explosion of rock band competitions and sponsored collegiate rock festivals? Is it only about the so-called mushrooming of venues for Indian rock? Is it about the legitimacy accorded to it by weak-willed Bollywood flicks such as Rock On? Is it more than a West-aping deluge of residual post-adolescent hormones? Or is it merely a vehicle for selling phallic fantasies associated with jeans, bikes, movies, or alcohol?
Why can’t the music scene you obsess about be the product of entrepreneurial activity or the struggle of independent artists to secure a platform for expression in a milieu notorious for the absence of infrastructure or patronage? Is it not also about artistic independence — and what is indie in an Indian context anyway? Is it not about the paucity of industry support for independent music (and just what is this “industry”?)? And why are we in such a hurry to pack it all up in one store shelf labelled ‘rock’ – what about Carnatic blues, or Indian jazz-rock, or Indian prog-rock, or Indian death metal, or Devotional jazz-rock, or Malayalam thrash metal, or Hindi country blues, or Kannada funk?
Which part bothers you the most: that the Indian media is writing about Indian rock music at all, or that it is covering rock without balls or brains? After all, we read your magazine because it tells us what we believe is closest to the truth. But never has it once offered lip service to this movement, apart from getting musicians to applaud their favourite bands at the back of the book. When it comes to the coverage of underground music acts in India Tehelka, too, is part of the “lazy press” you love to deride. Your dispirited coverage reinforces the fact that in this country we have no national newspapers or news-magazines — only parochial ones. When it comes to covering the independent music scene, even Tehelka cannot look beyond Delhi or Mumbai before your vision gets all blurry and your perspective degenerates to homogenising what you attempt to analyse. Isn’t it time you became free, fair and fearless in writing about this too?
Sidhu writes that the “vocabulary and context for rock criticism does not exist in India.” When was the last time you met an editor who condescended to carry a major story about any westernized urban counterculture in India? When was the last time any self-respecting commentator (such as you, we hope) turned away from the clippings morgue and did some legwork to find out what’s really happening in India’s underground music scene?
For instance, how do Indian bands approach songwriting, where do they learn to play their instruments, where do they rehearse? How do they finance gear, studio time and production efforts? What level of initiative does it take for a band to bag concert dates at Hard Rock Cafe or Blue Frog, or plan a five-city tour? Or to cut an album and market it independently?
These realities offer story ideas for any journalist with a serious interest in writing about Indian rock. Perhaps Sidhu might want to consider exploring these areas instead of expending two thousand words on a subject he believes is not worth writing about. That’s laughable. Of course, we are aware these stories can’t be written within a week’s deadline but has any journalist cared to investigate the possibilities, or any editor dared to commission them?
For instance, on February 14 this year Thermal And A Quarter hosted the ‘One Small Love – Bangalore for Mangalore’ concert. Commemorating the first anniversary of the attacks on women in pubs in Mangalore and Bangalore, it brought musicians and speakers together to give voice to issues like freedom of expression and tolerance. About 500 people attended the concert in Bangalore and many more logged in to watch the live webcast. The Facebook page for One Small Love added 1,300 fans in a single week sans any advertising or PR.
The media did not take notice of One Small Love. Why? Because we took a decision not to invite any mediapersons to cover it.
In its weekend magazine supplement, a leading national paper gushed about an “unsponsored” concert in Bangalore by two independent rock bands held on February 13, the previous evening. While we attended that concert and doffed our hats to the bands that pulled it off, we noted dourly that the journalist had not done his homework when he hailed the unsponsored concert as a first-of-its-kind event. Thermal And A Quarter was among the first bands in Bangalore (perhaps in the country) to pull off successful (in terms of attendance and gate collections) self-funded shows dating back to 1999. National Public Radio in the US reported our Floodaid concert of 2005 (a fundraiser for the families affected by the 2004 Asian Tsunami) but no Indian publication bothered to do so. Just because no press releases were issued, does it mean these were not events?
We’d be happier if the media did not write about the “scene”, because clouding these half-cooked reports and analyses with poor reportage, bias and myopia is far worse. As some wise guy once said, “It’s better to shut up and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
Every “music journalist” wants to be the next big commentator on the Indian rock music scene. In 14 years of being around, we’ve seen these megalomaniacs crash and burn and we have outlived them all. On the Indian rock scene, longevity is to die for. As the only band in India to release four studio albums in our career through independent distribution plans, we are not looking for benefactors in the media to make or break our career, thank you.
Frank Zappa said, “Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” We wrote a song about journalists like that – it’s called Paper Puli. And we have an annual award for music journalists who satisfy Zappa’s criteria. It’s called the Paper-Pulitzer. We might consider nominating you.
Love and peace.
Cross-posted on our Facebook page