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For Those Who Still Rock, We Salute You

A good chunk of rock music in India emanates from the North East, especially Shillong

Firstpost print Edition

“Fine art is dead,” says the precocious Calvin of the eponymous American comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. “If you want to influence people, popular art is the way to go. Mass market commercial art is the future. Besides, it’s the only way to make serious money and that’s what’s important about being an artist.”

Think of rock music, and the image that pulls up is incessant head-banging and the glorious strumming of electric guitars. Over the years, films have tried to do justice to the genre by incorporating it in some form or another — think Ranbir Kapoor’s ‘Jordan’ as the wounded, eccentric, caustic performer in Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar (2011), or the 2018-release Bohemian Rhapsody that won actor Rami Malek his first Oscar for the nuanced portrayal of Queen frontrunner Freddie Mercury.

In one of the latter film’s more telling scenes, when asked what makes the band stand out in a crowd of ‘wannabe rockstars’, Malek’s character tells Aidan Gillen’s John Reid, “We’re four misfits who don’t belong together; playing to the other misfits, the outcasts, right at the back of the room who are pretty sure they don’t belong either. We belong to them.”

In India, rock music is still largely patronized by an age group that grew up between the 1960s and the 1990s — when internationally, rock music was at its peak — says veteran journalist-writer Shamik Bag. Like all genres, rock, too, went through its crests and troughs. Now, when other kinds of music have propelled their way into the mainstream, how does rock and roll manage to stay germane?

A good chunk of it emanates from the northeastern corners of the country. Shillong, particularly — with its traffic-choked lanes — pulses with raw talent waiting to be exposed. And somewhere, in one of its quaint little corners, guitarist Rudy Wallang of blues-rock (a fusion genre) band Soulmate sits down for a quick chat with Firstpost.

He first dismisses the idea that money is what drives his music. “My happiness comes from being on stage, seeing people happy, getting letters from fans and well-wishers. And when the money comes in, it’s a bonus. But if you make it your goal, then I think you have lost the plot,” he says.

Belonging to the Khasi community of Meghalaya — one of three tribal groups with matrilineal lineage — Wallang says music has always been a part of the state’s ethos. “It’s not only rock music; you’ve got blues, metal and a bit of jazz coming up as well. I think tribals have music in the blood,” he says. “It all started when the missionaries came in around the 1800s, to evangelize local Khasis; they taught them hymns, but folk music already existed. Later, instruments like piano and guitar were introduced to them,” he adds.

Besides Wallang, the two-member band — that sometimes hires session musicians — comprises high-octane vocalist Tipriti Kharbangar. With its significant social-media presence and following, Wallang says Soulmate is “one of the busier bands in India, getting to play around 40-45 gigs a year in various parts of the country”. “In the absence of blues, there’d be no rock, metal, or jazz. It’s about baring your soul, being naked on stage, not being afraid of expressing,” he says.

When Mumbai-based rock artiste Tirthankar Poddar — aka 2Blue (originally from Tripura) — started out 20 years ago, rock was believed to be the music of ‘devil worshippers’. “But I only see believers in the crowds these days. Balding men with teenage daughters, young adults with ageing parents, all brought together as one big family in black tee shirts. Now, if you tell me that’s the devil at work, I’ll tell you I am his biggest fan,” he says.

“The first time you listen to rock, you are not really aware of the politics of the trade, or the inside stories. But you finally feel understood. (Sub)Genres like heavy metal and hard rock no longer focus on songs about fire-breathing dragons and bloodsucking vampires. They, instead, manage to be esoteric, exactly the kind of thing that kids, who stand apart from the mainstream, would find appealing,” says Poddar.  He was a teen when he found his calling. “It was a TV commercial where I heard Deep Purple’s ‘Highway Star’. I am 44 now, but (singer-songwriter) Ian Gillan is still my hero.”

It is argued that rock music has witnessed a generational shift in its popularity. Poddar disagrees. “Rock and roll is more popular in India now, than it used to be. The rebel kids from the 1980s are now in their 40s. They drive fancy cars, smoke Cuban cigars, travel the globe, party on weekends and brag about their great taste in concerts. Rock music has served them well. It’s a legacy they have passed on to their children. There sure are other more-popular genres of music, but the rock and roll community continues to grow. We still remain the minority, but that’s because great taste is a luxury that not everyone can handle,” he says.

According to Bag, however, rock music was never essentially a part of the mainstream. “Other than major vernacular rock bands in Bengal that previously sold copies of their albums in lakhs and managed to break the socio-economic barrier, its appeal was largely limited to the college circuit and a niche and elitist section of society,” he says.

Now, new forms like rap, hip-hop and EDM have taken over a lot of the concert space in India earlier occupied by rock music. For organizers, the newer forms cater to the current taste and are cost-effective, without the expenses of hosting a rock band with its truckloads of gear. A single DJ with a turntable and a laptop is all it takes to keep an entire concert arena on its feet, says Bag.

Suggest that to Lou Majaw, the famed Khasi artiste from Shillong, and watch him trash the idea reproachfully. The silver-haired, self-effacing ‘musician’ — who doesn’t like being addressed as such — is hailed as the Bob Dylan of India. For over 40 years now, Majaw has been organizing tribute shows in Shillong to commemorate the legend’s birthday in May. Over a candid conversation peppered with expletives, he tells Firstpost that India is a vastly-cultural land that appreciates all kinds of music.

“Rock has always been there and will continue to thrive. Some people like folk music, some like country, and it is okay. For me, music is something that sets me free, any kind of music,” he says.

Besides his own, Majaw also rears local talent by giving it a platform to express itself. “If I can share something with people, I consider it a blessing, even if it’s just with one person. Money is, of course, important. But it’s not a priority. If someone requires the services of Lou Majaw, then Lou Majaw goes,” he says.

Majaw’s love for music is conspicuous. It’s the food that has kept him alive. He has been strumming the guitar for more than five decades now, and there’s no stopping the septuagenarian. For, as Poddar says: “if the only way you know to love is to love deeply, you will understand”.

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