It was 2005. And six. And seven. And eight and nine too, just about. A couple of times a week, late in the evening, clusters of sweaty kids dressed in black T-shirts or band tees or checked shirts or torn jeans or sneakers or those big industrial boots would invariably find themselves at this filthy spot at the far end of Delhi’s New Friends Colony, home to Al-Bake before it became a franchise. The place was always mucky and grimy and smelled of liquid garbage back then, but Al-Bake served irresistible chicken shawarmas. Persistent rumours that the meat was actually made from (dead) rats mattered little; they were awfully cheap (Rs 20 for two) and heavenly. The market wasn’t filled with ATMs like it is now because not that many people used debit cards. Some 50 steps away was Mezz, a small, dark, dingy, tattered, chip-off-the-old-block watering hole that doubled up as a live venue where Indian indie rock and metal bands played each week. It was home to hundreds of aspiring hoodlums with rebellion in their hearts and beer on their breath. They were part of an underground counterculture scene of original independent music, brought together unconditionally by their love for music and the bond that brings. Mezz has shut down now; it shut down a few years ago.
“We once played a gig there that was factually the most legendary gig at the place,” laughs Reuben Bhattacharya. “It was so packed the AC stopped working, and it was some 52 degrees inside — a mash of sweat and men stuck together. The place was filled with smoke. It was a dedicated bunch of people then, from 15-year-old kids to 35-year-old office-going types, all smashing against each other and moshing.” Bhattacharya, 35, is the bass player for Delhi’s extreme death metal band Undying Inc, a band that has gone from playing roaring sets at the tiny Mezz 10 years ago to now hitting prestigious metal festivals abroad and playing large open-air venues across the country. Bhattacharya is also an artist who has established Visual Amnesia, designing artwork and merchandise for Indian and international bands. At the time, he was working as the creative head at Rock Street Journal (RSJ), the cult independent rock music magazine and events company — led by its charismatic founder, the late Amit Saigal — that was instrumental in establishing the live rock music community in Delhi, possibly the country, through their flagship open-air concert, Great Indian Rock, and the different series of pub gigs they did, the Pubrockfest, Live Nites and Genesis.
The company is still around and active, but they recently shut their iconic Delhi office in Shahpur Jat, the poor man’s Hauz Khas Village (or a Hauz Khas Village without complete gentrification — parking’s a pain, no alcohol sold anywhere, no lake). Just off Siri Fort, the office — nestled in a little bylane; 86/1, Third Building, Ground Floor, Shahpur Jat — has, for years, served as a spot where bands would come to collect cheques, get coffee, talk to the people working there — basically convene. A walk down that lane and a quick right turn later, you reach Fender Music Academy (FMA).
Crowded with flocks of cute cafes and restaurants now, the more gentrified parts of Shahpur Jat have always — in a glaring contrast — seemed delineated between expensive upmarket designer labels (for clothes, shoes, fabric, jewellery)— with plenty of shops and boutiques sprouting up, and the musician-types. Beyond FMA and RSJ, many other indie music event companies and publications have set up shop there too through the years. In the period I’m talking about — from 2005 to around 2008-09 — FMA was a teaching school where kids would come and learn how to play instruments from musicians who were also part of bands active in the city. Delhi had an incredible array of active bands then — there was the garage inclination of The Superfuzz, with punk and pop influences tussling; the straight up nu-metal aggression of Joint Family; Them Clones with their grungy alternative sound; Undying Inc and Third Sovereign, leaning toward far heavier spectra, and really, 20 other fairly popular bands — some well ahead of their time, some well behind — each of which had some kind of a fan following. Fender Music Academy wasn’t just a school; they also had a couple of rehearsal studios in the compound, which are still running. Different bands from across the city would gather there; they’d have rehearsals stacked one after another, meeting each other, talking to each other. “There was an exchange of ideas,” says Bhattacharya. “It’s a close-knit community of people building this thing together. Every band in Delhi sort of had that mutual respect for each other; people would hang out, talk the same sh*t, drink the same beer, do the same drugs. We’d all bump into each other all the time. People would hang out at the office and talk about the scene; there’d be healthy discussions, heated arguments. It’s become so fragmented now.”
The physical space seemingly becomes an essential part of any creative counterculture arts scene — people interact, become friends, get exposed to newer ideas, explore creative directions previously unavailable (it’s obviously why you have artist residencies). Internationally, it’s always been a genre-bound thing where a venue or a label provides a home to similar artists; for instance, the punk scene in London in the 1970s, or Seattle’s grunge movement heralded by the record label Sub Pop; metal movements in the US and Europe; or Joy Division and the rise of post-hardcore in the UK, memorably portrayed in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People. Would there be a No Wave scene in New York without the artistic liberties the New York of the ’70s provided? Would Great Gatsby read the same were it not for the famous rivalry Fitzgerald and Hemingway had?
In contrast, the independent scene in Delhi was scattered, from punk, psychedelic, classic rock, nu-metal, alternative, to metal, but the sense of space remained strong. In addition to Mezz and the intangible role Shahpur Jat played, the city also had Turquoise Cottage, an underground (literally; it was in the basement) pub that opened its doors to regular live gigs to the extent that the place would get packed with some 300 people, leading to a spill-over on the street outside, with passersby on the adjacent Aurobindo Marg witness to disappointed college kids begging the bouncers outside to let them in. But no dice. On non-gig nights, they’d play rock ‘n’ roll, and it became a familiar spot for disillusioned kids with a penchant for the devil’s music looking for affordable beer and no James Blunt, Sugababes or Akon crying on the speakers. After a tumultuous ride, Turquoise Cottage shifted first to Vasant Vihar and, today, you’ll find it in the gigantic right-most mall that’s part of the glorious ménage a trios of malls in Saket. In those pre-Happy Hours days, Mezz would serve beer at a 33% discount during certain hours, a blessing for broke college kids. South Extension had Cafe Morrison; it had a slightly scatterbrained, diversified approach, with plenty of live gigs but also enough Bollywood and electronic nights, but crowds still maintained that attachment to it because of the sheer number of live gigs they did. Connaught Place had Blues (still around) that hosted occasional gigs, and DV8 (long dead). The popularity of this trend was such that even Elevate (an oversized club in neighbouring Noida that blasted party music and became practically an institution among club-goers) opened its doors to live rock music (leading to a comical culture shock, but not much more).
Nikhil Rufus Raj, 28, the bass player for The Superfuzz and Indigo Children, and someone who has played for practically every single band in the city at some point (Them Clones, Joint Family, Faridkot, Another Vertigo Rush, Skyharbor) was also working at FMA around then. Speaking about the value of these spots, he says: “Creatively, of course it was important. I felt it provided a good support system for bands, with people looking out for them [at FMA, at gigs], helping them reach out to people with their music, allowing for a space for rehearsing. Getting to meet people who were doing the same thing you wanted to do gave everyone strength; it’s why I feel there was a surge in the music scene back in the day. All these people and places were coming. I made a lot of musician friends through these shows. I mean, it’s a very basic, natural thing. Once you meet like-minded people who’re trying to do the same thing as you, you feel you’re not alone. I think it was also the fact that people were doing it in the right aesthetic sense of what it was supposed to be. It was not considered ‘entertainment’ that time. But I just feel that… it also kind of really didn’t go anywhere. It’s just about those musicians who were there; they were the people at that point of time. Very few of them are still around; everyone’s gone about making a living. It’s just one aspect of a much bigger scenario.”
In beautiful rock ‘n’ roll apologue, Mezz burnt down. Literally. There was a fire. On an unrelated note, the live rock ‘n’ roll scene in Delhi imploded too, or dissipated slowly. They resurrected Mezz, and it came back briefly, before eventually shutting its doors for good. The iconic location of Turquoise Cottage, fondly and conveniently called TC by just about everyone, in Adhchini, was poetically taken over by a different pub with absolutely no connection to the original one, called… um, they called it TC. Bands fought, they disbanded. Or they went on “indefinite hiatuses”. Musicians became lawyers and engineers and family heirlooms. Wide-eyed college kids with hair till their waist became jaded and bald. Really, we’re not on some rose-tinted reminiscence of the Golden Age. The scene, that scene, withered away, making way for newer things.
There was another band that existed in Delhi around the same period, Emperor Minge, the meaning of which is best left to the imagination. They were a jazzy experimental act that often featured a burlesque dancer. Stefan Kaye was the keyboard player for them; today, Kaye is a part of ska band The Ska Vengers as well as improvised peppy jazz experimental ensemble the Jass Bstards. Hauz Khas Village wasn’t quite the party-haven, hipster-central, thrill-a-minute-colossal-disaster it is today. There was only TLR (a name that originally stood for The Living Room before they “ITCed” it) there that served alcohol. “In 2008, there was no other bar there; just Naivedyam, which serves south Indian food,” recalls Kaye. He had been in touch with the TLR owner, who was looking to create a space for musicians to get together and have jam nights. “They wanted to make it informal and cosy, like their living room. It was a great model. That’s what happened — there weren’t any scheduled gigs, no money flying around. People would come together, pick up whatever instruments were lying around on Wednesday nights or bring their own.” Kaye would help out with programming and recommending artists to the TLR team, also frequently performing there. “This guy called Abish Mathew wanted to get into stand-up comedy and wanted help to sort out a place to do that. I wanted to have three or four comedians to perform but Delhi didn’t have that many good comedians at the time. I didn’t think we’d be able to sustain a whole evening on stand-up. We wanted to throw in dance, some theatre. Then we said, ‘F**k it, let’d do cabaret. There were no dancers in pubs that time, no stand-up comedy. I don’t think women were allowed to serve alcohol then.” That night, they did a cabaret.
From those early beginnings, TLR became a space to assemble. “It just became a meeting place for the liberal arts practitioners or patrons of the liberal arts. They would convene in TLR.” Jass Bstards, before they were called that, were sort of the house band supporting acts that performed at the venue. A pastiche on beatniks (the spiritual ancestors to hipsters, I should think) by the Tadpole Repertory featured, also, the coinage of the band name, at an event called the Stiff Kittens Medicine Show. The very popular DJ collective the Reggae Rajahs played their first gig there — “I don’t know any other places around at the time that would have entertained that kind of music.” Singer-songwriter Shantanu Pandit made his debut there; Suman Sridhar, the Vinyl Records, Jeet Thayil, all played some of their early shows at TLR. While rock ‘n’ roll itself seems a niche, the music — and the small cultural movement — TLR was pushing belonged to an even smaller, more specific bracket, with a small but committed following. “This thing wouldn’t work now — it’ll get spoilt… diluted by people who’re not really supportive or understand what’s happening but go there because it’s ‘cool’ to go there.”
Their musical direction may be different, but it’s a sentiment Nikhil Rufus Raj agrees with. “People are getting the wrong notion about this whole thing. That it’s a ‘cool’ thing to do, which is quite f**ked up. It’s not cool. You have to make hard decisions, and you’ll find yourself in a place you don’t want to be. But, back then, it was still done.”
TLR’s model led to considerable success; the earnestness of the intentions stood out. While still around, that model is what probably led to their downfall too. “A lot of venues wanted to emulate their success,” says Kaye. “I’ve lost count of owners approaching me for help on programming and wanting to be like TLR. For somebody completely out of touch with their target audience, I don’t think they can be capable of doing anything credible.” Kaye himself has been an important individual in the crafting of this off-beat cultural movement that began in the early stages of Hauz Khas Village’s evolution as an artsy getaway, pushing music with jazz at its heart as something beyond mere academia, something the youth could connect with.
What we have today — excellent festivals with obscene amounts of money showered in their production, gigs every single day, venues dropping like flies, electronic artists playing to thousands of adoring fans, promoters, artist managers, tour managers, technical riders and hospitality riders, indie musicians on TV — seems like a logical progression.
“There was something at TLR, definitely,” says Bhattacharya. “The sad thing is even that got sidetracked by electronic music. Bands that survived became bigger — Jass Bstards, Ska Vengers. There’s a lot of activism that comes with it, they’re socially ingrained into the fabric of things. But I guess it’s the DJs that have taken over now.”
Dropcap OnThe live music landscape has changed. It’s become bigger on paper, for sure. What we have today — excellent festivals with obscene amounts of money showered in their production, gigs in Hauz Khas Village every single day, venues dropping like flies, electronic artists playing to thousands of adoring fans, promoters, artist managers, tour managers, technical riders and hospitality riders, indie musicians on television (LOOK, MA!) — sounds like a logical progression from the previous period. The contribution of Hauz Khas Village in supporting cultural movements becomes unparalleled. From its humble beginnings, the place now flaunts excess. The volume of pubs and intimate performance spaces is frightening. Kaye mentions how the Toddy Shop is sort of functioning in the same vein as TLR first did, albeit with a little more curation and a little less spontaneity. Multiple venues fight for attention on performance nights, to the extent that employees of pubs can be found on the tapered main street, coaxing people into entering their pubs to catch a live band or a DJ, something which caught Raj by surprise when The Superfuzz played at Elf recently. Hauz Khas Social programmes frequent gigs — mostly electronic music but with the occasional rock band thrown in too, while its upstairs neighbour and little brother, Anti-Social, does much the same on a regular basis. The events company Wild City has been actively promoting a subculture of slightly left-of-centre, non-commercial electronic music, organising multiple gigs. The Summer House Cafe (in the adjoining Aurobindo Market) also sees plenty of DJs and the odd live artist. You have regular comedy nights, improv performances, open mic nights, slam poetry, book readings, and music performances. A little further, you have the Hard Rock Cafe (in Saket, and another in Gurgaon), and the franchise seems to have opened up a little more about original independent music. The audience is spoilt for choice, no doubt, unlike, say, a decade ago when options were limited. Raj cites how the focus has landed on quantity over quality, but artistic merit will always remain a subjective deduction. There’s obviously also a greater emphasis on profitability — that’s capitalism for you — but uncommitted, fly-by-night operators will exist in any small industry, creative or otherwise, and they’ll be weeded out sooner or later. The intimacy of a music scene, from the outside, does seem lacking. It’s an infinite debate raking in quality, progress, artistic intentions, business acumen, audience preferences and a whole lot of philosophy and context to truly answer this, but are these newer things necessarily better?
“Today, venues hire bands as entertainment,” says Raj. “It’s become a dhanda. On some level, even musicians and promoters are looking at it like that rather than aesthetics. Money always had to be made, but earlier, there was no stress about ‘recovering costs’ all the time. Now, people try something, and if it doesn’t work, they drop it. Get a band today, a DJ tomorrow. I feel it can’t work like that. You need to have patrons for this — people with money and finance who don’t care for profit or loss. It’s not about electronic music or DJs or anything, it’s about the aesthetic, which nobody gives a f**k about. It’s going to fall flat after some time. That natural process is not happening; people are waiting for good things to come to them rather than going out and making the effort. Gigs are happening not because they’re ‘gigs’, they’re happening to get people inside a venue — it’s a transaction. It’s become a catering, a service. It’s not supposed to be — I’m doing this because I want to do this. But once you get finances into it…”
Kaye also emphasises how the reasons why people end up at a gig have more to do with visiting a venue, not watching the actual band. Bhattacharya has an even bleaker outlook: Access and availability (and the internet) has killed that emotional attachment that kids from even a generation prior may have had, from owning CDs and tapes to discovering music on their own and going for gigs to regular venues. “New bands, established bands, everyone had somewhere to play. At the end of the day, you have to give musicians a stage to play. Soon, gigs will just be four laptops kept next to each other. People will log on to Facebook and watch the concert at home, eating popcorn and drinking beer alone. That’s the next logical step. I don’t see the longevity in this. If real, actual, tangible ‘scenes’ built on a people-to-people basis couldn’t sustain, how will this [artists spreading their music online, garnering heavy social media following, interacting digitally] survive? The human element is getting less and less. Anything creative survives on people interacting — it’s a meeting of ideas, meeting of minds. The magic of four different individuals coming together in a band to take on the world, that’s missing.”