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Thaikkudam Bridge, OAFF: The indie music stars knocking Bollywood off the charts

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    22 hours ago

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Image source, Kabeer Kathpatlia

Kabeer Kathpalia’s life could’ve gone either way.

If it wasn’t for music, he probably would’ve been better remembered as a physicist.

But in college, Kathpalia, who majored in physics, found himself at the centre of a thriving music scene jamming to his favourite bands – Blink 182 and Green Day.

Now, 10 years on, he goes by the name of OAFF and is winning hearts with his experimental music. His song Doobey (part of Bollywood film Gehraiyaan), which he produced with his college friend Savera, has more than 50 million views on YouTube. He has been named one of Amazon Music’s top independent artists in 2022.

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The 32-year-old is part of a galaxy of emerging independent or indie artists in India’s fertile music industry, which has grown exponentially this year.

Bollywood has traditionally dominated India’s music industry. Every Hindi film is a musical, with songs ranging from rollicking dance numbers and heart-wrenching ballads to patriotic melodramas and paeans to loss and longing.

The industry has captivated millions – we laugh and cry to a film song and we fall in love through a film song.

But the film industry is going through a slump because of the pandemic and many wonder if that has fast-tracked the growth of indie music.

“Out of the top five streamed songs of 2022 in India, only one is a film song,” says Rahul Balyan, head of music at Spotify India.

“Our flagship playlist for independent music, Indie India, continues to be the most loved and engaged. It saw a huge jump in followers this year, with more than half coming in 2022 alone.”

From new genres like gully or street rap to the Hindustani techno, indie music is effortlessly cool and genuinely ground-breaking. Some of the most searing social commentary is coming from the fringes of India’s music communities. Even romance – the mainstay of Bollywood music – is finding new voices in subgenres.

The rise and rise of Indie

Like elsewhere in the world, indie music in India is based on a simple premise – anyone can learn to play, make or record music and maybe even take the show on the road.

But in India, indie artists are mainly those who create music outside the country’s film industry.

Indian Pop Singer Lucky Ali performing at the Huda Grounds during the Carnival of Music on March 17, 2012 in Gurgaon,

Image source, Getty Images

Over the years, countless musicians have tried this – some made it, but many couldn’t because of a lack of funding and opportunities.

India’s Indie gold rush truly began in the 1990s when a host of new music channels such as MTV and Channel V spotlighted independent artists like never before. Hindi rock bands like Euphoria and singers like Lucky Ali found millions of new fans.

Yet, the industry struggled to compete with film music which has long been considered the benchmark of a successful musical career in India. Many prominent faces such as singer-composer Vishal Dadlani, who was the frontman of the rock band Pentagram, and Mohit Chauhan, the lead vocalist of the band Silk Route, eventually moved to Bollywood to build their careers.

Kathpalia still remembers how hard it was for him to survive in Mumbai city, where millions come in pursuit of their musical dreams every day: “I was paid peanuts and didn’t I realise that I was kind of being exploited.”

Kabeer Kathpalia

Image source, Kabeer Kathpalia

But a change in consumption patterns has allowed aspiring musicians like him to benefit both artistically and financially, reducing their dependence on Bollywood.

The last few years have seen immense technological and aesthetic shifts in the industry – there’s a burgeoning concert culture with performances moving away from small venues to fill entire stadiums.

More independent record labels are taking it upon themselves to support artists – landing them gigs, advertising and even global tours.

But the biggest shift occurred during the pandemic when film releases stopped and OTT platforms altered the way content was being consumed.

“Until 2020, people were consumed by what Bollywood was creating. But as the number of film releases reduced, a space was created for non-film music to fill. They now also had a chance to get discovered,” Balyan says.

Social media platforms like Instagram have further lent strength to the trend, birthing another pedigree of music where everyone can be a composer.

Crowd at Italian singer Calcutta concert at Mediolanum Forum in Assago. Milan (Italy) 20th January, 2019 (Photo by Elena Di Vincenzo/Archivio Elena di Vincenzo/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Image source, Getty Images

Reels, viral internet dances and TikTok ensured their music travelled far and wide into the heartland, giving musicians a reach beyond the young urban demographic.

So palpable are these changes that a lot of Bollywood musicians like composer Amit Trivedi and singer Armaan Mallick are diversifying into the independent scene with their own projects, Balyan says.

Indie vs Bollywood

The way the indie scene has transformed and revived itself since the pandemic has also coincided with changes in Bollywood, which seems to be going through a crisis as most films have failed to become blockbusters.

Listeners complain of how Bollywood songs have become utterly forgettable, or are mostly remixes – a rehashed version of an old tune with electronic improvisation – that are catchy but only fleetingly.

Ehsaan Noorani, from the renowned composer trio of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, agrees that most of the music has failed to “create a lasting impression” and that “Bollywood needs to do a bit of rethinking”.

“But unfortunately, the way Bollywood works is that if a film doesn’t do well, then its music drowns with it. So, even if there is a good song, it’s unlikely to become a smashing hit if the film isn’t one,” he adds.

Thaikkudam Bridge

Image source, Thaikkudam Bridge

While Bollywood seems to be struggling to figure out what works now, bands like Thaikkudam Bridge in the southern state of Kerala are bursting with freshness true to the indie spirit.

The multi-genre band founded in 2013 by two brothers, Govind Vasantha and Siddharth Menon, has left an indelible mark on Indian rock.

There is a sense of purpose in their music, but what elevates the band is its ability to blend unerringly sweet elements of folk and classical Indian music with heavy metal – one of the first songs they wrote, Fish Rock, lists a variety of fish found in the state. A gorgeous violin rhythm, almost weeping in parts, adds to the charm.

“Our music became [a] staple for everyone in Kerala because we took old Malayalam songs and gave it new colour,” says Vian Fernandes, the band’s bassist. “At the same time, we also drew a lot from Carnatic music and western bands like Metallica, making the music an eclectic mix of all things relatable.”

This is evident in the band’s popularity; they have toured over 24 countries and “almost every corner of India”.

“It’s been crazy so far,” Fernandes says.

Thaikkudam Bridge

Image source, Thaikkudam Bridge

But he adds that film music continues to dominate the scene and is still the most secure path to success.

The sentiment is shared by Kathpalia: “Bollywood is what gave me that crazy reach last year,” he says.

For Noorani, the two genres are not really comparable.

“The talent of independent artists is truly amazing. But composing Bollywood scores is different from producing singles and depends more on the requirement of the script,” he says.

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