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Can the indie pop phenomenon of the '90s ever be repeated?

The indie music scene of the 1990s hasn’t been analysed yet for its cultural significance. There is very little understanding of how it represented the aspirations of the youth

The video was memorable as it turned the gaze from the female to the male figure
The video was memorable as it turned the gaze from the female to the male figure

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It was the year 1995 when singer Alisha Chinai introduced us to a princess who had travelled the world—Japan, Russia, Australia, America—looking for love. The video was memorable as it turned the gaze from the female to the male figure. Milind Soman, who went on to become the national heart throb, was brought in a box as a gift to the princess. Around the same time, Shweta Shetty could be seen brushing off hordes of admirers in Deewane Toh Deewane Hain. Suchitra Krishnamoorthi, Anaida, Anamika, Sagaraika were all singing of finding love and seeing the world. 

Raageshwari’s Duniya was about a woman travelling the world alone and finding her own philosophy of life in the process. These were strong, independent women, who were envisioning an inclusive future full of possibilities. Two decades later, one wonders if any aspect of that future has come to pass, especially with rising violence against women.

The indie music scene of the nineties was a phenomenon that hasn’t been analysed for its cultural significance yet. We have all heard arguments of how MTV and Channel V corrupted Indian culture. However, little do we understand the world of aspiration that the youth of 90s sought back then.

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And, it wasn’t just the young women who were part of the indie pop scene. Baba Sehgal was almost thirty-five when he sang Main Bhi Madonna. Biddu was past fifty when he played a critical second innings during the 90s. Bally Sagoo was past forty and Amitabh Bachchan nearly fifty-five when they came up with Eir Bir Phatte. The indie pop scene was more than just about gender, finding an equal voice as the West or finding new identity in a new world. It was all that and more. It was an era of collaboration across the borders.

And that had its roots in the 1980s. That was the era of Disco Deewane. The song was sung by Nazia Hassan, who hailed from Pakistan, and composed by Biddu, born in India and settled in the UK. It sold a hundred thousand records within a day of release in Bombay and went on to become a double-platinum. The song was momentous in many ways. It was the first non-film song that youth across the borders were dancing to. And it paved the way for musical exchange in the 1990s-2000s. Strings, Junoon, Ali Haider became household names in India. 

In 1998, ZEE TV invited Junoon to perform at their film awards show. The band went on a tour and saw record crowds across Delhi, Lucknow, Bangalore and Kanpur. Pakistani pop had a massive fan following in India. Samsung invited Strings to collaborate with Indian band Euphoria. The song they created—Jeet Lo Dil—became the official song for visiting Indian cricket team in Pakistan in 2004. The band sang for Bollywood movies Zinda and Shootout at Lokhandwala. They collaborated with another indie pop giant, Indian Ocean, to sing at Aman Ki Asha concert in Ahmedabad in 2011. That era was soon to end. It is now impossible to imagine such collaborations and joint calls for peace. 

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The indie pop phase was not a fad. It was not a passing fascination of a lost and confused generation. Music as a sub-culture has always been influenced by the larger socio-political ecosystem, in ways that we are yet to comprehend in the sub-continent. In Pakistan, Sufi pop and rock rose as an act of rebellion. In India, the lyrics of indie pop represented the hopes of the youth—freedom to love anyone, freedom to be, freedom to not be judged for the choices one made.

The era of Indie music coincided with that of Archie’s and Hallmark cards, of coaching centres, of youth from small towns moving to the big cities in search of opportunities, of swanky new cafes, and of the first few foreign stints. The economy was blossoming. The nation’s confidence was at an all-time high. The youth had got themselves new pairs of wings.

What happened to indie pop? Playback singers such as Sonu Nigam entered the music industry via movies. His songs of love and longing continued to be massive hits in the indie genre. He conveniently traversed both the industries and focused on playback singing once the indie scene wound down, just like Shaan did, and KK to some extent. While the singers had much more freedom in choosing their next path, it was the bands that lost their audience. Silk Route, Euphoria, Aryans, Bombay Vikings—some of them are still around in some form but it is evident that the glory days of indie bands are not coming back anytime soon.

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The death of indie pop and the changes in the larger social landscape affected what the Indian youth was consuming. Take, for instance, the rise of Punjabi rap. The message had taken a drastic turn. The lyrics were all about crude sexism. In a popular song of the new times, Badshah sings: “Aag lagaane aayi hai ban-than, goli chal gayi dhaayn. (You are looking so gorgeous that guns have gone off)”. The girl responds: “Sandal mere cham cham karde, hege high brand ve. (My shiny new sandals are from a big brand.)” Who would have thought the bold school girl from Sunita Rao’s Pari Hun Main would grow up to be one obsessing over sandals!

While the debate over popular culture and its symbols will rage on, it can’t be denied that music and films reflect people’s aspirations as well as feed into their desires. One can only say that the youth of the 90’s was humming to a much more liberal, hopeful and egalitarian tune. And, the place of women in it was one of an actor, not an object.

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