For the longest time, the Indian independent music scene lived under the shadow of film music. It was, ironically, the pandemic-induced lockdown that brought the alternative music scene out of the shadows. For one, it got indie musicians, holed up in their homes, not only to create music but to put it all out on social media. Second, the emergence of virtual music concerts raised awareness of the indie scene.
A budding ecosystem for young talent began to spring up, with ventures like music agency Gatecrash’s artist development programme, Amplify Music Incubator, and Spotify’s global emerging artist program, RADAR.
“The pandemic has actually changed the industry for the better,” says Tanish Thakker, founder of Amplify Music Incubator. “Quality musicians have come out, also a lot more money is being pumped into the industry through live performances and brand work. There’s also an audience base now. It is, in short, a good time to be an independent musician in India today.”
Rahul Balyan, head of music, Spotify India, is gung-ho. “The Indian independent music scene will find its voice. In fact, I believe that we are about to see the era of the Indian pop star in the next few years,” he says. “They (artists) are working with the best producers to make great music. And they are looking at their peers in the West and asking, ‘Why can’t it be me?’”
Lounge profiles eight musical acts that have been producing good work and whose music is on our personal playlists. This is not a definitive list. Instead, think of it as a mixtape we have created for you to tune in to.
Ahmer: Shooting straight from the heart
Kashmiri hip hop may have been pioneered by MC Kash—whose tracks like I Protest (Remembrance) and Take It In Blood captured the rage in the Valley in the early 2010s—but Ahmer, 28, remains its finest exponent. The son of a businessman living in Srinagar’s Rajbagh neighbourhood, Ahmer Javed (he performs as Ahmer) grew up largely protected from the upheavals around him. There were unpleasant encounters with security forces as a teenager but nothing beyond the petty oppressions familiar to anyone in a conflict zone. Even when he started rapping, he was more interested in the things common to all teenage rap fans—cars, voyeuristic fantasies of adolescent violence, the attentions of the other sex—than the complex political history of his homeland.
But Ahmer’s uncle—as he would later find out—was one of the first militants to die when insurgency broke out in the Valley in the late 1980s and the shadow of that death continued to loom over the family in the form of visits from security forces. On Little Kid, Big Dreams, his debut album, Ahmer grapples with this history (both familial and political) and with the complex legacy of his uncle and so many others who died in a conflict that has simmered—and occasionally exploded into mass violence—for over three decades.
His sophomore LP Azli, recorded in a ghost-town Srinagar (streets emptied by the covid-19 lockdown and the surge of troops that followed the effective abrogation of Article 370 the previous year), was an even better offering. It showcased a more mature, world-weary Ahmer whose fist-pumping zeal had been tempered by a deeper understanding of the costs of political violence. Over relentlessly oppressive beats, rapping in Kashmiri, he married this forensic dissection of the scars of war with a deep-rooted love for Kashmiri strength and resilience. It was an emotional, deeply-felt tribute that resonated with fans, the message bleeding through even for those who couldn’t understand the words.
Tarana Marwah: Building a musical world of her own
Tarana Marwah likes playing with different identities. On regular days, she is your typical girl-next-door, comfortable lounging around in PJs; when she is making music and performing on stage, she is Komorebi, a multifaceted artist with an ethereal voice, and an ace keyboardist, who loves bold fashion. Then there’s Kiane, her anime-inspired alter ego. A resident of a planet called Candyland, Kiane has a pet owl, Owlie, that appears regularly in her official music videos. “She (Kiane) is going to exist as long as I exist and that is because I don’t ever want to perform just as myself,” says the 29-year-old, describing Kiane as a “space traveller”.
Marwah is not the first musician to perform under a pseudonym or have an alter ego, but, in India’s indie music scene, she is definitely someone who’s unafraid to let her imagination run wild: creating new worlds, personalities and ways to tell stories. For her recent single, I Grew Up, themed on personal growth, Marwah collaborated with Media Monks to create a music video using Unreal Engine, an advanced real-time 3D graphics game engine by Epic Games. The single is going to be a part of Marwah’s sophomore album, The Fall, which releases next month. The concept album saw Marwah working with over 100 creative minds, including indie musicians like Warren Mendonsa of Backstratblues, Dhruv Visvanath and Easy Wanderlings and couturier Rajesh Pratap Singh, who designed her clothes for the I Grew Up music video. Marwah will also be bringing out a 30-page, limited-edition comic book called The Fall with the album.
A classically trained pianist, Marwah says the need to experiment comes naturally to her. She has also ventured into the world of composing music for OTT. Marwah (as co-composer), along with music producer Gaurav Raina and music producer and editor Gautam Kaul, are the creative minds behind, for instance, Made In Heaven seasons 1 and 2, Dahaad and Bombay Begums. “It’s no joke to score for a TV show.”
Driftwood Band: Heady experiments in synthwave pop
When the Driftwood Band begin to play, you want to dance first, think later. In a scene with more wilfully obscure noise “projects” than you can shake a turntable at, the Kolkata duo are outstanding at coming up with different ways to inject a heady pop rush into proceedings. The story of Nabanita “Bonnie” Sarkar and Atandra “Buro” Chakraborty forming the Driftwood Band is an example of two musicians finding a way to create music during the depths of covid-19 isolation. And from that experience, producing songs that are joyous, inventive and hummably melodious.
Sarkar, 28, and Chakraborty, 35, had been kicking around the Kolkata music scene for well on a decade before their paths crossed just before the 2020 lockdown. Sarkar, who had a bunch of songs written on the ukulele, started jamming with Chakraborty, who, apart from being a fine guitar player, was also creating electronic soundscapes as a lark. During the pandemic, they put their heads together and decided to fuse the two styles to create Driftwood Band’s signature sound.
A potent mix of synthwave, glitch, thumping disco beats, angular guitars and Sarkar’s fey voice, the band has developed a pop sound that is unmistakably theirs. The fact that they literally produce these slick songs in their bedrooms makes them even more striking.
Driftwood Band’s first EP, BLOO, released in December 2020, has by far their most poppy tunes, infectious bangers like I’ve Got A Crush, Give Me A Call and What I Want. While each of these are pure pop perfection, their second EP, RED, saw the band stretch out in more long-form directions, like the 80s’ synths of Comes & Goes and the dreamy I Love It, featuring Bengali lyrics from Sarkar’s father’s poems.
The band will be working on new songs for an EP in September. “The songwriting’s done, we will now record and produce the music over the next month and a half,” says Chakraborty. The new songs will likely see another subtle tone shift, with a greater focus on acoustic instruments and ambient soundscapes. But the pop isn’t going away.
Gauley Bhai: Raw, rooted and beyond language
Gauley Bhai, based in Bengaluru, comprise Veecheet Dhakal, (35, violin, vocals), Anudwatt Dhakal (31, bass guitar, vocals), Siddhant Mani Chettri (29, guitar, vocals) and Joe Panicker (40, drums). Born from jamming sessions in 2017, their steady rise over the past six years is proof that language is secondary when it comes to making music. For the trans traditional rock band sings in Nepali. Language, Veecheet says, was never a barrier. “We are a south Indian Nepali band. We eat idlis for breakfast. We have more fans in Bengaluru than any other city,” he jokes.
The quartet never intended to form a band. “It was Angarika Guha, a friend then and our manager now, who suggested we form a band after she heard a few of our recordings,” he recalls. Their debut show was in Bengaluru, at the October Jam organised by the media and arts collective Maraa, in 2018. Soon after, they got their first big gig: performing at the Ziro Festival in Arunachal Pradesh in 2019. A band whose influences range from Nepali folk to Malian folk and Tuareg rock, Gauley Bhai have never had a problem packing in audiences. And that has to do with their sound: Violins, guitars and drums meld over Veecheet’s raw, full-throated vocals. Self-taught, Veecheet’s is not the auto-tuned voice we are used to. It’s rambunctious and delivers the weight of the lyrics, on subjects ranging from love to migration and identity. The band's sound manager Samuel Amulraj, 41, whom Veecheet counts as the fifth member of the band, deserves a special mention here.
Gauley Bhai's biggest learning experience came while making their debut full-length album, Joro (fever in Nepali). Comprising 10 songs, the 2019 album traverses subjects whimsical and sombre. Self-produced and crowd-funded, it showed the band the power of community as people helped make the music videos and even art for the album cover. This feeling of community is, in fact, embodied in the band’s name. “Gauley Bhai means brothers from the community. The idea it conveys is that no matter where we go, we settle and become a part of the place,” Veecheet says.
Dhanji: The auteur-rapper with a taste for the absurd
On Teji, the opener from his debut album, RUAB, Ahmedabad rapper Dhanji imperiously declares that he’s the “Jay-Z from Gujarat”. But with his distinctive off-the-rails flow, devil-may-care iconoclasm and ear for the absurd, 25-year-old Jayraj Ganatra is closer in sound and spirit to Lil Wayne, or Weezy, the eccentric Louisiana emcee Rolling Stone once called “rap’s alien genius”. Much like Weezy, Dhanji’s stoner surrealism and genre-blending experimentation—showcased on a run of seven mixtapes that run the gamut from Bollywood vocal flips to cinematic trap and dark, percussive experimental music—sets him apart in a scene oversaturated with rags-to-riches gully rap bandwagoners and pop-leaning Badshah wannabes.
Dhanji is as comfortable with high-brow concept as he is with crassly absurd joke bars. This is an artist who followed up a druggy, industrial-laced mixtape (the Zorba collab DZs Control) with an abstract, emotive EP featuring a Paul Cezanne painting on the cover (Bagman). He indulges these twin passions generously on RUAB, released last month. The mix of sparse propulsive funk, liquid-smooth synths and punkish perverseness offers the perfect backdrop for rhymes about the “Herculean struggle to create art” under capitalism. There’s plenty of philosophising about issues like class and mental health, the oppressive push and pull of market forces, all laced with subversive, off-the-cuff humour. It’s an expansive and audacious debut from one of contemporary Indian rap’s few auteurs.
RUAB has generated a lot of hype—and polarised opinions (see r/indianhiphopheads)—taking Dhanji’s idiosyncratic music to audiences beyond the hard-core desi rap fandom. It has also put the small but prolific Ahmedabad rap scene on the map. It will be exciting to see what he can do with this new wave of attention and—presumably—higher budgets.
Frizzell D'Souza: An upward trajectory
Doesn’t it feel like Christmas every time she sings?”
You can use any number of adjectives to describe Frizzell D’Souza’s vocal abilities: rich, layered, like a soothing balm after a hot day, very Norah Jones-y... but this succinct comment by a listener on her YouTube channel perhaps nails it best.
Listening to D’Souza, 23, for the first time can leave you feeling uplifted but it’s also going to move you enough to look up all the videos you can of the singer on YouTube. The fact that the Mangaluru, Karnataka, native, currently based in Bengaluru, is an untrained singer just adds an extra dose of wow. D’Souza’s journey into the country’s indie music scene began when she started her own YouTube channel in 2018. For a teenager who had moved to Bengaluru to study architecture, the channel was supposed to offer an outlet to let her hair down and sing—covers of artists she liked, including Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, and The Local Train.
In 2019, she started the October series, posting a song every day that month. A cover of Prateek Kuhad’s Cold/Mess, part of the series, went viral and saw Kuhad sharing it on his Instagram page. In August 2021, she released her first original single, New, a soft pop romantic number rendered with uncommon earnestness.
Last October, she released an extended playlist (EP), The Hills Know Of You, of five songs centred on love. This year, she performed live in Goa, Mumbai, Delhi and Indore (Madhya Pradesh). It was like living the dream. D’Souza knows her career has just begun, so she can experiment with her sound. As for finding her name on “Artists to watch out for” lists on Spotify and the platform The Indian Music Diaries, among others, D’Souza says: “It feels reassuring but there’s also an innate pressure about answering questions like ‘What’s new?’ ‘What’s next?’ But I am aware that, at the end of the day, making music is about balancing expectations and responsibility and reminding yourself to have fun while doing what you like.”
The success of the Delhi-based contemporary electronica producer duo Tech Panda (Rupinder Nanda, 27) and Kenzani (Kedar Santwani, 34) is a classic case of musicians who got together, found their unique voice and kept churning out singles till they made that one tune that would, unexpectedly, go viral. Last November, Nanda and Santwani released Dilbar, a folksy, beat-heavy single in collaboration with the musician duo Rusha & Blizza, on their social media channels. Within months, the single went viral on Instagram, inspiring dance challenges and serving as background music (bgm) for reels; earned over 10 million streams on Spotify; and over three million views on YouTube.
“During the first four-five years after we started in 2015, we had a few moments where we wanted to quit music and do something else,” Santwani laughs. These days, he says, “...no matter where we go, be it flights, restaurants, clubs or weddings, we hear Dilbar being played.” In a peak 2023 moment for them, they were invited to recreate Post Malone and Swae Lee’s hit, Sunflower, for the Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse movie. “The track came to us and we had only two weeks to work on it,” Nanda reveals. Sung by Indian singer and rapper Sahil Badal (he performs under the mononym Badal), the single is signature Tech Panda x Kenzani work: hypnotic vocals harmoniously swathed over with Indian instruments like the sitar, sarangi, flute and punctuated with percussive beats. In their most recent release, a single called Kulli, the duo have interspersed the popular Sufi song, Kulli Vichon Ni Yaar Labh Lai, with the Middle-Eastern instrument of oud. It’s possibly this inexplicable talent, to pick the right vocal samples and instruments to go along, that has earned them the title of pioneers of Abstract Indian Electronica.
Commenting on their unique soundscape, which gives a modern riff to traditional Indian folk music, Nanda says: “We work with folk music largely because our plan is to preserve it. We want to give our old Indian folk tunes a fresh look for the young audience in the country who are only cued in to international EDM today.”
BC Azad: Rapper with a razor-edge wit
BC Azad (born as Arijit Sett) is exactly the sort of rapper you might expect from Kolkata’s politicised milieu. A conversation with him can span decades and vast geographies, touching on everything from 20th century communist history to the caste politics of rural Bengal and the more petty factionalism of the Indian hip hop scene. The rapper brings that same encyclopaedic focus to his sharp, scathing, satirical rhymes, whether as part of Kolkata experimental rap duo Park Circus, or on his 2022 solo debut album, Naya Hindustan.
His music is often verbose, not just in its dense lyricism but also in the extensive use of samples and in the busy-ness of frequent collaborator National Animal’s production. But Azad’s subversive wit and penchant for tongue-in-cheek jokes (the BC in BC Azad supposedly stands for “bakchod”) wards off the po-faced moralism that afflicts a lot of socially conscious rap and his vocal flexibility keeps his trilingual rhymes sounding fresh and vital. There’s a mocking edge to his high-pitched whine on Azadi Haraam, a flute-led polemic against the indignities of contemporary Indian politics, which he drops in favour of a sultry purr on Bengali pop-rap cut Prithibi Chai.
Elsewhere, a lightly auto-tuned croon graces the anti-corruption anthem Black Money, which comfortably rubs shoulders with the jokey, thirst-trapping Thots N Pryrs. Azad is a man of many moods and many sounds, and he has the chops to do them all justice. His work with Park Circus has already made him a mainstay of the Kolkata music scene and he’s now making a national play with his solo act. Azad’s blend of experimental adventurousness, sociopolitical truth-telling and cheerfully obscene humour make his voice an essential one in a music scene that, by and large, still prefers to crawl when asked to bow in front of the state and political power.