If there were ever a bona fide pop culture listicle compiled of places that added to Mumbai’s cultural reach, Blue Frog would be on it near the top. The iconic music venue at Todi Mills in Lower Parel appeared on the culture scene in 2007, changing it forever, and its demise this month has inspired more than a few tearful goodbyes.
It is not easy to explain Blue Frog’s contribution to Mumbai’s, and by extension, India’s independent music scene. Even before its advent, Mumbai was a city where music, in some form, had thrived. As journalist Sidharth Bhatia chronicles in his book India Psychedelic, the now-too-homely Shanmukhananda Hall in King’s Circle was once the stage for emerging rock and roll bands. Then there were the large open grounds, such as the one owned by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority in Bandra, which played host to international icons keen to test Indian waters.
But Blue Frog was special. It allowed the city’s people and innovative, ambitious musicians to discover each other in a cavernous, warehouse-like setting that boasted of excellent acoustics. It transformed the experience of live music.
It wasn’t just independent musicians who found visibility on the Frog’s stage, but also iconic Indian and international acts such as Zakir Hussain, Anoushka Shankar, Richard Bona, Imogen Heap, Indus Creed, Infected Mushroom, Karsh Kale, and Soulmate. That music festivals such as the NH7 Weekender and the Enchanted Valley Carnival have become successful today can, in part, be credited to the foundation laid by Blue Frog.
Agreed Midival Punditz, the inventive electronic duo from Delhi: “I think Blue Frog became an iconic name because it created a first of its kind, and an extremely essential, platform for artists to emerge into the limelight. Whether it were established names or upcoming ones, they all got a chance to show their talent. That’s something every growing scene needs, and India needed it the most.”
When early in August Blue Frog announced its departure, there was a visible reaction. It felt tragic to bid another goodbye, not long after witnessing the closure of Rhythm House, an iconic music store at Kala Ghoda.
Sumer Vaswani, managing director of Blue Frog, explains the reason for the closure. “We had been in the Todi Mills compound for nine years – actually 10, if you count the one year it took us to build the venue – and it was time for a change. The choice was between staying here, closing and renovating the premise, and moving out. We chose the latter. Given that this area has become a lot congested, we decided to take into account a smooth customer experience while making the decision.”
It is true that after years of exclusivity, Blue Frog had to jostle for attention with newer, hipper bars such as Todi Mill Social and Hoppipolla, in the area.
Mahesh Mathai, who co-founded Blue Frog and today serves as an advisor to it, remembers the time when the Blue Frog had a distinct status. “There was only one other venue in the city back then, which was Not Just Jazz by the Bay [today, Pizza by the Bay – a non-musical pizza house]. It had a tiny stage and terrible sound, but we were there all the time because that was the only place that had live gigs. When Blue Frog began, we were the only venue – and probably still are – to have built a proper stage, and sound and acoustic treatment.”
Blue Frog was engineered – with a biggish stage and an operatic surrounding – in a manner that sound could travel across the room. A gig experience at the Frog was hassle-free. Ask the musicians, and they echo this sentiment.
Rahul Ram, who performed at Blue Frog several times with his band Indian Ocean, could not help but emphasise his love for the Blue Frog sound. “There are many live venues across the country, but almost all of them are lacking either in terms of stage size, or the audio install, or the placement of the stage vis-a-vis the bar,” Ram said. “Blue Frog Mumbai was probably one of the first if not the only venue that was actually designed to be a live venue with proper emphasis on acoustics, stage size, and a dedicated console placed perfectly so that it gives the engineer a good reference and an unobstructed view to the audience.”
Ankur Tewari of Ankur and the Ghalat Family reflects similarly. “I never saw Blue Frog just as a venue because if you remember it was also a recording studio earlier, and I had recorded several times there. It was also a music label. It was like our own exclusive club where we’d hang out with other musicians. For me, it was never just a venue. There have been great venues in the city. But they’re either great stages without amazing bars, or amazing bars without great stages. Blue Frog had both.”
But while the music was invariably great, other elements niggled. At a time when food spaces are opting for happy hour options to attract the youth, Blue Frog remained relatively steep. Sure, on a day of a promising gig, people of all ages could be found at the venue, especially if the entry fee was low or, better still, waived. However, few youngsters could be found at the tables, choosing instead to linger without a drink in their hands. (To their credit, Blue Frog never made it compulsory to purchase anything.) With venues like The Social, Bonobo and Hard Rock Cafe offering music and comparatively cheaper food, it is not a stretch to imagine what the younger crowd preferred.
Ask Sumer if this has had anything to do with Blue Frog’s fall in numbers, and he is quick to disagree. “Not at all,” he said. “So many youngsters will tell you that they would spend every second day of their college life at Blue Frog to catch some great live music. There was always free entry before 9 pm and a reasonable entry price after to accommodate as many people as possible. Additionally, there has been no pressure on anyone to consume.”
Still, he concedes that Blue Frog catered to a broader audience than any other venue in Mumbai. “Every venue has its own vibe and target,” said Sumer. “Yes, since the nature of our music encompasses a lot more genres than any other venue in the city, it is but natural that we’d have a wider audience as well; especially for genres such as jazz, blues, World music and fusion, which Blue Frog is ideal for acoustically and experientially.”
Blue Frog has promised to return, albeit in two new locations in North and South Mumbai and possibly in a new avatar. While speculation is rife about the Frog aiming for a more contemporary feel, Blue Frog gave a going-away present – three days of music by some of the most exciting musicians who have been associated with it over the years. The closing weekend saw artists like Ankur and The Ghalat Family, Bhayanak Maut, Sid Coutto, Ranjit Barot and Louiz Banks, among others. But when Blue Frog does return, will things be any different?
Ankur Tewari said, “How Prithvi Theatre is to theatre, for me, Blue Frog was to music in the city. It wasn’t just the venue. It was the kind of artists performing, the performances, the canteen and the people. So it totally depends on where they open. It’s not just a set of things that work for a club. Definitely, I would wish that they don’t do any tribute gigs.”
One may miss Blue Frog’s persistently brilliant presence on the music circuit, but trust that Sumer and the Frog will remain active despite its absence. “Blue Frog’s headed onward and upward to more exciting adventures, new venues, pop-ups, hopefully a festival on the cards, and a lot of exciting things at our Pune and Bangalore venues on the cards,” Sumer promised.