An unlikely candidate has been trying to trudge its way into the independent music scene in India, despite the fact that it lacks the three main components other cities have to offer – dedicated venues, supportive audiences and alcohol. Ahmedabad, with its culture of moral policing, lack of knowledge about independent music and conservative resistance to non-traditional live music, is struggling despite the odds, to catch up with Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore.
It is an uphill task. Consider what happened at a musical gig hosted by Sofar Sounds, an international establishment that brings live gigs to intimate venues like living rooms and studios. The company hosted its second gig at an apartment in the city. The host had sought permission from his residential society and the sound was consistently well below accepted decibel levels. Elsewhere, Sofar Sounds promotes a BYOB, or bring your own booze policy, at their musical sessions, but Gujarat being a dry state, alcohol is explicitly banned at all gigs in the state.
Halfway through the gig, officers of the Gujarat Police barged in and began to search the apartment for alcohol. They were acting on a complaint from members of the host’s residential society who suspected an obscene party where the consumption of drugs and alcohol was underway. The organisers of the event graciously invited their neighbours into their home, hoping to help them understand the nature of the gathering. The complainants appeared unwilling to listen and insisted the police conduct blood alcohol tests on all the attendees.
On closer examination, this attitude has less to do with music and more to do with an aversion to all things that are considered against Indian culture. An audience member at the gig who wished to remain unidentified said, “It looked like the members were just trying to frame us with something, even after the cops declared that there was no foul play involved. Most people in Ahmedabad think that indie music gigs corrupt the culture of city.”
But despite the many roadblocks, a group of people are determined to carve a prominent name for Ahmedabad in the music fraternity. Primary among them is Meet Bhatt of Fangirl Live, an exclusive indie music festival in Gujarat. Branched out from Fangirl, a popular newsletter that talks about indie bands in India, Fangirl Live aims to create a thriving indie music scene in Gujarat. It organised the Garma Garam House Concerts as a part of its series of live indie gigs in Gujarat and primarily, in Ahmedabad.
A lack of dedicated venues notwithstanding, Fangirl Live has been turning challenges into opportunities to display spatial creativity. A Garma Garam House Concert featuring Tajdar Junaid was held at a golf club in Ahmedabad.
For Mumbai-based dream-pop-rock outfit Lawntuba’s gig in Ahmedabad, Fangirl Live turned the car accessories showroom, XS Overland, into a temporary concert venue. “We’ve never played in a venue like that before,” said Siddhant Vernekar, Lawntuba’s vocalist and guitarist. “Fangirl Live had redecorated the whole place. It was quite a unique experience.”
Bhatt and his team are also working on opening an exclusive indie music venue in the city to ensure more live concerts.
Finding the right audience, on the other hand, is harder. Unlike Mumbai, Ahmedabad does not enjoy a loyal fan base of those who listen to and support independent music. “This city is used to overpriced venues playing cover music most of the time,” Bhatt said. “There’s a lack of education about independent music and an even more unreceptive audience.”
Uddipan Sarmah, the Ahmedabad-based frontman of the post-rock band AsWeKeepSearching, added, “Audiences in Ahmedabad talk about different types of music, but hardly make the effort to develop taste. They don’t explore the palette of music available to them, let alone support an entire community.”
Audiences that enjoy traditional music in Gujarat are not used to the informal atmosphere of large-scale indie gigs. When Prateek Kuhad opened for musicians Salim-Sulaiman in Gandhinagar, there were differently priced sections at the concert. Therein lies the advantage of hosting independent music gigs: since most indie concerts are uniformly priced, they remove class barriers.
The dominant section of the audience at any given independent music concert in Ahmedabad appears to belong to the abundance of colleges and educational institutions in the city. But since most of these students move out of the city after graduation, they do not form a returning audience or fan-base. Pricey tickets might also be hard to afford for students. According to Bhatt, in the absence of a cultural fraternity, if organisers host free gigs, only 30% of the RSVPs result in footfall – the indie music scene in Ahmedabad runs in a vicious circle.
But people like Bhatt and Sarmah are trying to break this circle by spreading the word about independent music and organising concerts regularly. Sarmah also runs BlueTree, a record label in Ahmedabad. “I’ll be more than happy to record independent artists at my studio,” he said, displaying his own commitment to the cause. “I’m doing a lot of commercial music but ideally I’d like to work with as many indie musicians as possible. There’s a lot of talent in Ahmedabad but they’re stuck to the same type of music.”
While alcohol is not a prerequisite for listening to music, it adds a welcoming vibe to concerts in most cities and indie musicians are best discovered live at concerts, instead of in the privacy of one’s headphones. Gujarat’s no-alcohol rule prevents artists from attracting walk-in crowds who just want to enjoy some good music with their drink.
Not all is lost though – Tushaar Katewa, a post-graduate student from Mumbai, who is studying at MICA in Ahmedabad, said he had prepared himself for two years without any live gigs when he changed cities. “I’m surprised to see fairly regular indie gigs in the city for the past year,” he said. “There are regular faces in the audience nowadays, which is the first step to creating a community. There’s a small crowd of enthusiastic listeners who go to gigs here and would like to see more indie acts live.”