“Hey man, wanna do a collective?”

One fine day in April 2017, Sparkle & Fade sent a WhatsApp message to Cowboy and Sailor Man with an innocuous query. Thus was born Jwala, an electronic music collective comprising six young producers and composers.

Jwala releases oddball, offbeat electronic music online on audio distribution platforms like Soundcloud and Bandcamp in the form of musical compilations. This is music one is unlikely to hear at a club – it’s best described as “underground alternative” – an alternative to the non-mainstream electronic dance music one drunk-dances to at underground parties (which itself is an alternative to Bollywood music in India).

Given the leaps in technology and piracy, there has been a burst of bedroom producers in India in recent years – young musicians writing music on their laptops, using synths and Musical Instrument Digital Interface controllers at home. A lot of the music they make doesn’t translate into a traditional “gig” atmosphere, where the chatter and the food-and-beverage-sale machinations of the hospitality industry take precedence.

The primary idea behind Jwala was to create an umbrella under which artists playing obscure underground music could share their work. In this, Jwala takes inspiration from REProduce – another community-driven initiative started by Delhi-based writer and filmmaker Rana Ghose and Mumbai-based journalist Bhanuj Kappal. REProduce’s Listening Room gigs curate listening sessions for artists playing experimental music at unconventional venues like art galleries. Jwala primarily releases music online.

Logistics of making art

Karan Kanchan. Image credit: Rebirth Studio

“I think something like Jwala was supposed to happen at some point or the other,” said Palash Kothari, 20, who writes and performs pastoral, prismatic ambient music independently as the artist Sparkle & Fade, and works with Jwala.

Kothari said the members of Jwala had been toying with the idea of a collective for a few years, until finally a gig at the Mumbai Assembly served as the catalyst for their formation in April. Along with Kothari, Jwala includes Apurv Agrawal (Cowboy and Sailor Man) who works as a sound engineer and producer, Ayush Jajoria, Brij Dalvi (who writes as both Three Oscillators and zzz), Nikunj Patel (Moebius), Karan Kanchan and 16-year-old Veer Kowli (also known as chrms), who is still in school.

Veer Kowli, also known as Chrms. Image credit: RC photography

The group has divided up the work that goes into running a collective: Agrawal does the administrative work – handling the group’s Soundcloud and Bandcamp pages. Kothari, who loves silly internet memes the most, helps with marketing and social media content. Patel creates all the artwork and designed the group’s logo, Jajoria does the mastering on the final edits.

Given that each person in the six member-collective is engaged in their own “sonic experiments”, the group displays a reluctance to craft themed compilations. Instead, the direction of their albums take shape after the songs have been decided. The two they’ve released are called Where There’s Smoke and Flame Of The Forest.

The idea of bringing together individuals with similar musical tastes takes on greater relevance at a time when the internet is a cruel and crowded place for artists. For music-lovers confused by the vast selection available online, a collective of like-minded artists or musical taste-curators helps streamline the process of discovery. It also has offline results: Jwala has been roped in to curate the electronic music stage at the annual music festival New Wave, in Mumbai later this year.

“We felt there weren’t enough people who actually released music, at least in the underground space,” said Agrawal, explaining why Jwala plans to release one compilation a month. “We wanted to bring more experimental artists to the foreground.”

Bedroom talent

But while the members of Jwala are all bedroom producers, they don’t have a lot in common musically. Their sounds jump from sprawling ambient experiments to chill-wave to nostalgic, sample-heavy beats.

Agrawal, for instance, describes his music as “normal songwriting with electronic instruments” while the others are “more into computer-based music.”

Ayush Jajoria.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a community around the music, not the ‘party, drugs, no-one-under-21-allowed, no stag entry’ scene,” said Kothari, “There’s lots of talent that doesn’t get mainstream appreciation. They can’t sell out the booze at a venue [so no one ever gets to hear of them].”

The underground scene is full of cautionary tales like this: collectives are a natural result of off-centre musical scenes that don’t quite get mainstream attention. They also tend to fizzle out because finances don’t really favour collectives like Jwala. For now, the only money they’re making is through sales of their compilations on Bandcamp and whatever comes in through gigs.

Ultimately, its members don’t see Jwala as a full-time job. Agrawal said he knows all of them will make music for the foreseeable future – so Jwala is an added motivation to make even more music, not the primary one. The minimal costs that go into producing and releasing electronic music as a bedroom producer make it more sustainable, as does the fact that several of the members are still in college (or school) – and are unburdened by the pressures of making a living as a musician.

Brij Dalvi or zzz, in a self-portrait.

According to Kothari, a lot of his own friends, who would head to a club each weekend and indulge in the dark arts of partying, are now looking for musical alternatives. The slow-burning nature of Jwala’s specific strain of underground music is avant-garde in nature – its present audience consists of friends, fellow musicians, and “in-the-know” crowds.

“Some people just listen to music for the sake of listening, not to explore,” he added. “That’s fair, I think.”

Since it was formed, the collective has received many queries and submissions, a development that both Agrawal and Kothari are pleasantly surprised by. Eventually, there might be a full-length release featuring the members of Jwala writing music together as a band, but for now, they’re content with being, as Kothari puts it, a “tiny little platform” for artists.