If you are within a certain age bracket, then you probably recall your first encounter with the Roja soundtrack. I most certainly do. It was sometime in early 1993 when Surabhi, a hugely popular weekly cultural magazine show on Doordarshan, did a segment on a young music composer from Madras who had just been conferred with the National Award.
The composer’s name may or may not have registered, but his songs, even those 30-second clips, sure did. Those, of course, were pre-internet days and I had absolutely no idea how to get hold of a Tamil album in Shillong. Luckily, the film was soon dubbed in Hindi, par for the course today, a rarity then. The morning after Chhoti Si Aasha played on good old Chitrahaar, I went out and bought the cassette.
Roja just sounded so fresh, Atul Churamani said, summing up the feelings of a whole generation. Then in his twenties, Churamani was a manager with Magnasound, an up-and-coming music company that brought out the Hindi version of the soundtrack. They were shown the film in Tamil, without subtitles, he recalled. “When we heard the music, there was just no way we could say no.”
The folks at Magnasound were familiar with AR Rahman. One of the first pop albums brought out by the label was Set Me Free, featuring singer Shubhaa (now known as Malgudi Subha). All the eight songs in this 1989 album had been composed, arranged and programmed by Rahman, who called himself Dileep then. Set Me Free had sold barely 300 copies. The sales of Roja, let’s just say, more than made up for that disappointment. The album “exploded”, is how Churamani put it. (Riding on Rahman’s new-found fame, the company repackaged Set Me Free and re-released it – and reaped the rewards.)
Significantly, despite the back-to-back successes of Roja, Pudhiya Mugam and Thiruda Thiruda, Magnasound never quite saw itself as a film music company. “What Shashi [Gopal, the company’s co-founder and CEO] kept drumming into us was that film music was basically a trading business,” Churamani explained. The film producer – who contracted the composer, the lyricist and the singers in the first place – approached the music company only after the songs had been recorded. The label had no say in the whole process.
When Magnasound launched operations – it had taken Gopal and his partners almost three years to cut through all the red tape and get the various ministerial clearances – it was the exclusive licensee of Warner Music’s catalogue in India. This placed the fledgling label on a sound footing. But the experienced Gopal, a Hindu College alumnus who had earlier headed the international music division at HMV India and led CBS India, did not want to bank his company’s future on a term license. Magnasound needed to build its own catalogue – and identity.
As North India manager, one of Churamani’s early signings was an employee of the government-owned Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking, Harjeet Singh Sehgal. A qualified electrical engineer with a penchant for Kishore Kumar songs, the Lucknow boy’s debut album with Magnasound, Dilruba (1990), did reasonably well (8,000 copies). Alibaba (1991) fared even better, selling around 20,000 copies.
But nothing quite prepared the artiste or his manager for the response to the next release. “From Bombay to Bhatinda they are singing the same tune,’ exclaimed Namita Bhandare in Sunday magazine in June 1992, three months after the release of Thanda Thanda Pani. “Baba Sehgal, Hindi’s first rap singer, is all set to receive a gold disc for having sold as many as 30,000 copies. And the sales show no signs of slowing down.” But, as is usually the case, sales did slow down. And then the heavens intervened.
MTV had launched in the US on August 01, 1981, with, appropriately enough, the Buggles’s Video Killed the Radio Star. It arrived in India exactly a decade later when the Hong Kong-based STAR TV, moving swiftly to capitalise on CNN’s sudden popularity during the Gulf War, began beaming five 24-hour channels to 38 countries via the AsiaSat-1 satellite. This singular development coincided with Finance Minister Manmohan Singh’s historic budget speech, which kickstarted economic reforms in the country. Drip-fed on Doordarshan’s slim pickings for years, the Indian public lapped up the buffet STAR TV laid out in front of them.
“[The] new satellite technology has broken through the state’s grip on the living room,” remarked the New York Times. Speaking to the same paper, IK Gujral, a former foreign minister and a future PM, said, “A new challenge is on us. I am not sure of those who feel that shutting out the world is the way. There’s no going back.”
For Shashi Gopal and his team, MTV represented a massive opportunity. Maganasound was quick off the blocks with a music video for Jasmine Bharucha’s Alone Now. But would MTV be open to Hindi pop music? Almost shocked by the channel’s popularity in India and eager to expand its reach, MTV officials proved readily amenable to the suggestion. Not surprisingly, Magnasound wanted to set the ball rolling with their biggest hit. MTV loved Thanda Thanda Paani, maintained Churamani, but there was a problem. The song was a copy of Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby and the channel’s reps did not want to go down that route. So he played them another song from the same album, Dil Dhadke. The rest is Indipop history.
The Dil Dhadke video, directed by Ken Ghosh and featuring Pooja Bedi, who had recently been in the news for a controversial ad for KamaSutra condoms, grabbed eyeballs and album sales rocketed. The month the video launched, 92,000 copies of Thanda Thanda Paani were sold. By the end of 1992, it had sold an extraordinary 7.5 lakh units, Churamani recounted.
The songs of Thanda Thanda Paani haven’t aged well. But the album’s impact cannot be overstated. In a 1989 interview to Upbeat magazine, pop singer Parvati Khan had lamented the lack of a “music industry” in India. “What we have here is a film music industry,” she was quoted as saying.
She had a point there. MTV’s decision to air Hindi-language videos and the astonishing success of Thanda Thanda Paani created a firm base for a viable pop music industry. At the height of the boom of the 1990s, Churamani said, Indipop accounted for almost seven per cent of the music industry’s revenues. Admittedly, the whole thing was short-lived, the entire edifice collapsing in the digital apocalypse at the turn of the millennium, but the vibrant indie music scene in the country today, no longer in thrall of film music, can be traced to that period.
Meanwhile, as Manmohan Singh went about dismantling the dreaded License Raj, as a dismantling of another sort was being plotted, as every southern producer worth his salt (and some from Bombay, too) began courting AR Rahman, and as Baba Sehgal moved from his PG accommodation to new digs following his sudden stardom, the Bongs had found their bard.
In 1989, the same year that CNN started beaming into South Asia, and the year that Magnasound was founded, a discontented, 40-year-old broadcast journalist named Suman Chatterjee had returned from Berlin to Calcutta to make one last effort to fashion a music career. Massively influenced by the likes of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and the East German Wolf Biermann, the much-travelled Suman had, over the years, diligently honed the various elements of his art. It all came together in Tomake Chai (Want You), released by HMV in 1992. Rooted in the urban experience, the songs of Tomake Chai, created a sensation. “The freshness of [Suman’s] lyrics, their poetic beauty, economy and, in cases, biting satire, coupled with the syncretic quality of his music, assembling traits from all over the world, have made for a new kind of song,” wrote Sudipto Chatterjee, a US-based academic who later made a documentary on the performer.
Following the unprecedented success of Tomake Chai, there was a wave of Bangla songwriter-singers and bands who wanted to have their say. And what is a wave without a name – these songs came to be clubbed, for better or for worse, under the moniker “Jibonmukhi gaan” (life-oriented songs). Among those who rode the J-wave was Gautam Chatterjee. Which is ironic, given that the multi-faceted Chatterjee had been the frontman of a pioneering Bangla band named Mohiner Ghoraguli (Mohin’s Horses). A forerunner of Suman – and Jibonmukhi gaan – in more ways than one, the band, formed in the late 1970s, had had a brief and luckless existence before disbanding some years later. In Suman’s wake, Mohiner Ghoraguli’s idiosyncratic brand of music, rejected by audiences not long ago, suddenly had its takers.
The musicologist Ashok Ranade has described a song as a package of life experience, a test of crossed boundaries and a touchstone of cultural dynamism. When a song changes, he argues, “the entire context can be assumed to have undergone a transformation”. 1992 was the year the song changed.