Indian melodies on global tour

Indian melodies on global tour

New Indian music stars set a novel rhythm on the global stage, reshaping listening choices by offering a new contemporary yet indigenous experience

India is on a world tour. In diplomacy, business, cuisine, films and music, it has hit the sweet spot of this century. Especially Indian music. With collaborations and cool, regional singers and composers are slaying the global stage. Its soundtrack controlled by disciplines, directors and divas has a new score at the core: the New India Melody.

Ace director Imtiaz Ali and superstar Diljit Dosanjh are reviving a tragic ghost singer, Dosanjh and British pop paladin Ed Sheeran are shaking up the stage with Punjabi lines, Oscar-level techno music and AI tunes are crystallising into a gig, and veterans are warbling themselves up to the next level to become born-again G.O.A.Ts.

From where Ravi Shankar and George Harrison left off, Dosanjh and OAFF have taken desi music to a vertigo level where indie and ingenuity, solo and collaboration, technology and tradition have put Band India on the stage to the applause of a million fans. At the centre of this movement, and sometimes even as its engine, is cinema; Hollywood, Bollywood or Tollywood. Jab film director Ali Met Dosanjh, he found the baby-faced Sikh sensation the right fit for Amar Singh Chamkila aka ‘Elvis Presley of Punjab’. In 1988, Chamkila and his wife were gunned down by Khalistan terrorists who thought his songs were obscene. In giving Chamkila a second lease of life through Dosanjh, Ali has made his point about the immortality of music: Chamkila is trending worldwide.

It is also a big hurrah for the fandom of Dosanjh, who has made a routine of crossing benchmarks he sets for himself. After performing a duet at Ed Sheeran’s ‘Mathematics Tour’ in Mumbai, he stormed the stage, roaring ‘Punjabi aa gaye Coachella ve’, signalling that not just Punjabi, but brown music is gold on the global stage; Coachella is one of the world’s largest music festivals. Dosanjh’s net worth is reportedly Rs 172 crore; he charges about Rs 7 crore for private shows—his biggest take was Rs 70 crore for the Ambani-Merchant wedding reception. The current value of the Punjabi music industry is around Rs 700 crore, with an annual growth of 10 per cent. There are more than 400 Punjabi music labels, which release 15 to 20 songs daily.

In April 2023, Dosanjh became the first Punjabi artiste to be followed by Instagram. He also became the first turbaned artist to feature at Times Square, with a wax statue at Madame Tussauds to boot. He seems to glide through two worlds seamlessly, carrying his laidback appeal to stage, but without feeling the need to water down his Punjabi-Sikh identity. “It’s what brought him his fame, and he is unapologetic about this identity,” says Sharmi Nagpal, a 36-year-old researcher from Pune, currently based out of Canada.

Before Dosanjh, there was another Punjabi boy who dominated the headphones of Indian music aficionados—Canada-based rapper and singer AP Dhillon, who connected with them with his song Brown Munde, celebrating Punjabi pride. During his performance at this year’s Coachella, the singer paid tribute to slain Punjabi singer Sidhu Moose Wala.

The newest Punjabi kid on the block is Dhillon’s homie from Canada, Shubh, who currently has 12.6 million monthly listeners on Spotify, surpassing Dhillon’s 10.8 million, and not far behind Dosanjh who has a listener base of 18.2 million. The 26-year-old debuted with the single We Rollin in 2021, and followed it up with the blockbuster Still Rollin two years later which ranked third on Billboard India Songs.

Data agency Statista estimates the value of the total Indian music industry at around Rs 2,400 crore at the end of 2023, estimated to reach Rs 3,700 crore by the end of 2026, with an overall annual growth of 14.7 per cent. In a global music survey in 2022, it was found that around 49 per cent of Indian respondents primarily chose Bollywood music: half of the music streaming genres were Bollywood numbers. Indian rap and hip-hop were being frequently streamed by 30 per cent of the respondents, attesting to its growing draw. Indian music is Hundo P marking its territory on the highly competitive, billion-dollar world pop stage.

Chilling Them Softly

It shows. Barack Obama’s playlist has indie musician-songwriter Prateek Kuhad’s Hindi and English tracks. Kuhad, who has been making and singing songs since 2013, shot to fame in 2016 with his single Dil Beparwah, which was followed by his 2019 album Cold/Mess. Part of the reason was that the video starred the newly discovered salt-and-pepper-haired Jim Sarbh, but more than that it was how Kuhad’s words touched a chord with listeners. He gave voice to the feelings of the overwhelmed, confused Indian youth that often went unexpressed. And it’s worked. Kuhad has 3.3 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

If unexpressed emotions were Kuhad’s weapon of choice, collective memory is Anuv Jain’s. The 29-year-old singer and composer, who has 8.8 million monthly listeners on Spotify, was on the Forbes 30 under 30 young achievers list last year. He wrote his first song, Baarishein, at the age of 16, but the tune that made his career crescendo was Husn, released last year. The song went viral, and continues to frequent FM radio playlists.

This year, Zakir Hussain- and Shankar Mahadevan-led fusion band Shakti bagged a Grammy for This Moment; their first in 46 years since their last act together. This coming of age cannot be attributed to one moment alone. It is the finale of a score written in the 1950s, when Shankar blazed through the West, met American-British violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin; in 1967 their partnership won Shankar (and India) the first of his four Grammys. Two years before that, legendary jazz player John Coltrane had become fanboy enough to name his son after the sitarist.

Sitar virtuoso Niladri Kumar, son of sitarist Kartick Kumar who had trained under Shankar, recalls his father’s 1974 tour with Shankar and George Harrison which had acts by Blues heavyweights Billy Preston, Tom Scott and Robben Ford. Kumar recounts, “A 140-seater Airbus aircraft was remodelled exclusively for that tour. There were 40 executive seats, and ‘Om’ was painted on the aircraft’s tail. The group toured 36 American cities, with 40 Indian musicians who all got the Padma Vibhushan later.”

Heard Mentality

What’s changed? More accurately, how have the listeners changed? The decades have witnessed a shift in listenership largely propelled by technological advances, especially since the advent of TikTok and Instagram reels, as music director Kabeer Kathpalia aka OAFF points out.

Listenership is now rather ‘mood-based’, he says. “Spotify considers a song as ‘streamed’ only when it has been played for a certain number of seconds, and that’s all the time you get to hook your audience,” Kathpalia says.

However, while the internet-driven listenership has levelled the playing field for many, a lot has remained unchanged too. For instance, for Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Vidya Iyer (aka Vidya Vox), also trained in Carnatic music, her fame too was a direct consequence of the rapidly proliferating internet landscape. The 33-year-old’s career, which lies at the intersection of “Bollywood music, Indian classical music, Western pop and electronica”, took off in 2016, when her mashup of Kabira from the film Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani and Closer by The Chainsmokers sent the internet into a tizzy.

Getting ‘Real’

Indian music is confronting its AI fate too. Music producer Anshuman Sharma used artificial intelligence to recreate the voices of the long-gone Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar rendering a modern song. A reel of Lutt putt gaya sung by Aditya Kaleem in the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Dunki was posted by Sharma on Instagram in Rafi’s voice. The viral video, whose real star is AI, got over 2.28 lakh shares, and won accolades from Sonu Nigam.

AI’s technological tectonics intrigues Tajdar Junaid, 42-year-old multi-instrumentalist and composer. He scored the music for the Oscar-bound film Writing with Fire (2021), and composed Main ki pyaar vichon khatteya for Coke Studio Bharat in 2023. He now wishes to test the AI waters to figure out how tech and social media power can help musicians instead of ending their careers. He is neither dismissive of AI nor threatened by it. At least not yet. “Though AI has been around for a long time, the noise around it is happening only now.

We have highly automated recording software which takes a lot of decisions on its own if you feed it the correct prompts to generate sounds you want from certain instruments,” he explains. Junaid points at writers in America loudly protesting that AI will take their jobs. They are adapting to face the threat of AI democratising music. For example, Canadian pop star Grimes allows cloning of her voice; anyone can use and create music with her vocal chords via her own AI platform, Elf. Tech, for a fee.

Accidental or incidental stars are appearing in the raga firmament every day. Digital duo Rupinder Nanda and Kedar Santwani aka Tech Panda and Kenzani hit a high note in February 2023, after Priyanka Chopra Jonas added their chart-topper song Dilbar to a home video reel. In the following month, Norwegian dance crew Quick Style added a brief choreography to the song a few days before their maiden India visit. Overnight, Dilbar attained global domination; its views on YouTube touched a mammoth 4.3 million; and counting. Dilbar, a catchy earworm that mashes Punjabi folk strains with pulsating, foot-tapping beats is a testament to the pair’s spirit; they met through a common friend and began to vibe together in 2018.

Starting out as a DJ who grew up on a diet of classical, folk, jazz and electronic music, Nanda is at the forefront of the folktronica revolution. “The shift towards sounds from the subcontinent happened right in front of our eyes and almost suddenly. Artistes are getting braver and releasing music that surpasses language and cultural frontiers,” he says. They recreated the Grammy-nominated track Sunflower, which swung them to music’s ozone layer officially after it featured in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

Also revelling in the electronic dance music (EDM) space are pop musician, DJ and record producer Ritviz, and Indian origin American rapper and singer Raja Kumari. Ritviz’s claim to fame was the 2017 song Udd Gaye. He has had several hits since, including Sage, Raahi and Liggi, all of which fuse hip-hop and electronica with traditional Indian tunes. A Kuchipudi, Kathak and Bharatanatyam, Kumari too stayed true to her roots. She combined hip-hop with elements of quintessentially Indian music through frequent collaborations with Indian composers and musicians. Her latest song was the title track for the SRK-starrer Jawan.

Techno music and other electronic music sub-genres like acid, indus, microhouse or minimal have their rhythmic structure that makes every next loop of a set predictable, allowing a diverse group of listeners and audiences gathered in a physical space—like dance clubs and concerts—to synchronise their movements to its beats. Unsurprisingly, their biggest takers are the millennials and Gen Zs. “It’s about people wanting to switch off and escape into a sonic overdrive,” says Nisho (name changed), a 24-year-old DJ from Delhi.

Reels are on wheels; music director OAFF got his first big break in 2022 in the Deepika Padukone-starrer Gehraiyaan. The song Doobey currently has 96 million views on YouTube, and ranked 21st on the Spotify Wrapped 2022 list. Music director Ram Sampath, on the other hand, has barely ever ridden the crest of any trend. He discloses, “Our song, Sajni from Laapataa Ladies is a hit. The entire soundtrack has worked without following rules.” He underlines the fact that while internationally or in India “styles like synthwave, nu-disco, tropical, reggaeton” come and go, the focus must be “on great songwriting”.

Talking about rebirth is to talk about indie music. Composer Alokananda Dasgupta is fine with it. “It’s not looked down upon as ‘oh it’s just indie music’ anymore. It’s interesting music that can be used as original soundtrack, a single or released exclusively on social media. Indie fills the gap film and non-film music cannot.” According to her, the reason why this gap can’t, or hasn’t been successfully filled by film or non-film (or pop numbers like the ones sung and produced by Badshah) music is because “an indie album can be compiled as the soundtrack”.

This decade, in the fields of the arts, economics and politics belongs to South India. The global success of RRR owes its shine to its pan-India appeal more than its Telugu provenance; the collective gaze is slowly, but definitely shifting south of the Vindhyas. Carnatic music reinvented is the new opium of the musical masses. Take percussionist Varun Sunil who founded the indie-pop/folk band Masala Coffee in 2014 with an eight-member band drawn mostly from Kerala and Tamil Nadu; most of them have formal training in Carnatic music.

A new member is the vocalist—Razik Mujawar—who joined the band in October 2023 along with fellow vocalist Abhijith Anilkumar, who is trained in Carnatic. They are from the school of pop, and can belt out snappy numbers in Hindi and other North Indian languages with zip. The veteran group, however, had flagged the trend in 2002; its YouTube video of Snehithane, grabbed 53 million views. It was the cover song of Mani Ratnam’s Tamil film Alaipayuthey, composed by AR Rahman. The original video has 47 million views, while the Hindi remake Saathiya got 25 million. “Between two vocalists, we can now cover the entire country,” Sunil laughs.

For music to be real, the audience has to be real too. Spotify and Instagram metrics don’t reveal listeners who are primarily concert-goers: an invisible but loyal community. Jaipur-based songwriter, rapper and composer Ashok Manda Bishnoi, better known by his stage name ‘Rapperiya Baalam’, is on to it. He is consolidating his community of listeners who have stuck to him loyally ever since his folk-hip-hop banger Mharo Rajasthan became the rage of 2014. “India is the biggest market for any artist. Today, we are being sought out by people from other countries. Over the last five years, I have reached an audience beyond Rajasthan because my songs appeal to the patriotic side of Indians,” Manda Bishnoi says.

India is waking up the West with its diverse tunes and tones. Baul singer and musician Parvathy Baul is setting up a Baul centre in Colorado, for which the US government has granted land. The very fact that America would lend an ear to a niche Bengali devotional music category charged with the energy of Hindu, Buddhist, Vaishnava and Sufi Islam shows that the world is the new stage for Indian singers. The proliferation of Baul music has not been structured through state patronage, unlike the classical forms. The American relationship with Baul music dates back to the ’60s, when Purna Das Baul, a veteran folk singer, forged a friendship with Nobel laureate Bob Dylan.

Dosanjh crooned in his hit number Hass Hass, “Baby you’re the Royce and I’m the wheels, baby.” The encores are not ending.

Top Trending artist & Monthly listeners

Diljit Dosanjh 18.2 million

Shubh 12.6 million

AP Dhillon 10.9 million

Anuv Jain 8.8 million

Prateek Kuhad 3.3 million

OAFF 2.6 million

Ritviz 2.3 million

Raja Kumari 1.3 million

Anubha Bajaj 823.4 k

When Chai Met Toast 308.4 k

Kenzani (left) and Tech Panda

They hit a high note in February 2023 after Priyanka Chopra Jonas added their chart-topper song Dilbar to one of her reels

When Chai Met Toast

Based in Kochi, the band is known for its happy and upbeat music. The songs are written in Hindi and English, often interspersed with Tamil and Malayalam lyrics

Raja Kumari

Despite having grown up in the US, she stayed true to her roots with frequent collaboration with Indian composers and musicians

Prateek kuhad

His 2019 song cold/mess was on former US President Barack Obama’s playlist

Diljit dosanjH He is leading the ‘making Indian music global’ movement today. During Ed Sheeran’s Mathematics Tour, he made the English singer croon Punjabi lyrics from the song Lover

Masala coffee

The indie-pop/folk band, founded in 2014, has members from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, most of who have formal training in Carnatic music

Anuv Jain

He wrote his first song at 16, but the tune that made his career crescendo was Husn, released last year. He was on the 2023 Forbes 30 under 30 young achievers list

Ritviz

He shot to fame with the 2017 song Udd gaye. He has had several hits since, all of which fuse hip-hop and electronica with traditional Indian tunes

Kabeer Kathpalia aka OAFF

His music can be best described as a blend of mainstream Bollywood and pop. He got his big break in 2022 with Gehraiyaan

Shubh

He is the newest Punjabi kid on the block who has managed to create waves with his blockbuster of a debut album, Still Rollin, which ranked third on Billboard India Songs

Rapperiya Baalam

The Jaipur-based singer’s Mharo Rajasthan, is going beyond Instagram and Spotify, to tap into the niche concert-going crowd

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The New Indian Express
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