In november 2015, of the 60,000 people who had gathered at London’s Wembley Stadium to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally-cum-reception, many didn’t recognise the singer dressed in an ivory lehenga, who came on stage just ahead of the PM’s address. But they soon did. As composer Biddu’s popular synth prelude began playing and the artiste began to croon, the crowd erupted in loud cheer and chants of “Ek dil chahiye that’s made in India”. It was then that Alisha Chinai, pop icon of the Nineties, knew that she was far from forgotten. “That song has been my identity for a really long time.
All I need to do is sing ‘Made in India’ and people follow,” says the singer, with a laugh over a telephone conversation from her south Mumbai apartment. Chinai, among the earliest of Indipop stars in the country, burst on to the scene in 1995, on the back of her successful playback stint in Bollywood — Kate nahi kat te for Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India — with a music video that featured supermodel Milind Soman. Made in India married western beats to Indian sounds, creating a fusion that was both different and catchy. Chinai would be dubbed the Indian Madonna and go on to spawn a generation of pop artistes who aspired to make music differently. “People still listened to international stars such as Michael Jackson, Backstreet Boys and Aqua, but now, there were a bunch of musicians singing of our experiences in Hindi and that appealed to people,” says musician Leslie Lewis, 58, who had composed many pop songs of the time.
The Nineties were an interesting time to be a musician in India. After liberalisation, the scope of private and foreign investments scaled up, paving the way for the entry of foreign broadcasters such as MTV and Channel V in the country. These gave people a taste of contemporary music from across the world, from a range of artists such as Madonna, Whigfield and bands like Shakespears Sister and Michael Learns to Rock. There was an explosion of choices and a talented bunch of artistes grasped it with both hands. Suneeta Rao, known for her song Pari Hoon Main (1991), says, “We all knocked on the doors of music producers, but we wanted to do more than just playback music. Bollywood didn’t have space for people who thought clearly and boldly and wanted to do something different. That industry only wanted a certain kind of voice, a particular pitch. It was either for a heroine or a vamp, nothing in between,” says Mumbai-based Rao, who now does live shows and writes music.
The Nineties were also a time to experiment. There was Shweta Shetty dressed in a man’s suit, singing about Johnny Joker, her red lipstick as unmistakable as her deep, husky voice, in a Ken Ghosh video. Daler Mehendi gave bhangra a twist and got his audience to go Tara rara with him. While Jasbir Jassi, a young wedding singer from a pind in Punjab, sang of being thrilled about his heart being stolen by a girl from Gujarat (Dil le gayi kudi), Bally Sagoo was adding slick beats to Malkit Singh’s Aaja nach le and Gud naal ishq mittha, a song that still brings back memories of the Malaika Arora and Jas Arora video. If Colonial Cousins, comprising Hariharan and Lewis, were introducing pop to us with a touch of the classical, Shubha Mudgal’s Ab ke saawan was taking classical music to the masses. Falguni Pathak found success with Yaad piya ki aane lagi, a folk-based pop album, and, would go on to become a staple at dandiyas, while Anamika Grover turned an RD Burman ditty, Kahin karta hoga, into bubblegum pop. If Mehnaz aspired to be a beauty queen in Banoongi main Miss India, the Aryans sang of teenage love with songs such as Aankhon mein tera hi chehra.
The foundation of this success, however, was laid a decade ago — when the Pakistani brother-sister duo Nazia and Zoheb Hassan became the toast of South Asia with Disco Deewane (1981). “Disco Deewane sold 100,000 records within a day of its release in Mumbai. Without any internet, without the kind of marketing systems that exist today, it was a paradigm shift for the music industry. People were interested in music that was hip and their own pop by virtue of being in their own language,” says Zoheb in a conversation from London, where he settled down after the death of his sister in 2000.
This new sound was also markedly different from what Bollywood was producing at the time. Apart from AR Rahman (Roja, Dil Se) and a few soundtracks from Jatin-Lalit (Lamhe, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge), Bollywood, says British-Indian music producer Bally Sagoo, “was producing really mediocre stuff and that’s why there was such a spurt in interesting non-film music”. Sagoo, who began making music in Birmingham after being inspired by hip hop and reggae, was among the earliest to cash in on the trend. Merging Western beats with Punjabi folk, he came up with upbeat numbers that have become staple at clubs and wedding parties. “For the first time, people realised that you could have a music video and it didn’t have to be attached to a film. That awareness, and consequently, the investments in music videos and the presentation of the artistes that followed changed how one perceived singers. They became performers,” says Sagoo, 53, who is remembered for a reworked version of Asha Bhosle’s Chura liya hai (1996),the Punjabi pop hit Aaja nach le (1998) and for his remix of Lata Mangeshkar’s Noorie for Gurinder Chaddha’s Bend It Like Beckham (2002). His compositions and remixes were also in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Mistress of Spices (2005). Now, primarily, a music producer for the UK and US markets, Sagoo was presented the inaugural trophy for outstanding achievement by Spice Girls at UK Asian Awards, 2003.
By the mid-2000s, however, Indipop’s glory days were fading and the focus was shifting once again to Bollywood. “It was hard to keep up with Bollywood. They had the infrastructure and the resources. Once they caught on to the formula, everything and everyone eventually got absorbed by it. Those who couldn’t keep up, left and looked for alternate careers,” says 47-year-old Jasbir Jassi. Sonu Nigam, who had delivered a brilliant album like Deewana (2003) and Shaan, a Tanha Dil (2000), went on to have successful careers as playback singers. “It was necessary to adapt to Bollywood’s ways because either you toed the line or they would hire someone else to replace you,” says Jassi.
Bollywood’s ascendancy would also spell bad news for music companies such as Magnasound and Polygram that had been launch pads for so many pop artistes. The record labels had begun investing more than they could chew. “I heard that for Daler Mehendi, who was paid Rs 2 lakh for his first successful album (Bolo Ta Ra Ra, 1995) that sold almost 75 lakh copies, the amount was increased to Rs 2 crore for the next one. It ended up with approximately 50 lakh copies sold. The profits weren’t as big and the companies began to lose money,” says Jai Walia of the Aryans.
The arrival of the internet would sound an emphatic death knell for Indipop. Most music companies couldn’t keep up and went out of business. “Music labels tried to create paid content for a while for musicians who wanted to find a footing in Bollywood. Many of these artistes were musicians who had had their moment, but for music channels and record labels to survive, they needed more than that,” says yesteryear pop star Anaida of Nazuk Nazuk fame. It was only a matter of time before MTV’s content would be dominated by reality shows such as Roadies and Splitsvilla. While Channel V veered away from music, MTV India had a brief moment of rejuvenation with Coke Studio India, MTV Unplugged and MTV Indies, but it was too little too late.
The internet may have hit the industry hard, but, over time, it has also helped some artistes turn their fortunes around. Chinai after having delivered monster hits such as Kajrare from the 2007 film Bunty Aur Babli and a forgettable outing with Krishh 2 (2013), is now trying to harness the power of the social media to release a couple of songs on YouTube. “I know I’ve had my head buried in the sand, but, as an artiste, I am clear that one can’t die with the song inside. I don’t believe in numbers. I want to do quality work and perform once in a while. That way, one doesn’t get burnt out. That’s probably part of the reason that every time I come back, there is a certain amount of freshness. I’m known to be a hitmaker,” says Chinai, who says her fight for royalties in Bollywood has left her far from satisfied.
Shweta Shetty, another Magnasound artiste, worked as a playback artiste for a while before marriage took her to Germany in 1997. Shetty has spent the last decade learning the ropes of opera while travelling with English classical soprano and actor, Sarah Brightman (known for her productions Cats and Phantom of the Opera). When the two met, Brightman was married to musical theatre impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber and had collaborated with Shetty in the album Harem (2004), a combination of operatic vocals and Middle-eastern sounds. Shetty returned to India last year and unsurprisingly, played a man’s role — Shylock — in a version of The Merchant of Venice, called Reth — Songs of the Sand, directed by Satyabrata Rout. “I want to cater to an audience that does not know of my existence. This young audience is well travelled, intelligent, has access to various genres of music. I think they are ready for the opera,” says Shetty, 48.
Anaida, the half-Indian and half-Iranian singer who came under the spotlight at 15 with her teen album, Hotline, has turned chef and entertainment consultant. “I got out of pop music when the scene got a little crazy and when Bollywood and the internet began edging Indipop out. I had the first mover’s advantage and I wanted to harness my interest and expertise in food to profitable ends,” says the 37-year-old, who is the chef/partner at SodaBottleOpenerwala in Mumbai’s Powai and focuses on authentic Persian cuisine. “The digitisation of music has actually helped people like me. Some days, I write and compose five trance/dance tracks. My Swedish producers put it online the same day and likeminded people just follow it. You don’t even have to advertise,” says Anaida, who has recently completed an album on Rumi, that is being mixed in LA by Grammy-nominated producer Luigie Gonzales. Like her, Walia, too, is preparing to launch his cafe in Delhi’s Punjabi Bagh, where he will have a live music space for struggling musicians. He has also moved completely away from pop, choosing instead to cut an album of ghazals that will be released soon online.
Anamika Grover, who shot to fame with her remixes, is planning to follow in Chinai’s footsteps and release a Punjabi album titled Chak De Dhol online. “You don’t need a record company anymore as long as you create your own music and put yourself out there,” she says. The internet’s already given her a fan following in the north Indian wedding market and the NRI crowd — Grover spends a few months every year overseas, performing at NRI weddings and at Navratri celebrations, where her chartbusters Kala sha kala and Kahin karta hoga still remain the most requested numbers. Does she miss the kind of popularity she once commandeered? “I can’t say I am disillusioned. My fans are spread across the globe. I am making good money. It’s only how I work that has changed,” she says.
Tune into the popular soundscape online and among the handful of Indian “pop” videos floating around on YouTube, very few make the cut. Neha Bhasin’s work, in particular, her modern takes on Punjabi folk songs of Surinder and Prakash Kaur, however, touch a chord. “I have grown up watching Indipop. That was why I participated in a reality music competition to form the first girl band in India (Viva). Now, more than anything else, I want to be a pop icon for my personal satisfaction. They say internet killed the pop stars, now I am trying to use it to set myself up as one. It’s time to get the swagger back,” says Bhasin.