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EDM Nation: How India Stopped Worrying About the Riff and Fell in Love With the Beat

From Biddu’s disco and Charanjit Singh’s acid house to Sunburn, Supersonic and other music festivals, here’s looking at the eventful history of electronic music in India

Kenneth Lobo Dec 30, 2015
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Sunburn2_Photocredit Rudgr.com

Sunburn. Photo: Rudgr.com

Six of the world’s top 10 DJS are in India this December. Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Hardwell, Martin Garrix, Tiësto, David Guetta and Afrojack between them will tour eight Indian cities, playing three festivals [Sunburn, VH1 Supersonic and Enchanted Valley Carnival] and combined crowd attendances of 200,000 fans. That’s discounting Skrillex, ranked no 9, whose four-city tour in October attracted 20,000 concertgoers. And British trio Above & Beyond’s sold out one-off concert [no. 29] in Bengaluru the same month. Or the multi-city arena events in November featuring R3hab [no. 21], DJ Snake [no. 32] Chuckie [no. 77] on the same billing. It was great timing. Three days earlier, digital music media company Spotify named “Lean On,” the track by DJ Snake and Major Lazer [no. 54, they performed here last December] as the world’s most streamed song [526 million]. The video accompanying the track was shot – where else? – in India, or Mumbai to be precise. Of the coveted world’s Top 100 DJs list released annually by UK-based magazine DJ Mag, at least 60 have played in India over the past three years.

That’s an astonishing number, by any stretch of the imagination. But how did a country with no club infrastructure, restrictive and arbitrary state legislation against nightlife, prohibitively high taxation on alcohol, regressive politicians and few homegrown DJ superstars become infatuated with the sounds of electronic dance music [EDM]?

Think back to 2007. Close on the heels of the Big Chill festival in Goa, Sunburn was born when MTV VJ and DJ Nikhil Chinapa signed on as Festival Director to partner with Percept Company´s Shailendra Singh. Held in Goa’s Candolim Beach in December with the blessing of the Ministry of Tourism in Goa and sponsorship by Smirnoff, the festival booked DJ legends like Carl Cox, Above and Beyond and Axwell alongside Indian DJ royalty like the MIDIval Punditz, Pearl and the now disbanded Jalebee Cartel.

Deadmau5. Photo: EMI  Music

Deadmau5. Photo: EMI Music.

It was a genius move far ahead of its time. Locating the festival in the laid-back beach state, which holds a special place in the imagination for both local and international travellers as an Indian Ibiza of sorts made Sunburn aspirational and a travel destination. The festival experience along with the then reigning trance genre also catered to Indian’s love for spectacle and drama. It aligned India early on with global trends in music events. As the American music industry logged record losses in music sales across genres in the middle of the Noughties, Daft Punk performed an era-defining audio-visual set at Coachella in 2006. It forced the attention of other DJs like Deadmau5 to imitate and emulate the French duo’s visual pyrotechnics and shifted the emphasis from music to event sales.

From a modest 2,000 attendees in its inaugural year, and a second edition that almost didn’t take place due to the terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, Sunburn multiplied eleven-fold in 2009 with 22,000 festival-goers. It was perfect timing. David Guetta and the Black Eyed Peas had little clue that when they changed the sound of pop music with their smash hit ”˜I Gotta Feeling’, that phrase applied to an overhaul of the world’s music. As an increasing number of pop stars like Madonna, for instance, turned to electronic music DJs to create beats for their radio hits, American media presented DJs as the new rockstars. One of Indian EDM’s few homegrown stars Sartek describes the genre as ”˜International Bollywood’: the breakdowns, melodies, chord progressions make for a genre that even adults can get into. And Arjun Shah, his manager, who runs Shark & Inc, one of India’s few EDM management agencies, has seen his 10-year-old cousin ask for Afrojack passes. Parents today take pre-teens on EDM excursions.

The Internet also enabled Indians to swallow, digest and regurgitate this information faster than ever. Consider the numbers. In 2009, 84 million Indians connected to the Internet with 175 million smartphone owners, compared with half that number two years ago, with only one million smartphone users in 2007. This year’s figures – 300 million Internet users, 976 million mobile subscribers and 70 million smartphone owners – goes some way to explain why Indian festivals will clock over 14,00,000 visitors in 2015. It also helps that urban Indians are habitually and continuously plugged in. According to the Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology [MAIT] and Indian Market Research Bureau [IMRB] report in July this year, Facebook added 28 million new users this year alone [totalling about 130 million] and more than half of those users are under 23: posting, liking, sharing.


EDM explosion: EDM heavyweights Afrojack and Avicii.

EDM’s explosion has also coincided with the growth of the Indian middle class and one of the world’s youngest populations. According to the 2011 census, 140 million [over 38%] of India’s urban population is in the 15 to 35 age bracket, with an almost equal number between the ages of 25 and 49. Both figures are revealing. On the one hand, in a country as populous as India, even a fraction of a fanbase amounts to a whale of a ride. On the other, the middle class in India has a 22.6% share of the country’s wealth, with the higher middle-class share about 64% of it.

That’s a disposable income between Rs 200,000 to 10,00,000. If you’re in college, it means your parents, more than ever in the history of the country, have money to spare. And if you’re a salaried EDM fan, then you can also afford one of Sunburn [Rs 11,200, regular, VIP Rs 18,500], VH1 Supersonic [Rs 8,000 regular, Rs 13,000 VIP] or Enchanted Valley Carnival [6,820 regular, VIP 12,400] tickets. Or any of the year-round big-ticket headline events, which are priced between Rs 2000 Rs 6,000.

From a modest 2,000 attendees in its inaugural year, and a second edition that almost didn’t take place due to the terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, Sunburn multiplied eleven-fold in 2009 with 22,000 festival-goers.

It gives the state of EDM in India a decidedly middle-class slant. And India´s electronic music scene has followed a long and circuitous route to arrive at this explosion. Several of the country´s landmark events took place in the Eighties. One of the country’s best-kept secrets is that pioneering Dusseldorf artists Kraftwerk played two gigs in Mumbai in September 1981 as part of their ”˜Computer World’ tour. Percussionist Wolfgang Flür recounts in his autobiography I Was A Robot that the foursome found bootleg editions of Kraftwerk’s album in a cassette shop, and, undeterred by the “damned rain”, performed two well-attended shows at Shanmukhananda Hall in Matunga “observed by many turbaned Indians… and an audience comprised mostly of men…”. Among the concert-goers were Bollywood music producers and a nine-year-old Ashim Ahluwalia, who cofounded Bhavishyavani Future Soundz, India’s first electronic music collective in the Nineties [more on them later]. That Hindi film arrangers, like Kersi Lord, for instance were at the Kraftwerk gig should come as no surprise. Bollywood producers like RD Burman had begun dabbling with electronic music gear as early as 1977: “Dhanno Ki Aankhon Mein” [Kitaab], the first Hindi film song that featured flanger machine effects, which Burman picked up on a visit to America, made him the subject of much ridicule among his peers. It did little to deter him. Four years later, he composed the Kraftwerk-esque synth-pop banger, “Dil Lena Khel Hai Dildar Ka’” in Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai.

Bollywood soundtracks became a giant music lab and the best experiments were engendered by disco. Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer’s futuristic arpeggiated classic, “I Feel Love”, in particular, was a key influence. Burman fashioned his own ode to the twosome with “Pyaar Karnewale” in Shaan [1980]. While Indian-British producer Biddu [Appaiah] struck up an almost identical partnership with Pakistani teenage singing sensation Nazia Hassan. The duo had already scored a hit with “Aap Jaisa Koi” for the film Qurbaani, also in 1980. And “Disco Deewane”, their next non-Bollywood album released a year later, went on to become Asia’s bestselling pop album. In fact, their 1982 hit single “Boom Boom” had a straight rip of the Moroder bassline, accompanying Hassan’s vocals.

biddu + bappi

In stark contrast to Biddu’s subtle approach to disco, were Bappi Lahiri’s full throttle tunes, all as flamboyant as his personality.

In stark contrast to Biddu’s subtle approach to disco, were Bappi Lahiri’s full throttle tunes, all as flamboyant as his personality. Lahiri cut plenty of disco bangers throughout the Eighties – check out his hat tip to “I Feel Love” on “Ramba Ho Ho Ho” in Armaan [1981]. He continued in this vein with the Amitabh Bachchan starrer “Raat Baki” [Namak Halaal, 1982], “Disco Station” [Haathkadi, 1982], “Yaar Bina Chain Kahan Re” [Saheb, 1985] and “Zoo Zoo Zooby Zooby” [Dance, Dance, 1987] and “Jhoom Jhoom” in Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki [1984]. The latter takes place inside Studio 84, named after disco’s most famous club Studio 54 in New York in the Seventies. The apex of his achievement, however, is 1982’s “Disco Dancer”, which is a nostalgia trip not just for Indians but for kids growing up across the former Soviet Union.

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Lahiri’s experiments with synthesisers influenced one Charanjit Singh, his contemporary in Bollywood. The producer got his hands on a Roland Jupiter-8 and 303 synthesiser as well as Roland’s 808 drum machine on a trip to Singapore in 1982. On his return, he locked himself in at the HMV studios in Colaba recording an album over four days. He re-created the sounds of the flute, santoor, veena, been and shehnai on the synthesizer. And released the seminal Synthesising: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, the world’s first acid house record, a year after Detroit techno legends Cybotron put out “Alleys of Your Mind” and a full five years before Chicago artists Phuture released “Acid Tracks.”

Charanjit Singh in 1980.

Charanjit Singh in 1980.

Mumbai’s jet-set crowd took it on themselves to bring disco to the city’s dance-floors. The first time recorded music replaced live music. Members-only clubs like Studio 29 in Bombay International Hotel [now Marine Plaza], Blow Up at the Taj, Cellar at the Oberoi and RGs [Ravi Ghai’s] at Natraj Hotel [now Intercontinental] mushroomed and prospered. It’s also when the late Chait Karmakar [he died in a car accident in 2003], widely regarded as one of India’s first DJs, began playing for private shows across the city in 1981 as a 16-year-old. Two years later, Karmakar struck up a partnership with Sanjay Chhabria, almost exclusively running all the fashion shows in Bombay. Karmakar also held residencies at clubs like Cavern at Sea Rock Hotel in Bandra and later, at Studio 29.

Meanwhile, 600 kms to the south in Goa, French DJs Laurent and Fred Disko, joined by San Francisco native Goa Gil began to throw parties with post-punk and electronic body music. The DJ’s edits for traveling and returning hippie revelers to the beach grew in number each year. The music began to include trippy psychedelic mandalas and ethereal ethnic samples [like flutes, sitars, percussive instruments] woven in with dark, sinister vocal exhortations. It was built on the industrial, new beat and high-energy music Germany enjoyed before techno. It was named Goa trance. But the genre really took off after restrictions preventing Israelis from entering India were lifted in 1988. It created a diaspora of backpackers who reveled in an open-air dance scene. The gigs included plenty of hash, psychedelic drugs and fluorescent cultural artefacts.

In the early Nineties, Goa trance took off in Bombay. DJs like Ranjeev Mulchandani were part of an original party crew that hired film studios and bungalows in Madh island in Malad for gigs. Between ’92-’94, they made flyers with neatly designed names like Stark Raving Madness, Da Funktion and Jagged Edge, in the fledgling days of DTP. The Goa trance cast also featured Asad Zaidi and DJ Whosane! [Hussain Babai]. Without any venues to gig in, Zaidi started out in the ’90s throwing outdoor parties for friends in Worli. In ’94, he set up Club Paradiso in Goa. Until 2000 when it shuttered, almost every international psy trance artist of repute, from Goa Gill to Infected Mushroom DJed there before making the big time. In Mumbai, Zaidi’s sound business and DJ collective, Audio File, set up with friend and business partner Babai, was as successful. Besides gigs at venues like Sheetal Again, Go Bananas and Wild Orchid, they organised various private parties, which ensured both DJs have a loyal fan following even today.


Karsh Kale with MIDIval Punditz.

Over in the capital, musicians Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj, friends since primary school, set up the MIDIval Punditz in 1996. And two years later, they organised the first Cyber Mehfil, at a tiny venue called Scribbles in South Extension, where they DJed drum & bass, breaks and big beat, genres that had no room to breathe in Delhi. The duo also connected with Talvin Singh, a second generation British Asian producer and tabla player. Singh had been organising his own club nights called Anokha since 1995, at East London’s Blue Note club, with promoter Sweety Kapoor. The punk-meets-tabla ethic of these parties, with a clutch of wildly talented producers like State of Bengal [Sam Zaman], Karsh Kale and Osmani Soundz [Shohid Jolil], was hailed by the media as the Asian Underground. And Singh’s 1997 compilation, Anokha [Sounds of the Asian Underground] took these beats to Indians across the globe.

Two years later, Singh won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize for his album OK. And he invited the MIDIval Punditz to London for an Anokha night at Fabric, one of the world’s premier nightclubs. Raina and Raj also met up other musicians and DJs there, including Karsh Kale, who became their friend and long-term collaborator. The Punditz took this sound back to India and along with their Cyber Mehfil parties in Delhi, Razzberry Rhinoceros in Mumbai, one of the largest clubs in the suburbs in the Nineties, hosted a slew of Asian Underground artists.

Similarly inspired by the British wave of underground music, five friends set up Bhavishyavani Future Soundz in Mumbai. Ashim Ahluwalia [who had spent some time in America and was at the Kraftwerk concert in ’81], his cousin Jatin Vidyarthi [returning from Australia] and Mukul Deora, who was fresh off the boat from an education in London, along with their friends Tejas Mangeshkar and Kurnal Rawat. They shared similar music tastes and organised parties at some of the city’s dodgiest venues, striking deals with the owners to get rid of their regular clientele for one-off gigs. Bhavishyavani’s legendary debauched nights are still the stuff of legend, their gigs accompanied by iconic artwork and flyers, including an ever present, fortune-telling mascot of a robot.

The decade that saw the liberalization of the Indian economy also welcomed the first wave of immensely talented local DJs. They laid the foundations of the scene with their residencies at key clubs across the country. Ivan Nilkon in Bangalore at Time & Again and The Club, Rummy Sharma in Delhi at the Hyatt International’s club Oasis, Kris Correya in Mumbai at J49 [where many of the city’s DJs like Ruskin Master, Mikhail D’souza and Steve Dias cut their teeth], DJ Murthy in Hyderabad at Passport and Sparks and Sanjay Dutta in Kolkata at Taj’s Incognito and The Park’s Someplace Else, thrived inspite of the club scene being dominated by Bollywood music and Indi-pop.

But 1998 marked a turning point for DJs. That year, the first Disco Mixing Championship [DMC] to test the technical proficiency of DJs on turntables was organized in India. A year later, Times Music logged on as a co-sponsor and took it over in 2000s. They renamed the event the Times War of the DJs, rewarding the winner with recording contracts and music videos. For the first time in the history of the scene, the DJ was not simply an anonymous, lonely figure behind a console, but the centre of attention. DJing was being written about and backed by the country’s leading newspaper. It granted the DJ legitimacy and in many ways made it [however false the reality] a genuine career option for anyone willing to devote ears to it.

The year 1998 marked a turning point for DJs. That year, the first disco mixing championship was organized in India. A year later, Times music logged on as a co-sponsor and renamed the event the Times War of the DJs.

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To mirror this development, in 1999, Ketan Kadam and his business partner, DJ Vishal Shetty, set up Fire and Ice. It was Mumbai’s first super club, laying down the format that most nightspots in the city still follow. They introduced a weekly calendar with dedicated Tuesday nights for electronic music, Wednesday nights for hip hop and weekends for their famous Bollywood Chandni Bar nights. It was the first club to open in a mill space [a controversial decision that disgusted some potential clients]. Many other brands like Mikanos and Velocity tried to recreate the formula, but few were able to emulate its success.

While the world celebrated victory over the Y2K bug at the turn of the millennium, India’s electronic music scene felt burdened under the weight of its own expectation. Few other clubs across the country, took Fire n Ice’s lead to open similarly influential spaces. It proved not only that the club was ahead of its time, but also that the audience and its investors weren’t ready yet. Goa trance DJs who took the open air vibe into clubs found themselves on the wrong end of the law. Winners of the Times War of the DJs in the ”˜00s were tied down by knotty contracts and were expected to deliver remixes of popular Bollywood tracks on tight deadlines. Most DJs across the country mined Bollywood hits from the past, isolating the vocals to loop over dance tracks by artists like Erasure and 2 Unlimited. Ironically, those commercial remixes opened Mumbai’s ears to more-esoteric house music beats. Bollywood remixes were often directly lifted from international house music hits, so even clubbers unfamiliar with electronic music had, at some point, grooved to the genre´s beats. This familiarised audiences with the four-to-the-floor phenomena even while they lived happy under the illusion of ”˜Bollywood music’. When the remix industry became saturated with Bollywood composer Himesh Reshammiya’s tunes [he did 14 films in 2005, following it up with 12 more in 2006], clubbers went looking for a new sound.

Arjun Vagale (Jalebee Cartel)

Arjun Vagale (member of former Jalebee Cartel).

And when they did, there were options like never before. The Bhavishyavani Future Soundz crew resurrected in 2004 when Frenchmen Mathieu Josso [M.Mat], Charles Nuez [Char Lee] and Cyril Vincent-Michaud [Loopkin] were inducted into its ranks. The result was a Bacardi Blast with French house legend Laurent Garnier at Kamala Mills. And a renewed energy to revitalise the scene with regular gigs. In Delhi, Arjun Vagale who had been doubling up as a promoter to organise gigs at venues like No Escape and Six Month Storey, teamed up with Ash Roy, Ashwin Mani Sharma and G. Arjun to form Jalebee Cartel, India’s first live four-to-the-floor electronic music act.

By the middle of the decade, venues like Zenzi with DJ Kris Correya as a curator and Elevate in Delhi reignited the belief that spaces that were for the scene, by the scene and of the scene could survive and thrive. Multiformat venues like the revolutionary Blue Frog in Lower Parel, Grand Hyatt’s China House in Santacruz, and Dragonfly in Nariman Point all opened up in 2007, shutting their doors to Bollywood music. Similarly, forward-thinking clubs like The Living Room Cafe in Delhi, Bacchus in Bangalore, High Spirits in Pune, Roxy in Kolkata and Blend in Chennai.

Shaa'ir + Func |Photo Credit: Colston Julian

Shaa’ir and Func. Photo: Colston Julian.

Another pivotal moment for the underground scene can be traced back to 2008. The Goethe-Institut in Delhi invited Indian artists like like techno collective Jalebee Cartel, electro-pop sensation Shaa’ir & Func and Teddy Boy Kill to play in Germany. And in December 2009, over 30 influential German and European promoters, artists, label heads, venue owners congregated in Delhi for the Global Groove festival. It was the first of its kind, European- style electronic music conference in India, with the sole aim of fostering exchange and collaborations between Indian and international partners.

The same year Jalebee Cartel embarked on their ONEPOINTNOTHING tour, a landmark event in India’s clubbing history. A four-piece live electronic music act gigging in 12 cities, including tier two outposts like Cochin, supported by radio, print and TV was simply unheard of since the Times War of the DJs. The concept of underground artists touring, associating with lifestyle brands and sponsors was unimaginable. It paved the way for other artists to ride that wave of success.

But the holy trinity of the EDM scene as we know it today came together at a tiny, one-off club night in 2003 at Rock Bottom in Bombay. DJ couple Pearl and Nikhil Chinapa with their friend Hermit Sethi, set up Submerge as an alternative to what they saw as the same old music and the same tired experience. The concept of a one-off night grew into a firm, with networks in tier I and tier II cities like Indore, Jaipur and Ahmedabad, multiple events organised every month, and designated tasks for employees like artist management, brand association and licensing, and liaising with international DJs.

Coupled with the influence of Sunburn from 2007, It’s a format that allowed Chinapa, Pearl and Sethi to bring some much-needed organisation to the scene. It allowed marketing heads of alcohol companies to wise up, as they found the best route to surrogate advertising in the country by organising music festivals. And promoters like Sohail Arora [Krunk] and Dev Bhatia alongside Arjun Vagale [UnMute], Munbir and Sarah Chawla [Vital Agency] and Only Much Louder [The Syndicate] set up booking agencies to structure the way artists were presented to clubs. And the more underground genres of EDM have flourished just as wildly with festivals like Magnetic Fields, Bass Camp, Eden and Johnnie Walker – The Journey springing up across the country.

Submerge Founders DJ Pearl, Nikhil Chinapa and Hermit Sethi. Photo courtesy of Time Out Mumbai.

Submerge Founders DJ Pearl, Nikhil Chinapa and Hermit Sethi. Photo courtesy of Time Out Mumbai.

A decade after Submerge and six years after their association with Percept and Shailendra Singh, and following an acrimonious split, Chinapa tied-up with LIVE Viacom 18 to set up VH1 Supersonic in 2013. It was an alternative and competitor to Sunburn that proved that the Indian EDM scene had more than just one patron. And when Twisted Entertainment, a fresh event management company launched Enchanted Valley Carnival, a three-day festival in the plush Aamby Valley township between Mumbai and Pune, India’s EDM fans found themselves spoilt for choice.

Bollywood has been quick to follow the lead. LIVE Viacom18 also partnered Cineyug Entertainment to create the MTV Bollyland in 2013, following the same multi-city large-scale event format of EDM, pairing singers and performers with local Bollywood DJs. At this year´s edition, young Bollywood singers like Armaan Malik, Nakash Aziz and Siddharth Mahadevan [son of the renowned Shankar Mahadevan] all confessed their love for the genre and saw much room for its growth in films. It shows how much EDM’s gone full circle: from leading the charge of experimentation in the ’80s by introducing the sounds of disco to and through Bollywood to bluntly copy-pasting the EDM formula on Hindi film tunes today. And although it led to much outrage and gnashing of teeth among DJs in the scene, when DJ Mag released its 2015 list of top 100 DJs, India’s first-ever entry into that muchcriticised but commercial industry defining list, debuting at no 59, was Mumbai’s BollyEDM DJ Chetas.

India's leading EDM producer-DJs Sarket at SJC Mysore in April 2015

One of India’s leading EDM producers – DJ Sarket.

Thankfully, India won’t have to wait too much longer for a legitimate representative into the DJ Mag list. In the past six years, artists like Delhi’s Sartek [Sarthack Sardana, whose new track “Don’t Need Love” signed on to Hardwell’s Revealed Recordings this month], Goa’s Joshi [Rishabh Joshi who bagged a deal with Armin van Burren’s Armada Music label], Mumbai’s Lost Stories [Prayag Mehta and Rishabh Joshi whose single “False Promises” was signed on to Tiësto’s Black Hole Recordings], (S)haan and Anish Sood have all been doubled up as producer-DJs.

And not surprisingly, these 20-somethings have between them racked up 500,000 Facebook fans, besides opening and closing slots at multiple Sunburn arena event as well as festival slots at VH1 Supersonic. (S)haan, son of Sunburn founder Shailendra Singh, was the first Indian DJ to perform at Belgium’s Tomorrowland last year. While Lost Stories made sure that the country’s showing in Boom wasn’t a one-off with their appearance this year. Perhaps India’s EDM moment of the new millennium belongs to New Delhi-based EDM artist Nucleya, who launched his Bass Rani album this September, atop a speaker-laden truck belting out his signature Indian street sounds and pop-culture references with slabs of raw bass, leading a Ganpati procession to Chowpatty, followed by thousands of Mumbaikars, hinting to a future crafted by the Pied Piper of EDM.

Nucleya visarjan

Nucleya leading Ganpati procession.

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