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Indian music through the decades- 1990-94



The ’90s began on a nervous note. The previous decade had seen many changes in the Indian music scenario, with new record labels being launched, cassettes becoming the biggest form of consumption and Hindi film music showing some hope after a few ups and downs. A complete transformation was needed.

The first signs of hope arrived when Aashiqui became a musical blockbuster in 1990, catapulting music directors Nadeem-Shravan, singers Kumar Sanu and Anuradha Paudwal, and lyricist Sameer to stardom. In another genre, Rock Machine released The Second Coming, and the song ‘Pretty Child’ slowly made its way up the popularity charts. Though the band had released the fabulous Rock’n’Roll Renegade in 1988, the second album established them as revivers of the Indian rock movement.


Too many things happened during the rest of the decade. Music director A.R. Rahman gave Hindi film music a new sound with Roja, and was acclaimed in the Tamil films Roja, Thiruda Thiruda, Pudhiya Mugham, and Kadhalan. A different set of composers ruled the Hindi scene.

Indipop and its offshoot bhangra-pop gave tough competition to Bollywood and was greatly boosted by music television channels MTV, Channel V, B4U and etc. Video jockeys (VJs) got famous, and music videos became the latest fad. The arrival of FM radio and satellite television, the popularity of the VHS visual format, the post-1997 boom in the compact disc (CD) market and launch of large-sized music retail stores Planet M, Groove and Music World the same year gave listeners new options.

Piracy continued to be an area of concern as duplicate cassettes were sold, and free home taping affected the industry’s revenues. Remixes began flooding the market in the late 1990s, and many were shoddy attempts. But newer venues boosted live performances. In 1996, Michael Jackson performed in Mumbai.

The ’90s offered a fresh start for the music industry as we know it today. It is difficult to include all developments in one article. Hence, we have divided this decade into two parts – 1990-94 and 1995-99.

The resurgence of Hindi Film Music

The early ’90s were dominated by the resurgence of Hindi film music and the rise of Indian rock. The music of the 1989 film Maine Pyar Kiya continued to be popular but Aashiqui became the major super-hit, selling a still-unbroken record 20 million units. Rahman’s Roja, Anand-Milind’s Dil, Nadeem-Shravan’s Saajan and Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin, Anu Malik’s Baazigar, Jatin-Lalit’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Shiv-Hari’s Darr and Ram-Laxman’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun were major successes till 1994.

There was some very sad news. The legendary R.D. Burman passed away on January 4, 1994. His songs in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s 1942: A Love Story, written by Javed Akhtar, became huge. Among singers, the period belonged to Kumar Sanu, Udit Narayan, Alka Yagnik, Kavita Krishnamurthy, S. P. Balasubramaniam, and Anuradha Paudwal.

If the industry tried to provide an alternative to Hindi film music through ghazals in the 1980s, they turned to popular non-film songs in the first half of the decade. Baba Sehgal’s Thanda Thanda Pani, released by Magnasound, tasted success. Alisha Chinai, Shweta Shetty and Suneeta Rao had popular numbers, with Rao’ s ‘Paree Hoon Main’ slowly becoming a Navratri favourite. Gurdas Maan was the king of Punjabi music.

The term ‘Indipop’ was coined only in 1995, and the genre took off with Alisha Chinai’s Made In India. But it was in the first half of the decade that both the industry and artistes began looking at the style with seriousness.

Classical music and ghazals from the ’90s

In the classical field, there wasn’t much change, as artistes continued to do shows and record albums, both in Hindustani and Carnatic music. They did get more opportunities to perform abroad, in countries besides the US and UK. One highlight was the contribution of the label Music Today, with theme-based Hindustani series like Ragas From Dawn To Midnight and Songs For The Seasons, besides Masterpieces featuring Carnatic composers. Mohan Veena exponent Vishwa Mohan Bhatt received a Grammy award for A Meeting By The River, his collaboration with American guitarist Ry Cooder.

Though the overall market for ghazals had decreased, younger artistes like Hariharan, Roopkumar-Sonali Rathod, and Ahmed-Mohammed Hussain entered the scene. Jagjit Singh had turned solo after his wife Chitra stopped giving performances following the death of their son Vivek. He and Pankaj Udhas drew packed houses across the world.

With the boom in television, people watched more music programmes. If Doordarshan Metro had its Superhit Muqabla, Zee TV launched Antakshri in 1993 and Sa Re Ga Ma Pa two years later. There was also a massive demand for VHS cassettes of the latest film hits and actor-based or musician-based compilations. Since people also bought or hired film content, VHS players sold in large numbers.

International music in India during the ’90s

Music fans also got their share of international music. MTV came in as a short segment in 1992 and went off in a couple of years only to return as a full-fledged channel in 1996. In the first stint, VJs Danny McGill, Kamal Sidhu, Nonie, Sophiya, Trey and Rahul Khanna presented the latest songs. In 1994, Channel V arrived on the scene, though its impact was felt only the following year. In the radio segment, All India Radio got competition from FM players like Times FM and Radio Mid-Day.

The focus on English music increased during the early ’90s. Following the success of the first two Rock Machine albums and the huge airplay received by the ‘Pretty Child’ video, other rock acts came in. Parikrama, Gary Lawyer, Agni, Pentagram and Millennium got many shows. Delhi band Indian Ocean pioneered a new sound in the fusion-rock genre. In Mumbai, the popularity of the Independence Rock festival grew, and campus events across India attracted huge crowds.

Besides live shows, people looked forward to the latest albums and hit songs. Vinyl records were no longer in demand, but cassettes of the latest international releases and back catalogue were put out by Magnasound, which had a licensing agreement with Warner Music, Polygram (later Universal) and Saregama HMV, which distributed the EMI Music repertoire.

In Mumbai, Rhythm House and Hiro Music had frequent visitors. Rock group Jethro Tull’s frontman Ian Anderson signed autographs at Rhythm House during a promotional tour in 1993, and the band did two concerts at Rang Bhavan the following year. The venue also hosted some memorable shows at the Jazz Yatra, and saxophonist Illinois Jacquet was the star in 1994.

The best was yet to come. In many ways, the period between 1995 and 1999 was one of the most trend-setting eras in Indian music. More on that in the next part of this series.


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Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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