In May, independent music promoter Gigital India organised a singer-songwriter contest to coincide with Bob Dylan’s 79th birthday. Most of the 24 shortlisted songs were in English, and New Delhi-based Diyatom Deb won the first prize for Forced Wanderer.
A few days later, pop-rock artiste Tejas released the track Lead, which he composed, wrote, and sang himself, besides playing guitar, synthesizer, keyboards, and percussion.
These songs fueled two thoughts. One is that there are many talented, yet lesser-known, English singer-songwriters in India today, as against many vocalists in pop and rock bands where writing credits are divided. Of the lot, Prateek Kuhad made headlines when his track Cold/ Mess found its way into former U.S. President Barack Obama’s playlist last year. His Hindi song Kasoor is the current favourite.
Secondly, the category of ‘singer-songwriter’ hasn’t really been explored in this country on a mass level. The answer probably lies in the background of this category. The concept has existed in the West since the 1960s, beginning with the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joan Baez, Carole King, and many of their ilk.
Basically, the person who sang the song would compose the tune and write the lyrics too, with the producer and engineer being responsible for the final recording. Being a singer-songwriter required a special skill set, as the artiste had to visualize the song in totality, and not focus on individual components.
Traditionally in India, these three main tasks have been performed by different people. In film music and many instances of the 1990s Indipop, one person composed the music, another wrote the words, and someone else sang it. In classical, devotional, and folk music, vocalists would sing traditional tunes, and in ghazals and Sufiana music, they would present the work of poets.
These methodologies became so rigid that record labels and musicians didn’t deviate, and some even felt that having a singer-songwriter would deprive a composer or lyricist of some work. So they played safe.
Regarding language, film music was naturally created in Hindi or a regional language. Similarly, regional or traditional dialects were used in classical and folk. When Indipop became big in the 1990s, one of the main focuses was to take film music head-on. So the language had to be Hindi and to an extent Punjabi. With a few exceptions, even those who grew up singing in English switched to Hindi pop, and in some cases, the result wasn’t really great.
With that backdrop in mind, let’s move to the current scenario when Hindi film music is at a low, and independent non-film music is the order of the day. With many singer-songwriters trying to gain a foothold both in English and Hindi, the labels and promoters should view that as an opportunity.
Though English singer-songwriters have existed in India over the past decade, they have become more active only over the past year or so, with most artistes focusing on singles instead of albums, and thus getting quick exposure. Over the past few months, many have been writing COVID-related songs, both in English and Hindi, or shooting videos In isolation.
Two good quarantine-time videos are Druv Kent’s Till We Meet Again, which talks of loneliness caused by staying away from close ones, and Pragnya Wakhlu’s Falling, which talks of how people express love.
Before the lockdown, Kaveri Kapur, daughter of Shekhar Kapur and Suchitra Krishnamurthy, came out with the teenage-friendly Smell Of The Rain. Vocalist-guitarist Rohit Kulkarni released the album The Boy Who Dreamed in a phased manner. More recently, singer Raghav Meattle released Back To The Known and Bar Talk (lyrics in the latter were co-written by Neeti Chikhlikar).
All these examples involve singer-songwriters releasing English songs. There are also singer-songwriters who have worked in both English and Hindi. Examples are Amanda Sodhi, Kuhad, and Hanita Bhambri, with Nazukh.
What one has clearly noticed is an increase in the number of English singer-songwriters. Though many people would like to believe the masses are more into Hindi songs, the fact is that English music has a fairly large and dedicated audience too. Just like bands, individual artistes have lots of potential – and this was proved three decades ago by Gary Lawyer and Jasmine Bharucha.
Still, labels, concert venues, and radio do not promote solo English song makers adequately. It would be preposterous to compare these acts with their western counterparts, but there’s no shortage of talent either. What’s needed is a fair amount of belief and backing.