Music is an essential part of our culture. International classical musicians are still awed by the brilliance of Indian classical music, especially the precision and complexity of Carnatic ragas. Our country has birthed legendary musicians, whose compositions have wowed the best of the world.
Musical Geniuses of Indian Cinema
One might argue that Carnatic music is not everybody's cup of tea, which might be true. However, that is not our only offering to the world of rhythms and beats. The likes of Ilayaraja, RD Burman & AR Rahman have rocked the global music scene. They really made the world turn our way and take notice.
RD Burman was called the Music Scientist because he introduced new sounds to Bollywood music. Interestingly, European DJs use his music to sample. Then of course, Maestro Ilayaraja has over 7000 music compositions to his name and even more awards! AR Rahman, for his part, etched a niche for himself in the music world with his multiple international collaborations. It was a moment of pride for Indians across the globe when he held up the two shimmering Oscars.
We were all in for a surprise when Black-eyed Peas came out with their album The Elephunk in 2003. The international band sampled Ilayaraja's Unakkum Enakkum Anandham for their theme music. This new track made him relevant once again!
Shortly after ARR's big Oscar win, the world went berserk over the most unexpected composition. Why This Kolaveri composed by Anirudh Ravichander and sung by Dhanush, went on to be a global phenomenon in 2011 when it was 'leaked' online. After that, the world went wild making covers and comical videos of the number!
Once again Indian music took centre stage when MS Keeravani had everyone dancing to Naatu Naatu. Subsequently, the song took down some heavy competition to win Best Original Song at the 95th Academy Awards in 2023.
Beyond Bollywood Music/Culture
In India, the mainstream music industry is ruled by cinema. The grand music launches, expensive videos and unique hook steps are crowd-pullers.
The pride that regional movie makers and musicians feel in being attributed to their true home soil, has a lot to do with the impact of their hometown on their art.
Most importantly, there is a whole line-up of musicians and bands who are not even a part of any Indian movie industry. These independent musicians are a happy crowd, slowly making their way up the music charts.
Even though it sounds rather bleak, there is a colourful Indie music scene in the country. This industry runs parallel to the movie music business. 90s kids grew up with a bouquet of Independent artists such as Alisha, Lucky Ali, Daler Mehndi, Falguni Pathak, Sonu Nigam, Shaan and a bunch of other stars who really delighted our eardrums. Still, the South Indian presence was heavily lacking.
Playback Singer Anuradha Sriram got our hopes up with Chennai Ponnu (Tanglish Pop) and 'Pop' Shalini regaled us with her Mama Un Ponnu Ilaya (Tamil). 13AD sent a few ripples in the Malayalam Indie scene in the 90s. And then there was Motherjane and Thermal and a Quarter. They all made a significant impact, but no one really took the baton from them to run a significant distance. Consequently, South Indian audiences kept going back to lip-syncing to Hindi Indi Pop & Bhangra, and of course movie albums.
However now, the Indie music scene in the South is changing for the better. Unfazed by the chartbusters from the movie-woods of the South, independent musicians and bands are making heads bob to their music. These independent bands are rocking college events and local music festivals, winning over the masses with fantastic covers, mashups, and their original tunes. More and more restaurants and cafes are opening their doors to live performances by fresh talents, paving the way for small bands with big dreams.
Access to world music has changed the sensibilities of the audience. As a result, they want so much more than the typical romantic duets and fast numbers that mainstream cinema has to offer. This is working in favour of the independent bands and singers who have something different to showcase.
Increase in Popularity of South Indian Independent Music
The increase in popularity of independent music in South India can be attributed to several factors. Here are some key contributors:
Independent musicians have been able to showcase their talent on a global stage thanks to the rise of digital platforms such as YouTube, SoundCloud, and streaming services like Gaana, Saavn, and Spotify. These platforms have made it easier for artists to release and distribute their music directly to their audience, therefore bypassing the need for traditional music labels.
The increasing availability and affordability of high-speed internet has expanded the potential audience for independent musicians. This is because more people in South India now have access to online music streaming and downloading. This has allowed independent musicians to reach listeners in remote areas who may not have had access to their music before.
Social Media and Online Promotion
Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have become powerful tools for musicians to connect with their fans and promote their work. As a result, the reach of their music has widened to include the entire world! Independent artists can build a strong online presence, engage directly with their audience, and gain a following without relying on traditional media channels.
Changing Listener Preferences
South Indian music listeners, especially the younger generation, have shown a growing interest in diverse and non-mainstream music. They are seeking unique sounds and fresh perspectives, which independent music often provides. This shift in taste has created a demand for independent artists who offer something different from the popular film-music industry.
Live Music Scene
The live music scene in South India has witnessed significant growth in recent years. Independent artists have embraced performing at small venues, college festivals, and independent music festivals, creating a thriving live music culture. As a result, live performances not only help artists connect with their fans directly but also attract new listeners to their music.
Collaborations And Cross-Genre Experimentation
Independent musicians in South India have actively engaged in collaborations with artists from different genres and backgrounds. Thus, this cross-pollination of ideas and styles has led to the creation of unique and innovative music that appeals to a broader audience. These collaborations have helped independent artists gain exposure and expand their reach.
Common Genres and Themes in South Indian Indie Music
South Indian indie music encompasses a wide range of genres and themes, reflecting the diversity of the region and the varied musical influences.
Firstly there is Fusion music. It blends traditional South Indian music with contemporary genres like rock, pop, jazz, electronica, and hip-hop. Artists combine traditional Carnatic or Hindustani classical music elements with modern instrumentation and production techniques.
Folk music is another popular genre in South Indian indie music. Artists incorporate folk elements from different states and regions within South India, blending folk melodies, rhythms, and instruments with modern arrangements to create a contemporary folk fusion sound.
Alternative Rock and Indie Rock
Alternative rock and indie rock have also gained popularity in South India. Artists in these genres experiment with guitar-driven sounds, catchy melodies, and introspective lyrics. They explore themes such as personal experiences, relationships, and social commentary.
Electronica is another genre that is making waves in the South Indian indie music scene. Artists create electronic compositions infused with traditional Indian elements, fusing electronic beats, samples, and vocals with traditional Indian sounds.
Hip-hop has also been embraced by many South Indian indie artists, particularly in urban centres. Artists incorporate regional languages and dialects into their rap verses, addressing social issues, personal stories, and cultural identities.
Classical And Semi-Classical Music
Classical and semi-classical music continues to influence indie music in South India. Artists blend classical ragas, intricate compositions, and traditional instruments with modern production styles, combining classical and contemporary sounds.
Social And Political Commentary
Social and political commentary is another important theme in South Indian indie music. Many artists use this platform to address social and political issues. For instance, inequality, gender issues, environmental concerns, and cultural identity are some of the topics dealt with.
Love and relationships are also perennial themes in South Indian indie music. Artists explore various aspects of love, heartbreak, longing, and personal journeys through their lyrics and melodies.
Popular South Indian Indie Stars for Your Playlist
The rock band Thaikkudam Bridge skilfully weaves together folk and classical Indian sounds to construct a captivating musical landscape. The band occasionally incorporates layers of progressive, pop, ambient, and electronic textures.
Over the course of 10 years and with a remarkable 650+ shows, including more than 100 international performances spanning 25 countries, the band has embarked on a truly awe-inspiring journey. Thaikkudam Bridge is made up of a 15-member ensemble cast and that contributes to the band's versatility and unpredictability.
Picture credit: The Asian Age
The band's debut album, 'Navarasam' (2006), delves into themes of existentialism, socio-political commentaries, rebellion, and the unity of the human spirit. It serves as a testament to their artistic prowess and depth.
Following their debut, Thaikkudam Bridge embarked on a collaborative effort for their second album, 'Namah'. This album featured acclaimed global musicians such as Marco Minneman, Jordan Ruddess, Pandit Ram Narayan, Niladri Kumar, Ustad Rashid Khan, Chris Adler, and many others, showcasing the band's commitment to exploring diverse musical influences and expanding their creative horizons.
In essence, Thaikkudam Bridge has carved a distinctive musical path by melding traditional and contemporary sounds. Thus, they have captivated audiences with their rich and varied discography and established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
When Chai Met Toast
Between 2014 and 2016 the multilingual indie-folk alternative band When Chai Met Toast formed in Kochi over chai and toast! The idea to start a band germinated in the mind of Achyuth. He had composed his debut track and needed a vocalist. This led to him meeting Ashwin. One thing led to another and by 2016 they had a four-member band.
Picture credit: Radio City
The band consists of lead vocalist Ashwin Gopakumar, guitarist Achyuth Jaigopal, keyboardist Palee Francis, and drummer Pai Sailesh. They are self-confessed composers in the 'happy' genre! Their songs are a mixture of English, Hindi, Tamil, and Malayalam verses.
Chai Met Toast gained attention in the South Indian music scene with their joyful and uplifting music. They have several singles and two albums to their name. The band were even selected for Spotify's RADAR program, and their single 'Break Free' was chosen as one of VH1 India's top 50 hit videos. Finally, they are regular participants in popular music festivals across India and have a widespread fan following.
Avial, a band that has been making music together since 2003, draws inspiration from a wide range of musical influences, including electronic, folk, and alternative rock. They skilfully blend these influences with poignant Malayalam poetry addressing social and political issues.
Picture credit: Reverbnation
Their self-titled debut album, a four-year labour of love, was critically acclaimed and won six awards at the Rolling Stone Jack Daniels Rock Awards in 2009. The album consists of eight tracks, including their popular singles 'Nada Nada' and 'Chekele' (a cover of a Malayalam folk song).
A significant milestone for Avial was their first-ever live concert as a band. They performed in front of an enthusiastic audience at the Eastwind music festival in Delhi a few months after the official release of their self-titled album in February 2008.
Fast forward ten years to the present day, and the band continues to captivate every stage they grace with their pioneering brand of 'alternative Malayalam rock.' Whether it is Delhi, Mumbai, Dubai, or their hometown, Thiruvananthapuram, Avial has maintained an unwavering momentum, transcending language barriers. Few bands in the contemporary indie scene of the country have been able to sustain such success.
Picture credit: Wikipedia
Agam, meaning "Inner soul," is a progressive rock band rooted in Carnatic music, based in Bengaluru (Bangalore). The band was formed in 2003 and the members were former students at Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani. Harish and Ganesh began jamming during their college days and started a band called Studio F6, which morphed into Agam.
Agam received a significant breakthrough in 2007 when they participated in the band hunt 'Ooh la la la,' hosted by the Tamil television channel Sun TV. The competition, judged by the Oscar-winning Indian music composer A. R. Rahman, propelled them into the mainstream music scene. As a result of their success in the competition, they were called to perform in concerts and music festivals across South Indian cities like Bengaluru (Bangalore), Chennai, and Hyderabad.
Agam's unique sound seamlessly blends the richness of Carnatic music with the energy of rock thus attracting a mixed audience. Besides emerging as one of the winners of 'Ooh la la la', Agam's accomplishments include winning the Bite My Music Global Awards, a prestigious recognition in South Asia, for categories such as Best Collaboration (Live Again feat. Shreya Ghoshal) and Best Instrumental (Brahma's Dance).
The F16s, an alternative band from Chennai, describe themselves as "a pop band disguised in a rock and roll outfit." Their music takes inspiration from everyday life and their songs are lyrically driven, exploring introspective narratives and relatable themes.
The F16s comprises five talented individuals: Josh on vocals and guitar, Abhinav on guitar, Sashank on bass, Harshan on keyboard and MIDI, and Manu on drums and percussion. They formed in 2012 and made their mark with the release of a 6-song EP titled 'Kaleidoscope' in 2013, which included two additional tracks recorded in Brooklyn, New York called 'Nobody's Gonna Wait'.
Picture credit: Bandwagon Asia
Their next full-length debut album 'Triggerpunkte' was a blend of reverb-heavy sentimentality and fast-paced musical energy. It released on August 8, 2016. This nine-song collection was recorded in Chennai and Mumbai.
With 'Triggerpunkte' the band was exploring their unique identity. The album offers a combination of straightforward compositions, highly polished production, and multi-layered musical arrangements.
The F16s have received notable recognition for their contributions. They were honoured with The Jack Daniel's Award for Best Emerging Act in 2013, as well as the Radio City Freedom Awards for Best Rock Artist and Best Young Indie Artist (Judge's Choice).
With their distinct sound and noteworthy achievements, The F16s continue to leave their mark on the alternative music scene, captivating audiences with their infectious melodies and evocative storytelling.
Swarathma is a 5-member team that began in 2003. Vasu Dixit who is the vocalist and guitarist was the one who initiated the band’s creation. Over the years Swarathma has seen changes in its members and that has only helped its music evolve.
Primarily, Swarathma produces folk fusion music, which is a great blend of rhythm and beats. It is the perfect mix of Indian folk and Carnatic music with a tinge of Blues and Reggae. Most of their numbers are about self-discovery and personal experiences.
Picture credit: Scroll.in
Additionally, the band produces songs that discuss socio-political topics with the aim to bring about change. In 2018 Swarathma put on a unique performance in Bengaluru to create awareness of Environmental issues and to protect nearly 170 trees from being felled. Then once more in 2020 they sang to help prevent deforestation in Goa and Kerala.
Swarathma has released three full-length studio albums: their self-titled debut 'Swarathma' in 2009, followed by 'Topiwalleh' in 2012, and 'Raah E Fakira' in 2018. They have also released several singles and music videos, besides that showcasing their creative range.
The band's talent and popularity earned them a spot on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine's India edition, and they were also included in the prestigious list of the 25 Hottest Indian Bands. In addition, in 2009, they won Band of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year at the annual Jack Daniels Indian Rock Awards.
Swarathma has toured successfully in Morocco, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Australia, and Singapore. Most importantly, their international performances have helped them to build a dedicated fan base and solidify their status as one of India's biggest folk-rock bands.
Formed in 2014, the band boasts a diverse repertoire, performing in languages such as Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, and English. The essence of their music lies in Indian melodies intertwined with funk grooves and hints of electronica, all delivered through vocals in Indian languages. This unique fusion creates an intriguing and refreshing sound.
Each member of Peepal Tree brings a wealth of experience from their involvement in some of India's most successful bands.
Picture credit: Weddingwire.in
The band introduced their versatile sound with six Kannada songs in their debut album 'Chetana'. Peepal Tree set its sights on Grammy glory in 2018 by submitting its debut album 'Chetana' for consideration in the Best Rock Album category.
In addition, the band has performed at some of India's biggest music festivals, including the Bacardi NH7 Weekender and the Pune International Film Festival. They have also toured extensively in Europe and the United States, captivating audiences with their high-energy live shows.
Junkyard Groove is an alternative pop-rock band that captures the essence of their influences, drawing comparisons to iconic acts like Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, John Butler Trio, Alter Bridge, and Foo Fighters. Their dedication to their craft and unique sound has earned them accolades, including the AVIMA award for Song of the Year with their track 'Folk You'.
The band is known for its distinct musical style that combines catchy hooks with electrifying live performances. Junkyard Groove's talent and uniqueness have garnered attention from various publications, including The Times of India, The Hindu, The Deccan Chronicle, and Rolling Stone India.
Picture credit: Indulge Express
Junkyard Groove has had the privilege of sharing the stage with rock legends, such as Robert Plant, Incubus, Mastadon, Inflames, Prodigy, Stone Sour, Iron Maiden, Mr. Big, Megadeth, and Machine Head. This exposure has further solidified their position in the music industry.
Other Bands to Explore
These are some of the bands that have stood the test of time, continuing to churn out great songs. Others before them had their moment in the sun and then gradually faded for reasons best known to them. However, their music is still relevant and available online. Some other Indie bands to check out are Namma Ooru Boy Band, Motherjane, Thermal and a Quarter, Skrat, BP Collectives and Vidwan.
Overall, the combination of digital platforms, internet accessibility, social media, evolving listener preferences, live music culture, and collaborations has contributed to the increased popularity of independent music in South India. The artists often incorporate multiple influences and explore various themes within their music. In essence, South Indian indie music celebrates artistic experimentation and reflects the diversity and rich cultural heritage of the region.
Why not read our article on the top ten highest-grossing songs of all time!