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Urban minstrels

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Urban minstrels

The year was 2011. This 20-something woman's passion for music was making things at home uncomfortable. She was convinced about a career in music but her parents who were against it cited reasons ranging from lack of respect to financial stability and even her religion. One fine day, she decided to leave home.

Cut to 2019; Shaheen Salmani, 30, is the lead singer with Rocknaama, a Sufi rock band that plays in Delhi cafés such as Uncultured, Ministry of Beer, and The Dirty Martini, and others across the country.

She is part of the ever-increasing crop of young and talented singers/instrumentalists who have decided to do more with their passion for music. And while that happens, they have changed the way Delhi parties. Those DJ evenings are a thing of the past; bands of different genres have breathed a new life into the city's clubbing scene.

LEAP OF FAITH

If Usha Uthup, the first female pop singer of India, wasn't picked up by a film unit while she was singing at Delhi's Oberoi hotel in the late 1960s, Bollywood wouldn't have got one of its most unique playback singers.

30-year-old independent singer Puneet Kalra agrees, "Cafés are undoubtedly a great platform for budding artistes to showcase their talent. When you perform in front of a young audience, you realise your potential in the market and it makes you aware of your weaknesses and strengths. The crowd plays a major role in helping artistes improve."

That's why it is so important to take the leap of faith into a career that doesn't always assure a paycheque at the end of the month. Take for instance Varun Rajput, 34, founder of the band Antariksh.

"I loved music but after an engineering degree, I didn't have the courage to pursue it full-time. I worked at a few places as a management consultant before finally deciding to take the plunge in 2012."

He was lucky as his band took off and after releasing their first album Khoj, they started performing English progressive rock music at cafés across town including Hard Rock Café, Farzi Café and Blue Frog. For Akbar Alam, 27, the founder of Sufi Amigos, it was an audition at a café that changed his career.

"My friend and I were walking around Connaught Place in 2015 and heard music from a place called Open House. We just walked in and they gave us a chance to sing for the guests. That's how it all began," says Alam, also an engineer from Sharda University

It took him three years and enough savings until 2018 to finally find the courage to make a living out of music. Sufi Amigos regularly plays at Informal Delhi, Blues, Lord of the Drinks, Nukkad Café and other corporate gigs.

CHANGING SCENARIOS

Whether it is Gurugram, Connaught Place, Noida, Rajouri Garden or Rohini, every 'happening' market has a reverberating club scene. Walk around these places any evening (weekdays included), and you can hear people crooning. That's how much the music scene in the city has evolved. But where there is quantity, the quality is sadly lost.

As Antariksh's Rajput says, "The masses will always want something which is not so artistic. So people like to dumb down their music and play to the audience. It works in the short term but in the long term, doesn't have substance."

Salmani agrees, "Delhi's club scene was really good initially. They used to focus on quality music, helped artistes grow. But things are not the same now. Anybody who knows to play the guitar or has good looks can now perform on stage, form a band, and even play without charging a fee to gain exposure."

That is perhaps why bands such as Antariksh prefer to perform at events and keep their gigs at cafés limited to few a month.

DIGNITY OF LABOUR

Parvati M Krishnan was performing at one of the hotels in the city when a man came up to her and said main tujhe hazaar rupaye doonga, Hindi gaana gaa de (I'll give you Rs 1,000, sing a Hindi song). Krishnan, a Western vocalist who sings in multiple languages including Portuguese, Spanish and English, was stunned. "There is hardly any dignity of labour in India. And this wasn't even one of the worst encounters I've had."

Creepy encounters aside, Krishnan's singing career has taken a turn for the better, ever since she decided to let The Piano Man Jazz Club manage her gigs.

"They take care of all other things; I just have to go and sing," says the 32-year-old who has been balancing her career as a journalist and singer for 13 years now.

Salmani, who sings Sufi Bollywood with her band Rocknaama, concurs, "Being a female vocalist, you need to draw a line. One needs to maintain one's dignity while performing as we know how people perceive an artiste on stage. So, while doing your job, it becomes a little difficult to keep singing and be completely unaffected by such 'characters'."

SHOW ME THE MONEY

While the bursting-at-the-seams club culture has given many artistes a better platform, the dip in quality doesn't make it financially viable. "Hats off to anyone who is making it work as a fulltime musician," says Krishnan adding, "I feel sad to see the rates for a musician have not changed in the last decade, barring at a few places."

While Rocknaama is busy recording its second original song, Salmani is disillusioned by the club culture and says, "People with little or no knowledge of music end up performing for free alcohol/food. This has majorly impacted the financial viability of performing in clubs."

Sufi Amigos' Alam points to the proliferation and says he could "count the number of bands on his fingers" in 2015 but today the culture is completely different. Alam has been able to set up his own studio and his band will soon be seen in a cameo in the upcoming Bollywood film Pyaar Ka Punchnama 3.

Even as Salmani dreams to see Rocknaama singing in Bollywood films, the musician hopes that there'll be a time when the city will start respecting talented youngsters who are making Delhi's popular restaurants come alive with their lively tunes.