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A hollow sound

Veenu Sandhu  |  New Delhi 

has not been the success it was in Pakistan, at least in its first season. Veenu Sandhu speaks to musicians to find out why. Was it the overdose of or haphazard experimentation?

This evening, on the second day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Sabri Brothers, the from Pakistan; Papon, the singer-composer from Assam; and Shruti Pathak, the Filmfare-award-nominated playback singer and lyricist, will be among those who take stage. There’s nothing new about singers performing at the festival. What’s new is that these musicians are coming to perform as part of Coke Studio India.

Coca-Cola’s music property, Coke Studio India, has stepped out of the studio. When it launched on MTV on June 17 last year, the show was meant to follow the closed-studio format of its very successful Pakistani version, Coke Studio Pakistan, which has been running since 2008 and has a cult following in India. The idea was simple: put together musicians, ideally from diverse genres, and have them jam live in a studio. There would be no live audience — only musicians, drums, guitars, tabla, harmonica, etc and pure music.

When he was invited to be music director of Coke Studio India, Lesle Lewis had said that he was “thrilled as I could foresee a platform to bring a new sound to India”. A sound that would be different from music, which dominates the music industry in India and leaves practically no space for independent musicians.

Expectations were sky high and so, the disappointment was also tremendous. The music that emerged out of Coke Studio India failed to shake off the influence of Strong on beats, weak on soul and lyrics, it was, says singer Rabbi Shergill, “a mish-mash of Indian music’s secondary décor”. Some forced fusions, like “Vethalai” by and Chinna Ponnu, a folk singer from Tamil Nadu, bordered on cacophony. It wasn’t all downhill, though. There were some powerful voices like Harshdeep Kaur (“Hoo”) and Papon (“Pak Pak — Bihu Naam”) and fusions like “Kathyayini” by Bombay Jayashri and Rashid Khan which salvaged some episodes. But these were islands of brilliance in a very confused show.

Several fans who had been waiting impatiently for Coke Studio to come to India signed out after the first couple of episodes. “The show was a big letdown,” says Subir Malik, manager of the band Parikrama who also plays the keyboard and synthesizer. “I couldn’t bear to see it for more than five minutes.” According to TAM, the average Television Viewer Rating for Season One of Coke Studio@MTV for the period it ran (June 17-September 27, 2011) was a mere 0.03. The highest-ever TVR was also a poor 0.12.

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Barely a month after it started, Coke Studio India introduced minicerts to reach out to a wider audience. While the show aired on MTV, Coke Studio artists like Kailash Kher, Tochi Raina, Harshdeep Kaur, Papon, Mathangi, Sanjeev Thomas and Lewis travelled across 10 cities to perform live. Their first stop was on July 29 at Mumbai’s Hard Rock Café, and performances followed at Delhi, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Kolkata and Guwahati.

“Performances of Coke Studio at platforms like the will be able to reflect its true essence,” says a Coca-Cola India spokesperson. “Coke Studio India has so far registered close to 631,000 Facebook fans, over 2.5 million hits on YouTube and close to 13 million downloads on mobile platforms.”

Some music aficionados feel that Coke Studio’s mistake was to choose a niche platform like MTV. “It should have been showcased on a more mainstream channel,” says a 49-year-old fan who has downloaded all nine episodes. “Also, the timing of the show, 7 pm to 8 pm, was wrong.” Compare this to Coke Studio which is aired on multiple channels. Its season Four was broadcast on over 20 channels including PTV Home, Geo Entertainment, Dawn News, Filmax, Hum TV and Apna Channel.

Others, however, feel the flaws are in Coke Studio India’s content. “There was too much Bollywood,” rues Sufi singer Kavita Seth who sang “Aaja sapne saja ja” on the show with Lewis. So, there was playback singer Shaan experimenting with “Jab se tere naina” from Saawariya, KK singing “Tu aashiqui hai” from Jhankaar Beats (the original was better) and a remix of “Khilte hain gul yahan” from Sharmilee (1971) with Mathangi Rajsekhar and Sanjay Vidyarthi, and Sunidhi Chauhan paired with the Wadali Brothers for “Chithiye”, a song from Henna (1991).

Seth says the show also diluted the core strengths of some of the masters with haphazard and unnecessary experimentation. Wadali Brothers’ “Tu maane ya na mane dildara asa ne tenu rab manya” is counted among their finest songs. But performing at Coke Studio, Puranchand and Pyarelal Wadali looked lost. And it was not because of the psychedelic setting. “‘Tu maane...’ is a high tempo song. At Coke Studio, the brothers were made to bring its tempo down. It killed the song,” laments Seth. “Why make people try other genres unless the experiment can really bring out something great?”

Too many songs had to be recorded with too many artists in a limited time. “Music cannot be churned out of a machine. Lewis should have been given more time. This way creativity suffers,” she says adding that she will consider being part of Coke Studio’s Season Two only if standards improve and singers are allowed more space.

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"It represented nothing, it felt empty. The core — an ocean’s depth — had been replaced by a monsoon puddle,” says Shergill who, incidentally, was invited to perform at Coke Studio He went and recorded a song but it was never aired. “The official reason given to me was that ‘justice could not be done to my participation in Coke Studio Pakistan’,” he says. “All I know is that I went through all the creative process, the ideation, the jams, the practices and the recordings. I’d been there three days but they put me on only on the last day, the last hour, at 1:30 in the morning; the whole crew was tired. In the end, I’m a little perplexed, why call me at all?” Despite this less-than-pleasant experience, Shergill rates Coke Studio Pakistan’s producer Rohail Hyatt as the “best music producer/director of the last four-five years”.

Like other independent musicians Shergill is concerned that “TV and radio have shunted out all non-film music expression for 4-5 years now. This,” he adds, “has serious cultural consequences in the form of loss of identity, uniqueness and undermining of endemic civilisation.”

For Coke Studio India, it’s a Catch 22 situation. “After all, 99 per cent of India listens to only Bollywood music,” says Malik. But he also adds that another MTV series, “MTV Unplugged”, has been a bigger success because of the sheer quality of music. Here, independent musicians and bands play their popular numbers relying completely on acoustics and doing away with electronic instruments.

The all-pervasive Bollywood influence doesn’t have Aditya Swamy, executive vice-president and business head for MTV, worried. “A lot of Bollywood is folk music given a popular twist. Bollywood has, after all, given musicians a chance to make money through their art,” he says. Coke Studio, he adds, is a creative process. “With every season, we will dig deeper; we will get better. You will find us more experimental in Season Two and Season Three.”

But will the future shows offer an alternative to film music? Swamy is confident they will. “India is opening up to alternative culture,” he says. But the way things stand today, Coke Studio appears to be getting pulled deeper into Bollywood. Coca-Cola confirms that it is exploring the opportunity of performing at the Filmfare awards and “the details are currently being worked out”. Will Bollywood music prevail, yet again?

First Published: Sat, January 21 2012. 00:40 IST