Whether it’s the six-foot-square dancefloor of the “cozy” Leo’s Pub, expansive mega clubs like Three Flights Up or downscale, trance-heavy hangouts like Razzberry Rhinoceros, club life in Bombay is as diverse as the scene in any other world metropolis. However, you’d be forgiven for not noticing.
Although Bombay is the fourth-largest city in the world, it’s the tiny beach town to its south – Goa – that gets most of the attention from international dance mavens. However inside any of the dozens of other nightspots around the city, you’ll find a thriving social underground, bringing together club kids in trainers, dotcommers in Versace, middle class socialites in saris. The combination of heady, upper middle-class style and down-n-dirty club groove reflects the maddeningly diverse array of people who flock to Bombay’s nightclubs and whether the DJ is spinning Limp Bizkit, Paul Oakenfold or Daler
Mehndi or an over-polished cover band is working its way through an unironically whitewashed version of “Proud Mary,” the ever-expanding club scene keeps pulling people up the stairs. However, it wasn’t always this way.
According to Sweety Kapoor, a London-based promoter who co-founded “Anokha” nights with Talvin Singh and was instrumental in bringing that vibe back to India, “in the past, the only clubs were in five-star hotels, and recently, quite a few bars and clubs have opened up.
“When Talvin was beginning to make OK, we shut ‘Anokha’ down at the Blue Note (in London) and my goal – and the dream of ‘Anokha’ – was to take it back to India, which we did. We all felt that it was really important to do that, especially given what the scene was there. The scene was very pop- oriented for a very long time. It was either Bollywood or out-and-out pop.”
And, whether or not Kapoor is directly responsible for the insurgence of club culture in Bombay – many factors, including the continual flow of tourists to Goa, as well as MTV India and increased internet access, have certainly played a role in raising the general level of interest – it is most certainly true that once students and musicians in Bombay had their eyes opened to music beyond the standard, mainstream fare, the scene began to exponentially expand.
“If you want to play into that clique-y middle-class mode of thought that’s based solely on finance and play to the jet-setters, you can certainly do that,” says Sam Rahman (aka State of Bengal), who has performed several “interactive DJ sessions” in Bombay. “But [those people] don’t check what’s happening on the streets. If you play to the people who are really into the music – the students, the musicians – then you can really get a legitimate response and, perhaps, plant a seed for something to happen on its own there.”
And something did, indeed, begin to happen. Clubs sprouted up around the city, catering to a burgeoning middle class . A youth culture that had previously been spoonfed Bollywood fare and Western pop began to embrace bhangra and fusion music. Local DJ’s like Hussein began to find that they had gathered a following when they spun unique, underground twists on house, drum and bass and garage, rather than the standard Goa-influenced fare. And of course, there was that most important indicator of a vibrant scene: the cops began shutting places down.
“We’d be putting on a show and loads of police would show up at 9:30 to shut everything down, and this was happening all over town,” says Kapoor of the pervasive influence of Shiv Sena, Bombay’s ultra-conservative ruling party. “There was a very serious conservative backlash against the ‘MTV culture’ and it was manifesting itself with things like this.”
“Proper ‘clubbing’ can be very restrictive because of the cost and because of the influence of all the politicians,” says Rahman. “The influence of the gangsters and the politicians and the religious conservatives is quite strong and clubs are strictly monitored and they’re always shut down quite early.”
And in a city as spread out as Bombay – in which it can take nearly two hours to get from a downtown club like Headquarters to a place like Juhu Beach’s Razzberry Rhinoceros – a reality like that has, on one hand, kept the club scene from exploding.
“A lot of people party because it’s ‘work’ and they have to be seen in the right places and get their picture in the paper,” says Nafisa Joseph, host of MTV India’s “Housefull” program and Miss India 1997. “But there are also a lot of people who just party because they want to and that can be a problem because the clubs close so early here. By the time people get home from work, get changed and get back into the city, they’ve got maybe an hour or so before the clubs have to close down.”
However, that “challenge” has also lent Bombay’s club life a bit of an air of exclusivity.
Over the course of a couple of years, a DJ like Ryan Beck (also known as DJ Naryan) has been able to cultivate a following among diehard dance fiends that would have taken much longer in a city like New York or Berlin.
“It’s amazing how responsive people are to what we’re doing,” says Beck. “The scene here is really quite happening. I get to experiment with a lot of things and play a lot of different types of music. The people that show up are really into what I’m doing. It can be tough, you know, with the cops and all, but it’s a blast.”
Nonetheless, the “scene” in Bombay is far from establishing its own identity. Currently, it feels much like most of India – a head-spinning amalgam of all that’s beautiful and ugly, progressive and ancient. That a DJ can get away with spinning Depeche Mode, Paul Van Dyk, Sisqo and last month’s hot white-label back to back is evidence of that. Of course, what makes it uniquely Indian is that at any minute, you might hear the theme from Mohabattein or whatever other movie is hot at the moment.
“A lot of clubs cater to a wide-ranging middle class,” says Mini Mathur, who hosts MTV India’s “MTV Classic” program. “Half of the people who go to clubs love hearing Punjabi bhangra and will just sit and sulk if you’re playing techno or rave music. And on the other hand, there’s the people who just have to hear trance music and the people who just want to go out and have a good time. So the crowds in the clubs are very diverse.”
Yet, Mathur insists, although the vibes in Bombay are uniquely Indian, they’re not
stereotypically Indian, and from the club kids to the nouveau-riche partyers who partake of the scene, there’s a definite mission to keep them that way.
“There’s this whole stereotype of India: snake charmers, elephants and tigers, backpackers, gurus. And because it’s such a stereotype, you feel rebellious about it and you’re always reminding yourself that that’s not what your country is about. There are so many different cultural strata in India and it’s really amazing how everybody here finds some way to get along.”
First appeared on MTV.com in March 2001.