What started as a protest against gender bias at the workplace in 1908, where women gathered in thousands in New York City, has now grown into an annual celebration to commemorate women’s achievements across all fields. And when the spotlight comes to the Indian Music industry, till date women have to fight battles every day. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Well-behaved women rarely make history”, we bring a compilation featuring courageous women from the Indian Music industry who swam against the current and etched their names on the wall of fame in an era when females rocking on stage was frowned upon.
1. Asha Puthli
Asha Puthli’s career is an extraordinary tale that spans 5 decades & multiple countries during which she released music under different genres such as blues, pop, rock, soul, funk, disco, techno. Born in 1945, Puthli was raised in the suburbs of Bombay & since her adolescent age she used to listen to Pop and Jazz music. Her perseverance took her to New York where she collaborated with jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman on the album ‘Science Fiction‘. She was later signed on CBS records (now SONY) with which she released 4 albums, out of which ‘The Devil is Loose(1976)’ was declared an instant classic by the New York times & various other publications. Asha’s song ‘Space Talk’ was transmitted to outer space by Goonhilly British Satellite Earth Station in 2009 to mark the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. Even though Asha Puthli recorded her music around the world & her work has been sampled by the likes of rappers P.Diddy, The Notorious B.I.G., Dilated Peoples, 50 Cent, she still remains an unknown figure to a large population in her birth land.
2. Jayashree Singh
Jayashree was the frontWoman of the Rock/Jazz-funk & Avant-grande bands Skinny Alley & PinkNoise formed in Kolkata in the late 90s early 2000s. She was initially trained in Carnatic singing but eventually got inclined towards Jazz after being mentored by the Park Street Jazz icon Pam Craine. Jayashree formed Skinny Alley with her late husband Gyan Singh (Bass) & Amyt Datta (Guitars) in 1996 and released 2 full-length albums & 1 demo compilation that was never officially recorded. PINKNOISE was the late-night alter ego of Skinny Alley as per Datta, that focused on experimenting Jazz & funk with electronic music. Apart from the original Skinny Alley line-up, PINKNOISE also featured Jayashree’s & Gyan’s son Jivrej Singh on drums, who is famously known as 1/2 of the dream-pop duo Parekh & Singh. Unfortunately, Jayashree passed away in early 2018 after battling the previous year with cancer.
3. Farida Vakil
The western music scene was on the rise in the 60s but largely dominated by the male sex. Farida Vakil is known to be the 1st female lead guitarist & vocalist who formed her own band ‘The Ladybirds‘, also featuring Merlyn, Zarina & Jenny. Junior Statesman magazine published a full article in 1971 on Vakil with the sub-heading ‘Could Farida Vakil be a pop Jhansi Rani’. The Ladybirds entered the western music arena in Bombay that was led by male bands like The Savages, The Combustibles, and The Mystiks but also had female figures like Usha Uthup crushing through the crowd with her impeccable jazz vocals. Farida’s father acted as a supporting pillar since her childhood & bought her an electric guitar when she was only 16. He also supported her in Bombay by working as a manager for the band, getting them gigs & contracts in various social functions. The other members chose their own paths after a few years & the band drifted apart after living its time. Farida later joined The Riot Squad when they were looking for a lead guitarist for the Simla Beat competition, The band won the 1971 edition & also got a record deal. Farida had to quit the band in 1973 when she got married.
4. Radha Thomas
Radha Thomas is a hindustani classical & Jazz singer who launched her career in 1970 with ‘The Human Bondage’, a rock group formed in Bangalore, also considered as early pioneers of the raga rock movement. Post the band split-up in 1976, Radha started touring in Europe & US and performed at various jazz festivals as a part of an initiative by Jazz India, a philanthropic organisation which promoted Indian jazz around the world. Radha performed with renowned musicians like John Scofield, Michael Brecker, John Gaddis, Alex Blake, Joe Farrell during her time abroad. She returned back to India in 1993 & led shows at various fests with Louis Banks Sanjay Divecha, Gerard Machado, and Keith Peter. She is currently leading the jazz fusion band UNK: The Radha Thomas Ensemble along with Aman Mahajan who is the co-producer of the band.
5. Losers & Weepers
Lata Chandy, Kumari Koshy, Shubha Sathyendranath, Sheila Chandrasekharan and Sheila Mammen were part of a rock group ‘Losers & Weepers’ from 1969-1972 that was despised a lot. Lata Chandy told in an interview to a publication that it was an era when the women were looked down upon if they get on stage, men used to vex just with the thought of an all-girls band & so the girls would weep & call themselves losers, hence the name ‘Losers & Weepers’. Lata’s father used to demand that she plays in a Saree and that too outside the college and so the band gained motivation to play outside their native city & also performed at the India’s version of Woodstock festival held at Thiruvananthapuram in 1969.
6. Missing Links
Another Female rock band that was ahead of its time was formed in the late 60s in Kochi and had 4 female members – Shalet and Rita Paul, Sunila, and Anila Mathew. Shalet Paul, lead guitarist, and singer of the group believed music to be the missing link in the evolution of man & so the name came up. The group was often called as Paul & Mathew sisters. Shalet used to Jam with Usha Uthup who is known to be the legendary pop icon of India & their friendship was brewed in a hotel-casino where Usha was performing & Shalet was so awestruck that she couldn’t resist going on stage for an autograph. The girls had complete parental support since they came from families which were inherently musical. Missing Links often experimented with fusion music, played raga rock but the good times eventually came to an end due to studies and marriage as it does for many women in our country.
7. Rupa Biswas
Rupa grew up a typical middle-class, but “quite liberal”, Bengali girl in 1970s Calcutta. The Khan brothers were friends of Tilak, Rupa’s eldest brother, and agreed to create an album ‘Disco Jazz ‘ which is not just a usual 1980s disco record, it manages to use the form, sounds, and structures of club dance music to reach another level, which, even if not exactly jazz, is something entirely its own form. In 2014, Debayan Sen, daughter of Rupa Sen Biswas found a mysterious album inside of a trunk in his mother’s attic, in Kolkata, India. The red-orange record sleeve featured a picture of his mom as a young woman along with her name RUPA. That was the day Debayan learned about his mother’s past life as a singer. Since then, Disco Jazz has been reissued by Numero Group, the well-established archival label.
The number of female musicians that came out in the scene during the time which is considered as a formidable era for women is astounding. Several groups like ‘Neophiliacs’ from Allahabad, ‘Pop-pets’ featuring Frances Correa (niece of Mickey Correa) from Bombay, ‘Andrew sisters‘ & ‘Mixed Ups‘ from Delhi were also experimenting with sounds and breaking all gender stereotypes.