#BringOnTheGirls: The Concealed Sexism of India’s Music Scene


#BringOnTheGirls: The Concealed Sexism of India’s Music Scene

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Picture this: You’re at the music festival of your choice. You arrive at the venue, breathlessly taking in the vast landscape of colours and music. You open up the festival guide, pore through the line-up for your favourite artists, but there’s a problem. As you scan the guide, your brows furrow in confusion. You reread the line-up, making sure that you’re not mistaken. There’s a familiar sinking feeling in your stomach as you realise that there are hardly a handful a women artists in a line up of over a 100 acts.

If you’re thinking of this as anecdotal, here are the facts: Over the past seven installations of the Bacardi NH7 Weekender, the average percentage of women artists on the roster is 12 per cent. When it comes to genres, Weekender seems like the one festival where diversity stands out, so it’s disappointing that it has had only one female headliner till date – Imogen Heap in 2011. Other major music festivals don’t fail to let down either, with VH1 Supersonic 2018 having only 14 per cent female artists, Electric Daisy Carnival 2016 having a single female act, and zero female headliners across its bill. The sole ray of hope is Magnetic Fields Festival 2018, with the highest number of female acts, an impressive figure of 28 per cent. All these figures are based off the organisers’ official line-ups.

I played the Bacardi NH7 Weekender in 2016 with my band RIVER. While we were incredibly stoked to be on a dreamy roster, we were disappointingly touted as the only “all-girl acapella band” when we were neither an acapella nor an all-girl band. But when an act has more than one or two women in it, it immediately becomes a “girl band”, or “female-fronted”. This terminology stresses that having women members in a band is a rarity, and that it should be a distinguishing feature, drawing attention away from their music. A band like The Vinyl Records have a completely different sound from The Tetseo Sisters or a Ladies Compartment, yet all these acts are nearly always grouped together as “female bands” – which isn’t a genre at all!

To everyone who believes that the simple answer to all of this is the fact that there aren’t enough women in the Indian music scene. Sorry, but no such easy escape is available. While there are definitely fewer female musicians in India than male, the number of female musicians isn’t so low that music festivals can fill up only a tenth of their roster with female acts. I’m personally aware of over 70 female acts in the indie scene alone, which doesn’t even begin to include Bollywood or international artists, both of whom are regularly programmed at music festivals.

The invisibility of women from the festival scene is actually a surprising phenomenon when you consider that the college music scene is full of them. Throughout my three years, as first a member and then president of one of the best college music societies of this country, I was surrounded by incredible musicians, most of whom were women. Somewhere in the space between college festivals and music festivals, all these incredibly talented women had suddenly vanished.

Somewhere in the space between college festivals and music festivals, all these incredibly talented women had suddenly vanished.

The organisers were male, programmers were male, and decision-makers were male. So were most of the artists on nearly every line-up, and this discrepancy was justified with the same old excuses.

When the programmers of music festivals go on saying that that gender isn’t considered during the selection of artists, what they mean is that they would not choose an act because of their gender, which is fine. But first, we need to acknowledge the divide by consciously searching for fresh acts across all genders. The outcome will show in your programming mix and it won’t be only 15 per cent women.

Perhaps an event like Arré Siren is the answer, a festival that finally shines a spotlight on the range of women performers in India and proves that there is no lack of talent available. The upcoming two-day festival showcases a line-up of exclusively female acts across a spread of genres, accompanied by a roster of the funniest female stand-up comics active today. If a festival can be programmed featuring only women, there’s no reason why we can’t have festivals with equal representation.

Last week a pair of opinionated young folk called out AIB for sexism in their sketch videos. Their cutting take on the concealed sexism in the country’s most popular comedy collective’s content created quite a stir. It drew a response from AIB, who humbly apologised and promised to be more sensitive with their representation of women going forward. The AIB takedown was a wakeup call for the comedy scene, which is something music festival organisers also desperately need.

With a little research and a little scouting, it won’t be difficult to unearth the kind of talent needed to make India’s music scene a woke bastion. It isn’t that hard to get. Aztec print crop-tops and dreamcatcher earrings aren’t the only things a girl wants when she heads to a music festival. Sometimes, she wants a stage, a spotlight, and a big-ass amplifier.