God’s Own Indies: Celebrating Our Finest Singer-Songwriters

You don’t hear the word ‘singer-songwriter’ often in Kerala. Probably because the music industry here has traditionally been divided into departments, and you don’t see a lot of people going out of their comfort zones and venturing out on their own. In films/popular music, there is always an overarching thought of maximizing revenue and this restricts experimentation. But for years, there have been artists who wished to venture out on their own and do some creative multi-tasking. They may have been singers who wished to explore music production, or composers who wished to write their own lyrics and so on. This is where they took to live concerts and albums (that were booming in the late 90s) that gave them this space for experimentation. And then with the advent of the internet, these independent efforts have translated into singles and EPs, and have started to get (pretty much) the same exposure as film music!

We have tried to curate a list of singer-songwriters from Kerala who have made waves in the indie space. Do note that this list does not include music directors who occasionally sing in their films or playback singers who occasionally do non-film work. These artists have all, at some point in their lives, stayed away from the mainstream glitz and strived towards creating their own sound. Let’s just say this post is a tribute to their grit?

Umbayi

This Ghazal maestro grew up in Mattanchery, a hotspot for all things art. Inspired by Mehboob and other greats of the time, he wanted to take up music but seems his father was against the idea. So when he failed his exams, he was sent to Bombay to work: this proved a game changer, as he met Ustad Munawar Ali Khan there and trained under him for 7 years. He had an extensive portfolio of non-film work and is credited to be the man who popularized Ghazal music in Kerala. In 2018, he came to know of his terminal illness; before his demise in August, he worked on his dream of setting up a Hindustani academy in Kerala.

Our Picks: 

Kalabhavan Mani

Mani set up a whole parallel industry of folk songs with his fun naadan paattu albums in the late 90s. Soon after, he began diversifying to devotional and maappilappattu albums as well. He was also a regular in the international stage shows circuit. All this while maintaining his place as one of the most reliable actors in Malayalam cinema. Talk about being multifaceted! Unfortunately, the legend passed away in 2016 in mysterious circumstances.

Our Picks:

Jassie Gift

If you don’t remember the ‘Jassie Gift wave’, you’re probably too young to be reading this. Even before his trademark hit 4 The People, Jassie worked on a number of albums, notably ‘Soona Soona’. The man incorporated western elements like techno and rap into essentially Carnatic raga-based music. Add to this his distinctive singing style, and audiences were stumped. They hadn’t heard anything like this before! 

Our Picks:

Shahabaz Aman

Way before he entered film music, Aman was already a prominent member in the Ghazal space, with multiple albums and live tours to his credit. His albums’ lyrics were often inspired from the works of poets such as Kamala Das and Sachidanandan and ONV Kurup. His soulful voice complements his brand of soft, contemplative music. A mood indeed! 

Our Picks:

Suraj Mani

Suraj rose to prominence as the lead singer of Motherjane in early 2000s. Post this stint, he created ‘Suraj Mani and the Tattva Trip’ as an endeavour towards acoustic rock poetry. He writes his own (mostly philosophical) lyrics as well. He is an indispensable part of the Indie music picture, not just because of his creative contributions but also because he founded record label Aum-i Artistes: the company behind shows like Music Mojo and Muse Room, that led to the rise of some of the best bands we know today.

Our Picks:

Sithara Krishnakumar

A lesser known fact about the celebrated playback singer is that she also debuted as a composer with the single ‘Ente Akasham’ in 2017. She has worked with various bands; most recently, she has founded Project Malabaricus that dabbles into a variety of genres including classical and folk. Ever since her debut – and especially this lockdown – there has been no looking back for the songwriter in her. In May, Muhsin Parari sent her the lyrics to a song called Chayappattu, which she then tuned and sung. Heard it yet? 

Our Picks:

Job Kurian

One of the strongest proponents for Malayalam indie music, Job Kurian has been creating a niche for himself since 2011, with the independent album Thaalam. Along with film songs, he also actively worked on television shows like Straight From the Heart and Music Mojo. He draws inspiration from a variety of artists, from Coldplay to Johnson Master, and this adds to his versatility as a songwriter. He is also an electric live performer, and headlines the act ‘Job Kurien Live’.  

Our Picks:

Gowry Lekshmi

Gowry was just 13 when she composed a song for Mohanlal-statter Casannova. Two years later, she debuted as a singer for Prashant Pillai. And in another two years, she released her debut independent single Thoni, which was widely appreciated. And since then, she has consciously worked on building a formidable body of work in independent music, along with her film endeavours.

Our Picks:

Maalavika Manoj

One of the most original voices in the indie scene today, Maalavika Manoj – better known by her stage name ‘Mali’ – started her career with Chennai-based band Bass In Bridge. By 2011, the band dissolved and she moved to Mumbai to pursue songwriting. Though she believes that a lot of her music comes from overthinking and melancholic thoughts, she does not operate in a set genre: every song has a different vibe. Most recently, she released ‘Age of Limbo’: a brilliant, unnerving track that almost plays second fiddle to the general mood of the lockdown! 

Our Picks:

As always, we’ve tried to create a diversified lineup of songwriters who operate in different genres. We may have missed out on some of your favourite artists, so do comment below! 

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