5 boss ladies who’re changing the indie music scene
'We’re taught to accessorise women and equip men'
Out of the 70-plus acts that will perform at this year’s edition of the NH7 Weekender music festival, which will be held in Meghalaya at the end of the month and in Pune in December, less than a dozen are women or female-fronted acts. The Indian independent music scene is still nascent, but it has been growing exponentially for nearly a decade now. Yet female players, even after all these years, are still a novelty. To understand why this remains the status quo, ELLE rounded up a group of accomplished women in indie music. Over breakfast at AKA Bistro in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda arts district, we got rapper Sofia Ashraf, artist manager Anu Anna George, singer-songwriter Ramya Pothuri, video producer Reema Sengupta and podcaster Mae Thomas to tell us what it’s like being a woman in the scene, and why there aren’t more like them:
ELLE: From performers to managers to producers, the Indian independent music industry is dominated by men. Does working in this field require you to be “one of the guys” sometimes?
Sofia Ashraf: For me, not at all. In fact, I get more gigs for being a female rapper. The reason why there are fewer women in the scene is because we aren’t encouraged to pursue music professionally when we’re young. I come from an orthodox Muslim household. The whole idea of the nautanki, the performer, is something relegated to prostitutes and dance bars.
Reema Sengupta: More often than not, I’m the only girl on the set. I’m also one of the youngest people present, and I’m running the entire thing. It’s not just the department heads, but also a lot of technicians and people who have not seen such a young, tiny girl be a director. I’ve actually had an assistant cameraman who was working with me for the first time, walk up to me and say, “You’re an AD (assistant director), no? Who’s the director?” You laugh it off.
Ashraf: The only way to beat that is through good work. You can’t beat it by taking offence. I’ve been told I need to be “more aggressive” as a director. But I do it through love, and it works.
Sengupta: I don’t think aggression is necessarily just a male quality. All of us have such distinct personalities.
Ashraf: I hate it when people say, “You’re not like most girls.” I am like most girls. I’m like all the girls on this table—independent, driven, a loudmouth.
Anu Anna George: There are certain roles, where I feel being a woman, say for example, when I’m pitching for a production-related project, leads to certain trust issues. I feel it’s a lot easier for that sector to trust men.
Sengupta: I think the difference is in roles that are performance-related and those that are leadership- and execution-related, i.e. “Will this girl be capable of handling a crew of 50?”
George: Or handling labour. All the on-ground production people, they’re all so respectful. They want to do good by you.
ELLE: Would you agree that there’s a lot more emphasis on the appearance of female performers than that of male artists?
Ramya Pothuri: Yes, especially on stage. I remember the first job I did. I was working at the Trident, Hyderabad. I used to wear dresses and tights. I remember one day, a lady from the management came up to me and said, “You know, you don’t have to wear tights. You can wear shorter skirts, sleeveless stuff. Your job is to get people to come in.” They were only getting women to sing and they were making sure that they looked sexy. With my own stuff, I never have that pressure. Because it’s my music, I’m writing it. No one’s going to tell me what to wear. With corporate gigs, they always ask you, “What are you going to wear?” I don’t know how much they do that to men.
Ashraf: I do see the value of packaging. You’re a performer at the end of the day. Earlier, I used to be like, “No, my music’s going to speak for me,” and I used to just wear shit. Now I let my clothes reflect my personality. But of course, if someone told me to wear a short skirt, then that would be ridiculous.
On Thomas: Neoprene wrap jacket with polymer strip belt, price on request, AM.IT by Amit Aggarwal. Sequined boots, Rs, 66,000, Christian Louboutin. On George: silk dress, price on request, A.MIT by Amit Aggarwal. Leather mules, stylist’s own. Metal earrings and nose ring, George’s own.
ELLE: Electronic music is the fastest growing sub-genre, with the number of artists and festivals increasing every year. While there are now a handful of female DJs, there are barely any women producers. Why do you think this is?
Ashraf: Women assume they can’t do technology.
George: They lack the confidence to discuss their questions with another person, who is most likely going to be a guy. There is that sense of not wanting to sound like an idiot. Sanaya [Ardeshir aka Sandunes, the country’s best-known female electronic music producer] and I have had this conversation about how there are now platforms internationally to push women producers.
Mae Thomas: In the average recording studio, the engineers, the editors, the sound guys are all men. When I worked at a radio station, I’d sit and edit all the sound myself. I knew how to use sound software. Why? Because I asked somebody.
Ashraf: It could also be that from a very young age, we’re taught to “accessorise” women and “equip” men. If my parents had a son, they would have saved up for his education. They saved up for jewellery for me. When I was 15, they were trying to drag me to a jewellery store. I said, “Save up, don’t buy me a gold chain, buy me a laptop”, and that laptop is what equipped me.
Pothuri: When I made my first EP, I had no clue about music production. I went to Bradoo [musician Rishi Bradoo, who co-produced the EP]. It sounded good, but a lot of the production wasn’t mine, it was his. Now for my next one, I have made an effort. I got (production software) Logic and had all my friends—again, mostly guys—teach me for a really long time. It was hard, but it’s so easy once you get it.
ELLE: How long do you think it’ll be before we stop needing to have these ‘women in the scene’ panel discussions?
Sengupta: It’s still very nascent. It’s very new. People are just starting to come out… do things, feel more confident in their shoes. Honestly speaking, I’d say at least a decade.
Ashraf: And that’s just the metros. I’ve done panel discussions in Chennai and the topics are completely different. It’s, “Are women allowed to be angry?” I’ve been on panels where it’s feminists versus anti-feminists, and the anti-feminists are all women!
Pothuri: Before we stop having these discussions, not only do the mentalities of the men have to change, the mentalities of so many women have to change.
Sengupta: This shift from “You should get a job,” to “You should do something you’re passionate about,” is recent, and it’s still a very urban phenomenon. It’s a long-drawn process, but in the meantime, we should all keep talking.
On Sengupta: Lurex quilted crop top, Rs, 7,500, moss crepe wrap jacket, Rs, 7,000; both Aniket Satam. Velvet culottes, Rs, 10, 000, Label By Chandni. Patent leather boots, stylist’s own. On Pothuri: Wool Jacket, price on request, pero double georgette trousers, Rs, 8,000, Label By Chandni. Lurex boots stylist’s own. On Ashraf: wool dress, price request, pero. Wool leggings, leather boots; both Ashraf’s own. Metal earrings, Rs, 2,000, BBling at Minerali.
Photographs: Anish Sarai; Styling: Sujala Newar; Art direction: Reshma Rajiwdekar; Hair: NailSpa Experience; makeup: Alisha Bhambhani Agarwal; assisted by: Vedika Chotrimal (styling); location courtesy; AKA Bistro, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai