(A lot of the links are to YouTube videos so apologies to those with slow internet connections. In most cases they are, however, worth waiting for. 😉 )
He has Shah Rukh Khan’s title, Tamilian superstar Gemini Ganesan’s hair, Kannad cine and YouTube legend Rajkumar’s moustache. All hail King Khan, who with The Shrines (an eleven-piece German band), is making rock music that is as loud, psychedelic and melodic as it was meant to be before acoustic plinky-plonkiness softened rock’s razor-sharp edges. If the music wasn’t exciting lovers of classic and psychedelic rock, just the album cover would have won King Khan and the Shrines a solid fan base. Fortunately, the tracks they’ve put online are excellent which means the band has a good chance of lasting longer than the current craze for Indian pop aesthetic.
In the past five odd years, Indian kitsch has sudden acquired the patina of cool. I use the k-word with trepidation because suddenly almost everything is kitschy so I haven’t the foggiest what the word actually means. The dictionary says kitsch is that which is created “to appeal to undiscriminating taste”, a “tasteless copy of an existing style” or highly pretentious. If it hadn’t been for them damn postmodernists, the tenet of “art=good; kitsch=bad” that I’d grown up with would still hold. But no, pink flamingos had to become retro-cool; India’s pop art had to gain cult status and some of us found ourselves full of questions. Is kitsch bad? If it’s ironic, does it become good? How fine is the line between irony and mockery? Is kitsch’s cult status a new way of exoticising us natives?
Who cares? Because thanks to this new wave of appreciation for tastelessness, India’s cool and being Indian is cool. All the signifiers of India that made us cringe when we were growing up – the strange clothes, the shiny jewellery, the senseless movies – all this has become topic of conversation and stuff that earns us positive recognition. While our arty elite – Satyajit Ray, Amitav Ghosh, Ravi Shankar – has tried for decades to earn recognition with quality work, ironically enough, as a community rather than as individuals, we have become equals to the Western world thanks to our pulp.
So we can look at Wes Anderson’s shots in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, where it looks like something from a children’s movie with toys floating about in copper sulphate solution, and say it’s reminiscent of the crazy underwater sequence from the 1977 Bollywood film Parvarish. Superstar chef Anthony Bourdain came to India and got his palm read for an episode in his show. Instead of white people, a play about an Irish family has been adapted and turned to a proudly-brown Rafta Rafta, which is now in Broadway after completing its stint in London. AR Rahman has sold his songs to Andrew Lloyd Webber and on YouTube, Buffalax is something of a god with more than 6 million hits for Benny Lava. Now if Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt would adopt an Indian kid, the country’s PR image would probably be set. Those who have been born and brought up in the cradle of the motherland can’t appreciate the magnitude of this change, I suspect. It’s the brown brethren who have grown up abroad for whom this is radical. Because everything that used to get them ridiculed and beaten up in the school playground now earns them a round of laughter and a drink at a posh bar in the city’s coolest district.
This is perhaps why, rather than seeing brilliant people emerge out of India’s billion-plus population, the ones who are edging towards the limelight are the Indian-origin folks from foreign shores. It’s for them that the rise of kitsch has been like a parting of the Red Sea both in terms of opportunities and psychologically. Like in the case of Sid Khosla of Goldspot, who was told repeatedly over the past few years that the band’s sound was great but no record label wanted to take the risk of a band with a brown lead man. Or for Rakesh Khanna, a mathematician from Berkeley with a passion for Tamil pulp fiction whose most recent accomplishment is having translated “a transgressive novel” for a publishing house called Blaft that he started with his wife and a friend (I don’t know about the literature but I’m sold on their Item Number bag; see Fun Stuff). And of course, there’s King Khan, who was born in Montreal to a an Indian couple who are probably shaking their heads in despair when they see publicity shots of their son standing on a lawn, flexing his muscles, wearing nothing more than a helmet on his head and a thong to preserve his modesty.