‘Studio 84’: Digging into the History of Disco in India

by geeta on August 29, 2010

I’ve been spending a lot of time digging up disco and electro records from India in the early 1980s. I was inspired by Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat— which I wrote about here and here — and figured that there must be a whole hidden cache of these records, a treasure trove of proto-techno sounds. The Charanjit Singh record, I argued, wasn’t a total anomaly; it was part of a zeitgeist. Disco was still a raging concern in India in the ’80s, long after it had peaked in popularity in the US and UK, and the idea of an acid house record coming out of India in ’83 didn’t seem so far out of the question. So I set off trying to find that zeitgeist — a time in India when disco reigned supreme.

I found plenty of examples of rich, symphonic disco tunes from Bollywood in the early ’80s. Here’s one of my favorites in that vein, from a movie I’ve written about before — Disco Dancer (1982), a film that was campy to the extreme, with a plot that was utterly ridiculous even by Bollywood standards. The soundtrack included some sublime slabs of peak-time disco, including the hit song “Yaad Aa Raha Hai,” produced by Bollywood disco/funk legend Bappi Lahiri. A disco anthem for the ages, and one of the best songs Lahiri ever did. Check out how Mithun, the disco dancer, is rocking a blazin’ guitar solo with an electric guitar that isn’t even plugged in!

But I was more interested in finding more examples of minimalist disco, the sort of thing that, like Charanjit, was more on a techno wavelength. While nothing quite approached the techno tempo of Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat –- the tracks on that record clock in somewhere between 120 and 130 bpm — there were plenty of tunes from Bollywood in the early ‘80s that had a very futuristic electro feel to them. Here’s “Dil Lena Khel Hai Dildar Ka” by R.D. Burman, from the movie Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981):

Here’s another song, “Poocho Na Yaar Kya Hua,” from the same movie. This is more of a conventional disco tune (complete with a light-up dancefloor and a Saturday Night Fever-inspired dance number), but there are a lot of interesting close-up shots of people jamming on synthesizers, including a shot of a woman making electronic sounds with a strange-looking synth, with a stack of vinyl and a turntable next to her:


Because of Bollywood’s surreal collision of influences, and preponderance of vocals, songs were rarely as ‘techno’ as they could potentially have been, even if they were pointing in a techno direction. The psychedelic grab-bag mentality of Bollywood film music reminds me of an article I wrote some years ago for the German magazine Groove on Yellow Magic Orchestra. When I interviewed Ryuichi Sakamoto, he told me that YMO was like a “bento box,” with a little bit of everything, while Kraftwerk was “conceptual, kind of theoretical, very focused”:

“Even in the beginning of that time when we were doing YMO, of course we knew Kraftwerk, and we thought their music was so German,” says Sakamoto. “It was conceptual, kind of theoretical, very focused, simple and minimal and strong. And even the timbre, the sound of their sense of sound, is German to us. It’s very strong and kind of heavy and solid. We wanted to make something very Japanese, in contrast. It’s a very good contrast, Kraftwerk and YMO. YMO had a mixture of everything–American music influence, European music influence, classical influence, pop–so many. It’s like a bento box. And we thought that was very Japanese.”

In 1981, Kraftwerk played two back-to-back concerts in one night in Bombay as part of the Computer World tour. The concept of Kraftwerk playing in India fascinated me. What was it like to be at that show? How easy was it to get a Kraftwerk record in India in 1981? In the memoir I Was A Robot, Kraftwerk’s erstwhile percussionist Wolfgang Flür recalls finding Kraftwerk bootleg cassettes in a market in Bombay in ‘81:

We found another shop that sold cassettes, and we even found some by Kraftwerk there. We couldn’t believe it. This was totally illegal, because our record company had no representation in India. There were no official imports at that time, either, so these were either bootlegged recordings or contraband, and apart from that the sound quality was miserable…

Even though it wasn’t so easy to come by Kraftwerk records in India, the two concerts in Bombay were well-attended. The shows took place at Shanmukhananda Hall, a venue best known for hosting marathon Indian classical music performances (Florian Schneider apparently stopped by one of these, and was mesmerized.) Flür remembered that the “audience was exclusively comprised of men…[at] the end of the performance, we walked off to thunderous applause. I hadn’t expected so much energy…” Kraftwerk didn’t play an encore in Bombay–they hopped on a plane back to Europe immediately following the concert–but Ralf Hütter apparently set the sequencer to run continuously during the last song of the set, “It’s More Fun to Compute,” and left it playing as they left the stage, to raucous applause.

1981 was also the year that the chart-topping album Disco Deewane, a collaboration between the late Pakistani pop singer Nazia Hassan and the Indian disco producer Biddu, was released. My favorite Nazia tune, though, which I linked to earlier, is “Boom Boom” (1982), with its sublime rip of the Moroder “I Feel Love” bassline and haunting vocals. Here it is again to refresh your memory:

There was a whole string of disco movies in Bollywood in the 1980s; several of them were directed by Babbar Subhash, the director of Disco Dancer. Here’s another disco movie, also starring Mithun Chakraborty, from 1984 — Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki. The movie includes a heated disco dancing scene that takes place in a joint called “Studio 84.” Here’s the sign from the club in the movie, in case you don’t believe me. “Studio 84” encapsulates the whole idea of disco in India in the ’80s, to me:

This is what it’s like inside of Studio 84:

Here’s the title track from the movie, another Bappi Lahiri production. Another disco anthem, but this one gets bogged down with too many flourishes. At 4:22 there’s a very techno-sounding interlude:


The movie also includes this out-and-out rip — er, homage — to Michael Jackson (for more on Michael Jackson and Bollywood, check out my essay in the book The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson):


The blog Beat Electric points to a few more Indian disco tunes from the early ’80s worth listening to here. And here’s a Todd Terje re-edit of “Jimmy Jimmy Aja,” another song from 1982’s Disco Dancer which got a recent popularity boost from M.I.A., who did a pretty straight-up cover of the song a few years back.

More later!

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