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Pearl; India’s Number 1 Superstar DJ: Fighting For her Life (and Right to Party)

Reported by JontySkrufff on November 6, 2010

“Here in India we have to constantly and actively fight for our right to dance and to listen to electronic dance music. Not to be pessimistic but I don’t think this divide will ever be bridged. There are deep cultural reasons for this moral policing. We are a country of contradictions.

10 years after she quit her job as a KLM air stewardess to concentrate full time on DJing, Pearl is one of India’s most popular- and credible- DJs, playing underground house and techno to an ever-growing countrywide fanbase. She’s also remarkably fearless, as evidenced by her decision to substitute the security of working for a Dutch airline for the decks at a time when DJs in India would typically find themselves ‘tucked into a corner, playing requests with no concept of stringing a set together’ in the few clubs that then existed.

“The decision to leave KLM and concentrate on DJing full time was sort of made for me actually,” says Pearl.

“I became really sick and stopped flying though for months doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Eventually I was diagnosed with a tumour next to my heart. That was it,” she confides.

“Music helped me get back on my feet. I had a lot of support from my family and boyfriend, now husband, because suddenly, priorities had changed. It is clichéd, but yes, such experiences do make you see life differently. About that word secure you use . . . I’m not sure I hang on to that for anything. Life is unpredictable and it’s nice that way,” she smiles.

10 years on, she remains devoted to spreading the EDM cause, also co-running leading promotion company Submerge (with Hermit Sethi and her husband Nikhil Chinapa, himself an MTV star and equally huge character in India’s club scene).

Heavily involved in Goa’s acclaimed annual Sunburn Festival (Nikhil is festival director) the trio also book tours for scores of Top 100 DJs (the latest being one Armin Van Buuren) though as Pearl points out, India’s contradictions mean nothing is ever simple.

“Dancing is in our genes, so is music, but only certain types of dancing- and music- are condoned,” she explains. “We have festivals throughout the year, where everybody comes out on the streets, plays loud music, they drink and they dance like it’s their birthright: and it is. But put a few people in a closed environment, with enough soundproofing to not bother anyone and it’s suddenly immoral and shady. We have countless folk dances, traditional Indian dances, music recitals and propagation for all these, but when it comes to understanding that like minded youth might be into some other style of music or expression, you’ll only find closed minds.”

Quite how serious the cultural divide remains is evidenced by the authorities’ relatively recent crackdown on Goa’s once infamously hedonistic outdoor party scene, though Pearl points out that Goa is anything but unique. 

“Yes the threat that you could get shut down is always there, not just in Goa, but everywhere,” she says.

“Bangalore has been the worst hit. Dancing is illegal there in a way because of some old excise and licensing laws that were pulled out recently. Everything shuts at 11.30pm. Once when a gig got shut down by a cop, the whole club sat down on the dance-floor in protest; me included! We now try to get around it by starting earlier and it’s amazing to see the people from that city supporting us . . . even at 7 in the evening.”

Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): Bangalore aside, what's your assessment of India's club/ EDM scene today: how does the club/ EDM scene compare to 5 years ago?

Pearl: “Ten years ago, when other parts of the world were at their clubbing peak, there was no scene to speak of here in India. There were no record stores. In fact, there never have been any so piracy was rampant. There was no other way. Five or six years ago there was a visible change. Clubs started supporting DJs, even spending to bring guest DJs in, letting them have their freedom, and generally not getting in the way. 

Now we’re in our best phase because everyone is trying to outdo each other. 

Not just the clubs, but promoters, DJs, agencies … even cities. Mini festivals are springing up everywhere, especially after Sunburn paved the way for them. DJs from across the world are falling over themselves to create a market here. We’re being recognized as a huge clubbing destination. So many music conventions now have a dedicated India panel. Yes it’s definitely looking good, there’s enough work to go around for everyone . . . a far cry from the scene I jumped into nearly a decade ago.”

Skrufff: How much potential does the scene have to crossover to the mass-market in the way EDM is in Europe?

Pearl: “Not much at all. frankly. You only have to drive around our cities to realize what the truth really is. I know, it looks like we are a billion- strong market, but EDM is understood and liked only by a microscopic percentage of this number. The majority of people in India live in villages. Our economy is looking good, but music is definitely not at the top of anybody’s agenda, making a living and surviving is. The crowds that fill the clubs amount to only a few hundred people in most cities. And like most clubbers, they are fickle, they can be loyal too, but they eventually grow up. Luckily, there is a new wave of youth that is into this music now. They are getting into it at the right age, as it should be, largely due to the digital revolution. But the real picture is not in the clubs. It’s out on the streets. The musical taste of the masses is entirely different from the people filling the clubs and largely comprises Hindi Film music.

Clubbing and the rules that govern it are always on the back burner of our politicians. It’s understandable why, but also frustrating at the same time. It’s imperative for our main cities to realize the importance of a healthy nightlife, not only for their image internationally, but for the security of its people. Emptying the streets of a city doesn’t make it safer, quite the contrary actually. Look at Bangalore. Once a bustling city at night, is now completely deserted after midnight. It is definitely a scarier place now by any measure.”

Skrufff: What musical trends are most popular in India; how much are clubbers in India following what's going on in Berlin or London or Ibiza?)

Pearl: “India is on a par with the world as far as releases are concerned, well, maybe it’s not Miami, but any new music that breaks, doesn’t take too long to get here now. I remember a time when I used to travel to Europe a few times a year, fill up my record bags and use that music for months. The upside was that you got to know your music really well, the downside was that you were always broke making all those trips. Now the EDM world has flattened somewhat. The sounds being played in the most underground clubs abroad are being experimented with here as well. In fact we have a lot more purists in our scene, not always a good thing I know, but there are more and more DJs willing to stand their ground than ever before.

Skrufff: As a DJ, how much do you see your role as educating the crowd?  

Pearl: “I wouldn’t know how to give myself any weight in all this, but it feels good to have played a small part in that growth story. My focus from day one was to bring the music into India, to grow the scene here and I’m glad I haven’t lost sight of it. It was a tough task though to push obscure music many years ago when all the clubs wanted was familiar tunes. It still is in a few cities but it’s all part of the challenge.”

Skrufff: How much do Indian crowds need educating? How much do DJs at Sunburn have to play more accessible/ crowd pleasing sets then elsewhere?

Pearl: “You’ll be surprised by this answer but very little. The few times that I have played abroad, there has been more pressure on me to play crowd-pleasing music than even in India. Maybe it’s due to the sheer number of people you need to keep in these huge clubs to sustain them. There has to be a balance. In India’s smaller and less evolved clubs or towns, you do need to resort to some emergency tracks once too often, but not at a festival. Especially at the annual Submerge parties in Goa or at Sunburn, people come with incredibly open minds. They are all about the artist, the music, the sand and the famous Goa King’s beer too I’m sure. It took a fair amount of work on the microphone to drive these parties at times. There was a time when during a breakdown in a track, we had to explain that the track wasn’t over, it was just taking a breather.”

Skrufff: What's your assessment of the party scene in Goa: reading the press parties seem under perpetual threat: Are they in reality?

Pearl: “Raves were clamped down on in Goa a few years ago, in quite a heavy handed fashion and almost overnight. Somebody with the power to do it, wanted to change the image of Goa. Fair enough, but it’s a scene missed by many. It’s a pity that such an integral part of Goa is not allowed to co-exist with the more commercial, above board side. 

Submerge and Sunburn are very vocal about their anti-drug policies. But a festival or even a club night that can go off without a few hiccups is rare and depends heavily on the local authorities. I have to say here though, that the Goa government has been extremely supportive in promoting and sustaining Sunburn, they realize that this music and their State has a pull that is inexplicable. They also see first hand what such footfalls can do for their tourism based economy.”

Skrufff: In July, Goa Congress legislator Victoria Fernandes said ‘rave parties create a fearful atmosphere. Such night parties should be completely banned. They are having an evil impact on society':  (Times of India): why are authorities so hostile?

Pearl: “A lot hinges upon what you grow up with here. There are a thousand cultures squeezed into every square mile. How do you find common ground in a place like this? We do a mighty good job finding a balance despite this, but there is a strong need to hang on to that cultural fibre people think they are losing their grip on. Some people are extremely conservative and want to keep a strong hold on the next generation and its values.”

Skrufff: How much pressure do you come under personally (from authorities or others believing that EDM is 'evil'?)

Pearl: “I haven’t been targeted specifically, but when a club is shut down, so is your music and nothing could be worse for an artist. I did have to put up with mindsets and being judged socially but it’s been more than worth it. It kind of makes this profession dearer to me.” 

Skrufff: Growing up in Goa: your biog mentions that your parents were part of the original 70s Goa scene, collecting records: what were they doing in the scene and then when you were growing up? 

Pearl: “I think that comes across differently from how it should. My dad was with the Indian Navy, that’s why we lived in the coastal towns and that’s why Goa. In fact my first few years were spent in the Andamans. They loved their music and we got to experience it with them while growing up. Yes my dad collected records. In fact I think he still downloads more music than I do. Music was like air in our house. Goa then was a different place, with lots of empty beaches and occasional low-key parties on them. The music was entirely different from what hit Goa soon after. I only have good memories of the place and I’m glad I live just one hour away in Bombay now. Someday I think I’ll make it my home again.”

Skrufff: What kind of environment did you grow up in Goa as a teenager, were you surrounded by Western travellers? Did you go to many/ any parties when you were really young?

Pearl: “We were long gone from Goa by then. I do remember a few, but very few. I saw a fair share of hippies and at heart I think my whole family is exactly that. But we also had a strict upbringing . . . like any officer’s children might. So even though my parents were into music, they couldn’t handle the thought of their daughter becoming a DJ. Purely out of concern for my security and of course with a society to answer to. It took a while but they came around and now are my biggest supporters. They’re there every year right on the beach at Sunburn, dancing. My dad is the bearded chap with a Pearl T-shirt on.” 

Skrufff: Working as an air stewardess: what made you decide to switch to DJing?

Pearl: “The reason I took the job was actually because of my love for art. I was into painting and wanted to see as much of the greats as I could. I also wanted to take a break to figure out what I really wanted to do, get out of the country for a bit and there was no way to finance this. This job and Amsterdam turned out to give me the best years of my life and my career as well. For one, KLM was a great company to work with and I got an entirely different perspective on life there. I was exposed to clubbing and DJs playing real sets. I was into music, yes, but I had never heard it played like this before. I had to get this into India. I found the obscure record stores and bought records for myself on my flights there, records I had no means to play. I eventually met my mentor Michiel Kleiss who trained me initially. I booked a few DJs through him and then there was no looking back.” 

Skrufff: How much of an overlap was there: did you maintain the two activities in parallel for long?)

Pearl: “I needed to keep flying because I had no other source for the records and I also couldn’t imagine a life without being in and out of Amsterdam. I found a club in India that I started training at so yes, I did have two jobs for a while. There was a sense of urgency to pick up DJing. I couldn’t sustain this for too long and fell horribly sick and eventually had to choose. Luckily by then, I was getting enough shows to afford my tickets a couple of times a year to go fill my record bags. But I missed the weekly runs to the stores… and my second home Amsterdam incredibly. It’s amazing that that flying job of mine led to my DJing career, then to Submerge and in a strange way to what Sunburn is today because of all that Nikhil learnt along the way with me and his vision. I have a lot to thank Holland for… basically a huge chunk of the EDM scene in India is closely tied to this country.”

Skrufff: How much are you driven to be successful worldwide: how ambitious are you generally?

Pearl: “Like I said, the focus has always been to get the music into India for me and still remains so. I do have a huge market here and it keeps me on my toes for most of the year. Having said that, sometimes I do feel I’ve hit a wall here, like I’ve done all there was to be done and wouldn’t mind exploring the world once more, playing to different audiences. I love the music I play. I love just being a DJ. Maybe that’s why I haven’t turned producer yet. I got so busy doing shows and spreading the music in India, that it took a back seat. I know it’s essential now to be recognized as a producer too… but not in my world. I have tried my hand at it and will continue to.. though I think my self critical side in production might always win over my ambitious one. 

DJ’s in India are not in the running for the top 100, they know that and somehow that’s meant that for most of us the motivations for doing the job have remained untainted. It’s still all about the music. India is churning out a lot of good talent now, on the production side as well, put this together with all the attention it’s garnering as a clubbing country… and it’s a really exciting time to see which way it develops from here.” 

Jonty Skrufff ( )