Thousands of tiny black-and-white television screens flicker on and off. A handful of colour TVs in some households bring the next-door neighbours over. Radio sets are tuned into the All India Radio frequency. Visually and aurally, the news relayed is the same.

A frail, bald 70-year-old man is making a speech. Said to be fluent in 17 languages, tonight, more than ever, he wants to communicate clearly. The socialists are out to get him. The right-wingers are baying for his blood. The nation is in desperate need of money. The previous government had already been sent packing for allowing more than 60 tonnes of precious gold to be airlifted out of India to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as a pledge against a $600 million loan.

The year is 1991 and the man is Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao. A nation waited. A nation worried. Could Rao’s bold move have the desired impact?

Two decades on, the economy revived as hoped, but very few anticipated the creative renaissance that was to follow as an unintended butterfly effect.

These were still peaceful days in erstwhile Bangalore—pensioner’s delight and retiree’s abode. Sprawling bungalows and narrow roads were just broad enough for scooters, autos and Maruti Suzuki 800s that moved mostly between the neighbourhoods of Malleshwaram, Indiranagar and Shivajinagar.

Further south, in a locality called Banashankari, two-year-old Vighnesh Shivanand was being brought up in a typical Tamil Brahmin household. “Carnatic music and devotional tracks would blare every morning,” he tells me over the telephone. From a conventional middle class family, Shivanand’s parents moved from Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, to Bengaluru soon after he was born. They expected their son to grow up studying science, get an engineering degree, and start a family.

Elsewhere in south India, Naveen Richard was born into a Catholic Christian family in Kochi, Kerala, before the family shifted to Coimbatore. Half-Malayalee and half-Tamil, his parents ran a rubber estate in Kerala.

Like these boys in their contrasting environs, the country itself was moving ahead in many ways. Prime Minister Rao’s decision had brought foreign enterprises to India. Bengaluru seemed to be the most affected, as software and service industries rushed to create a base in the city with its year-long pleasant climate. The Internet was penetrating India. Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited opened commercial web services in the four metros by the mid-1990s, and Bengaluru was the first non-metro to go online soon after.

Inside the living rooms of most homes, international broadcasting networks began diverting viewers’ attention away from politically correct shows on Doordarshan. “Nobody in my class was watching as much English TV as me. I was addicted to Mr Bean, Small Wonder, Full House, and Home Improvement from a very young age,” says Richard, of his first memories of western comedy. “My parents spoke to me in Malayalam and Tamil but I would always reply in English. They eventually gave up.”

Bored listening to traditional music, Shivanand was developing a fascination for hip-hop. “My first major influence was A. R. Rahman’s Pettai Rap (that released in 1994). The groove structure and setup was so different from everything else playing in India at that time.” In his strict household, spending time in front of the television was frowned upon, but Shivanand managed to watch TV without his parents’ knowledge. “When I was 10 or 11, MTV had just begun in India and I discovered Eminem and other international hip-hop artists.”

Eager to experiment in music, Shivanand began writing about a subject familiar to most school-going children. “In Class 9, when I was 14 years old, I wrote my own lyrics making fun of teachers in the form of rap. I showed it to my classmates and they liked it. There were no tunes or beats back then. ”

His musical inclinations meant that soon co-curricular activities like cricket or football (“I was a backup goalkeeper for my school in Classes 11 and 12”) faded into the background.

While Shivanand entertained classmates with funny rap lyrics, Richard chose humorous plays and sketches to become popular. “By the end of Class 8, I transferred out of Coimbatore to an Anglo-Indian boarding school in Ooty.” The Laidlaw Memorial School of St. George’s Homes was particularly encouraging of arts and music. “People got my humour there much more and I started relating to my new classmates.”

Shivanand’s bump in the road appeared once he graduated from Bishop Cotton Boys’ School in Bengaluru. He told his parents about his love for music, but they dissuaded him, saying there was no scope.

“At that time, there were only two options: engineering, or if you are much smarter than the rest, medicine. People were shocked if you wanted to do anything else; they’d ask what was wrong, or whether you are brainwashed or in bad company.”

Shivanand enrolled in a mechanical engineering course at a local college near his home. “I would just go to college and come home every evening. By the second semester, I had two backlogs and barely 50 per cent attendance. I realised I couldn’t be happy doing this four or five years down the line.”

Shivanand turned to the only thing he knew best—music. “I started going to clubs and parties to keep my rap dreams alive.” A confrontation with his family was in the offing.

By this time, swayed by television and movies, Richard decided to study law. He thought engineering needed too much studying, and a BBA wasn’t challenging enough. “There’s a dialogue in Godfather III, where Michael Corleone’s son wants to be a professional singer, but is talked out of it by his father who says ‘A law degree is like insurance. After that you can do anything you want’.”

Richard joined the five-year integrated law programme at Christ University, Bengaluru, in 2008. Two years into the course, he realised he’d be better off as an actor or comedian.

Two 19-year-olds were at the crossroads, searching for ways to pursue their artistic interests. The Internet would come to their aid.

In 2007, once he decided that music was his calling, Shivanand ambitiously gave himself the stage name “Brodha V”. “I wanted to speak for myself and consequently for others through my music. I wanted my music to represent the voice and aspirations of the young community around me.”

These were the days of social networking site Orkut and Shivanand honed his skills in the online community through “text battling”— a rap term for downloading beats and rapping over it in competition with others. “I used to do this every day, and pretend I was studying whenever anyone walked into my room.”

Through one of these Orkut groups, Shivanand connected with fellow south Indians Nikhil Padmanabhan (“Bigg Nikk”) and Sumukh Mysore (“Smokey”) in 2008, and they decided to compose music together. “We had a Rs.600-Rs.700 microphone and did basic recording on our own systems. They would send me the files and I’d take care of the basic mixing.”

The underground community’s enthusiastic response encouraged them to become a more serious group. Machas With Attitude (MWA) was formed. “Tink Music in Chennai was making an album about their city and got in touch with us for one of the songs. Our track This is Chennai, Namma Chennai did well and was used in the Indian Premier League whenever the Chennai Super Kings hit a four or a six.”

It was time for Shivanand to come clean to his parents. “I sat down with my father and told him that I wanted to study sound engineering. He relented but warned me that ‘this is your last chance. If you fail, it’s on you.’” Father and son zeroed in on the SAE Institute in Chennai where he joined the sound engineering course in 2009.

Shivanand wasn’t alone. Across India, youngsters were discarding beaten-to-death career options to pursue their callings in music. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, then teenagers Adhithya Ramachandran Venkatapathy and Jeeva K. R. S—using a profile photo of reformist poet Subramania Bharati to hide their identity from their parents—were promoting their hip-hop music through the Internet as Hiphop Tamizha.

Hip-hop arrived in the 1990s with Baba Sehgal, considered India’s first rapper. Actor/dancer Javed Jaffrey, through the cult song Mumbhai from the 1998 movie Bombay Boys, pioneered this genre in the Hindi film industry. By the late 1990s, there were many underground club records created by local DJs who developed cult followings.
The early 2000s saw Blaaze, a globetrotting rapper of Indian origin, collaborate with acclaimed music composer A. R. Rahman on numerous movies. In the north, Punjabi rap videos of Pakistani-American artist Bohemia were becoming popular, eventually paving the way for future commercial artists like Raftaar, Badshah and Yo Yo Honey Singh.

Back down south, Malaysian singers Yogi B and Natchatra flew down to Chennai in 2008 and popularised rap in Tamil Nadu with their remixed version of the Illaiyaraaja composition Madai Thiranthu from the 1980 movie Nizhalgal. “Initially, most hip-hop artists use the Internet as a forum to promote their music,” said Hip Hop Tamizha’s Adhi in an interview published in The Hindu in 2011. The USP of Hip-Hop Tamizha lies in the fact that they rap completely in Tamil. Their music videos are a huge hit on YouTube, with a couple of them garnering over a million views each. A reason for their popularity is that the lyrics reflect the tastes, interests and issues affecting young Tamilians in a modern musical style they can relate to.

“Hip-hop has historically been about ‘fighting the power’ and reflecting the realities of society. When it began in the US, it was about blacks protesting against their oppression at the hands of white people,” says Shivanand.

Progressing slowly but steadily, MWA performed at club and college events in Bengaluru and outside. “We performed at Hard Rock Cafe in Mumbai, Stella Maris College in Chennai, Mount Carmel, St Joseph’s and Garuda Mall in Bengaluru, among other places. When we started off, for the first two years, nobody paid us for any of our live shows. They used to say, ‘If we have to pay you we might as well get more established guys’. Since we were one of the first rappers in Bengaluru, we just wanted the city to know that we exist. We were kids and all we wanted to do was rap.”

On the recording front, MWA created original tunes in their free time. “We made a dappan koothu beat (a traditional folk dance beat in South India) and rapped over it, which had never been done before. People were fascinated and many Tamil music directors called us over to rap in between their songs. That’s how we entered the film industry.”

Their first break was through a song in the Tamil movie Kola Koleya Mundrika. Doors soon opened in the Malayalam, Telugu and Hindi industries.

MWA was discovered by music composer Vishal Dadlani, and they composed a promo soundtrack in 2013 titled Ready Steady Po for the Shah Rukh Khan movie Chennai Express. The song though was pushed into relative obscurity due to the popularity of another hip-hop track from the same movie—Yo Yo Honey Singh’s Lungi Dance.

From 2008 to 2013, MWA composed music for over 30 movies in multiple languages, including English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. Ready Steady Powould be their last collaboration before they disbanded a few months later.

Beyond MWA, Shivanand continued working in an independent capacity under his Brodha V avatar. In 2012, after finishing his sound engineering course, he made his first music video titled On My Own, with the help of fellow sound engineering college classmates. The song was based on his arduous and lonely musical journey, and combined his rap vocals with a Hindustani classical refrain by Avinash Bhat. The video was shot in one day in Dollar’s Colony, Bengaluru, at virtually no expense.

On My Own received over two lakh views within weeks of its release on YouTube. “It was my first song to go viral. Immediately, my friends and I decided to make a video of an earlier audio track of mine called Aathma Raama.”

Aathma Raama worked on the same theme of losing direction and finding one’s path, this time marrying the evergreen Carnatic Aathma Raama with English rap. His orthodox Brahmin upbringing that felt like a curse growing up was turning into a blessing in disguise, helping him create his unique signature sound. “The main reason I do music is to tell my story. I just want my perspective to be out there. I want to speak my mind. I feel I get to be as honest as possible only through my music.”

In the aftermath of Aathma Raama’s success, a bidding war ensued between Sony Music and Universal to sign “India’s fastest rapper”. “Sony Music gave me the freedom to do what I wanted. Most labels want to sell songs as products and don’t want to build the brand of the artists.”

Like IT and other service industries, Sony Music and Universal came to India in the late 1990s within two years of each other—yet another side-effect of the 1991 liberalisation policies. Live entertainment clubs and pubs were opening up in almost every city, such as Blue Frog in Mumbai, Delhi and Pune, and BFlat Bar, Humming Tree and Urban Solace in Bengaluru. These venues were looking for headlining acts beyond rock, metal and jazz music to keep patrons entertained.

The time had come for the Indian stand up comedy scene to blow up.

Comedy has existed in India for centuries. “The very fact that a Birbal existed at a point of time, he was probably the first stand-up comedian ever,” says Sorabh Pant, one of India’s early comics, in the recently released YouTube documentary I Am Offendeddirected by Jaideep Verma.

Although not strictly labelled ”comics”, regional language comedians always existed by way of kavi sammelans—traditional poetry recital gatherings. The year 2006 was a breakout one in comedy, thanks to reality show The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. Hindi comedians like Johnny Lever, Raju Srivastava and Kapil Sharma—earlier pushed to the side as mimics during live music shows—soon found themselves as chief entertainers of the evening.

Today, an uneasy distinction exists in India between regional language and English comedians. Some would even call it a class divide.

Definitely Indian English stand-up comedy is at a higher level than Hindi, but that said, if you notice carefully, even for most English comedians, while the build-up of the joke is in English, the punch line is delivered in Hindi.

“Definitely Indian English stand-up comedy is at a higher level than Hindi, but that said, if you notice carefully, even for most English comedians, while the build-up of the joke is in English, the punch line is delivered in Hindi,” says Aditi Mittal, 28, one of the handful of women comedians in India.

Mittal is a bilingual comic who can switch between English and Hindi with ease. Her observations indicate that while most Indians are able to process information in English, they still feel emotions in their mother tongues.

Mittal took to stand-up comedy four years ago having been forced out of her media job in the US due to the recession. While abroad, she was exposed to the comedic arts and returned to Mumbai in a bid to make a living out of “nautanki”. But Mittal wasn’t the first to be seduced by this field.

When Vir Das and Papa CJ began doing stand-up almost a decade ago, it was a result of their foreign travel and exposure to Western cultures. Das was born in India, grew up in Africa, and then moved to the US, studying theatre before working as a comedian on a cruise ship that travelled between Houston and Mexico. Papa CJ completed his business administration course in the UK and then quit his corporate job to take a year off and explore stand-up, after a visit to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“I had to face a lot of racism in the UK, but I was very careful about projecting India in a positive light.” he told students at the Sri Ram College of Commerce, New Delhi, in a talk held in late 2014. In a baptism by fire, CJ did 250 shows in the first 10 months, before getting a big break in the Las Vegas reality show Last Comic Standing, where he was among the top 10 finalists.

One of his popular jokes while performing in front of international audiences in the UK and US is, “Who would have thought that even your comedy would be outsourced?” and his set usually ends with the trademark “If you felt offended, I couldn’t care less. I come from the land of the Kama Sutra and we can screw you in more ways than you can imagine.”

Today’s stand-up comedians don’t need to struggle abroad as there are numerous “open mic” opportunities in India. “All India Bakchod’s (AIB) Tanmay Bhat, Gursimran Khamba and Abish Mathew started their career in our first batch of open mics,” says Hrishikesh Nare, marketing and PR head at the Canvas Laugh Club in Mumbai.

The club, located at the Phoenix Mills complex in Lower Parel, features over 50 shows per month. More than 100 comedians have performed so far. “We usually have around 250 guests every night, and weekends are higher.”

It’s one of the few clubs in India dedicated exclusively to comedy, whether sketch, character or stand up. “Anything with a comedy element attached to it.”

When the Laugh Club started off four or five years ago, they only had international artistes who flew down from different parts of the world. Slowly, local comedians created their own fan bases and were able to meet the expectations of the crowds. “As of today, the audience at these shows is mostly in the 18 to 45 age group with an equal number of men and women,” says Nare.

This younger demographic shows that the audience has grown up under the same Western influences as the stand-up comedians themselves, exposed to the humour of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C. K. and Russell Peters. 

This younger demographic shows that the audience has grown up under the same Western influences as the stand-up comedians themselves, exposed to the humour of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C. K. and Russell Peters. Twenty years on from 1991, the cultural impact of economic liberalisation was finally being felt, by way of a growing acceptance of English as a creative art form with mass appeal.

Chetan Bhagat’s coming-of-age novel Five Point Someone, published in 2004 is said to be the first paperback written by an Indian English author to sell over a million copies domestically. Novelists in English like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and Amitav Ghosh had always existed, but for the first time, an unabashedly “commercial” novel worked in India.

Bhagat was followed by Ashwin Sanghvi (historical thrillers), Anuja Chauhan (chick lit), and Amish Tripathi who broke into the mythological space, reinterpreting the Indian epics for today’s audience in easy English. From the pre-Bhagat era definition of bestsellers “as any book selling around 5,000 copies”, suddenly English novels had become “mass sellers” with numerous sub Rs.100 priced books selling over a lakh copies.

In his very first semester of law school, Richard auditioned for and secured a part in a play staged by the Evam theatre group, an establishment with branches in Chennai and Bengaluru. Coincidentally, it was an adaptation of Bhagat’s Five Point Someone.

Balancing his college’s strict attendance requirements, Richard travelled with the rest of the Evam team and did over 50 shows across India. His theatre company was looking to expand into the stand-up space and Richard jumped at the opportunity. “Weirdly enough, I went in front of 300 people never having done stand-up before.” Most comics start off with open mics for months before they get on stage. “It was a hard way to learn but that’s how I got my training. I was just thrown out there.”

Richard used his college lecture hours to hone his new craft. “Boredom brings out your creativity. I wasn’t concentrating in class and would sit in the last row and write jokes and comic strips.”

By his final year, he was doing corporate stand-up shows, earning Rs.10,000 for an hour’s work. “I got my degree because I didn’t want to regret not finishing it. Initially my parents worried that this was a whim. But I was doing two shows a month and supporting myself financially. Since I was busy and not going to my parents for money, they figured I was doing something right.”

Like Richard, most stand-up comedians survive initially by doing corporate shows, and almost all of them have switched to comedy from other professions. For example, Mumbai-based comic Kunal Rao left his job as a chartered accountant and joined Sorabh Pant in creating a comedy collective called East India Comedy. Bengaluru-based Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan, of “Pretentious Movie Reviews” YouTube videos fame, quit their IT jobs. “Hinglish” comedians Vipul Goyal, Varun Grover and Nitin Gupta are graduates from the Indian Institute of Technology.

Today around 40 full time English stand-up comedians work in India. Their backgrounds and influences are eerily similar: majority in their 20s and 30s, from middle and upper middle class backgrounds and Catholic English medium schools, influenced by American sitcoms growing up. “I was exposed to an equally healthy dose of Whose Line Is it Anyway, Zaban Sambhalke, Dekh Bhai Dekh, and Small Wonder,” says Aditi Mittal, recalling her childhood years.

The process of realising that one’s future lies in comedy also seemed the same. Most comedians are jacks of many trades—never satisfied with being pigeonholed in one area of creative expression—they can sing, dance, play a musical instrument, write, act, and observe, all with a dose of humour.

The first time I tried out stand-up at the age of 23 or 24, it was like a funeral. But out of the six minutes, two lines worked and I got hooked to it.

“The first time I tried out stand-up at the age of 23 or 24, it was like a funeral. But out of the six minutes, two lines worked and I got hooked to it,” says Mittal. “In India, audiences are still very supportive. When people laugh at your jokes, at some level it indicates agreement. At that moment everyone in the room is tickled by the same thought. So the live element of stand-up is sacred to me.”

Stand-up comedy works because you relate to the content, touching upon everyday issues such as corruption, regional eccentricities, traffic snarls, politics, relationships, sports, and career choices. It also helps that no equipment is needed—just a person on a stage holding a mike. “Most of our regular performers such as Daniel Fernandes, Sapan Verma, Azeem Banatwalla or Amogh Ranadive have their own fan base,” says Nare.

Often, the humour masks serious social issues, and shows a mirror to society, such as the lack of respect to north-eastern states, the issue of rape, caste-based reservations, women’s safety, superstitious beliefs, and sexual taboos.

“Comedy is the most potent form of truth and honesty,” agrees Mittal, “but the end game is always laughter. I’m personally suspicious of those comedians who call themselves activists or change makers, who say they are doing ‘social commentary with a dash of satire’. You are a comedian first. So be funny.”

With over 200 stand-up shows and 70 theatre performances under his belt, Richard left Evam a few months ago to become an independent comedian. Living with four boarding school friends in Bengaluru, he started making comedy sketches and funny songs for his YouTube platform themboxershorts. The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous.

A couple of years earlier, in January 2012, American 24×7 comedy channel Comedy Central opened shop in India and were on the lookout for local original programming. Richard’s YouTube sketches were noticed and he was invited for a sketch comedy show on the channel with fellow Bengaluru comedian Kenny Sebastian. “I couldn’t believe it at first and it was a nice experience, although the show was put together in a hurry so had a lot of improve elements,” says Richard.

These are early days for Indian hip-hop and English comedy. The main challenge will be to keep expanding their reach. The majority of Indians prefer mother tongues when it comes to matters of entertainment. Barring English news and novels, other forms of English entertainment haven’t transcended the critical mass of viewership ratings in India.

Will Indian rappers and comedians ever be able to command the millions of dollars that their Western counterparts regularly charge? Or is the solution moving to other English-speaking countries?

“This is a big discussion that happens whenever I meet other musicians or producers. They tell me that English is for the niche audience and will affect your popularity. I don’t get that because so many people watch English cinema. The Fast and the Furious and The Avengers series gross as much as Hindi movies in India. Everybody studies English today, so they are aware of the language,” argues Shivanand. “The advantage I have is that I put in a lot of Indian content in my songs. So I feel secure in my own space. I grew up listening to Carnatic music and that sticks in my head. It is the music of my region. So my music is a fusion of different genres.”

In September last year, Shivanand released Aigiri Nandini, again with his now trademark mix of a Carnatic classical “hook” with English rap in between. The song is based on the theme of women empowerment. He quickly puts to rest any concerns that his crossover music “offends South Indian culture”.

He says, “As far as I know, everybody loved Aathma Raama. Even my parents, friends, and grandparents are happy that today’s kids still value their heritage. They say it sounds good but have no idea what I’m rapping.”

Criticism persists that the Indian English entertainment industry is just an imitation of the west. “Art itself is a form of imitation. Nobody can be 100 per cent original. We are inspired by what has come before us, and it is only inevitable that that inspiration finds a place in our music,” says Shivanand.

Whatever critics say, both English comedy and hip-hop are growing. Today, there are underground rap communities and comedians in almost every city.

“Roughly there are 500 rappers in India today in virtually every language whether Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Punjabi, English or Hindi. I don’t know a language where there is no rap. The northeast has its own bunch of rappers with a huge following. With the exception of Bohemia, Raftaar and Honey Singh, we are all in our early to late 20s,” says Machas With Attitude member, Sumukh “Smokey” Mysore.

Freestyle group rapping sessions called rap cyphers are now being organised in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi and Ludhiana. Out of these 500 odd rappers, 20-30 do it full time and are signed to different labels.

“The main revenue that comes for a hip-hop artist is from live shows. A certain amount of money comes from putting songs on iTunes, but let’s face it, people would rather pay between Rs.400 and Rs.500 and watch you live,” says Sumukh.

Mittal credits the Internet for the growing stature of stand-up. “The demand for comedy especially with the Internet as a medium is through the roof. On the Internet two things sell: sex and comedy.” Backing up her claims, YouTube comedy channels All India Bakchod and The Viral Fever recently crossed a million subscribers each.

Atul Khatri, 47, calls himself India’s oldest comedian and has been doing stand-up for the last two and a half years. His day job is that of a CEO of an IT company in Mumbai. “There are about 35-40 people doing stand-up professionally out of around 120 in total. Professional comics earn anywhere between Rs.25,000 and Rs.50,000 per show.”

Other than stand-up in clubs, there are also writing opportunities by way of newspaper columns and scripting film award shows, corporate shows and advertisements. “A professional comedian first starts off with ‘open mic’ opportunities and eventually does anywhere between five and 10 corporate shows per month over and above what he does in clubs or bars,” says Khatri.

Khatri’s comedy, like many of his younger peers seems to work well across India, without facing too many language barriers. “Thanks to television, Internet and social media, there is no difference in terms of the knowledge between audiences in Trichy, Coimbatore, Gangtok or Mumbai. Having said that, in places where stand-up comedy is new, you can’t straight away start with dark or edgy humour. You have to play the audience and see what works.”

Khatri’s sets are delivered mostly in English, with a few Hindi punch lines thrown in. “Hindi is a national language. But yes, if you speak too much in Hindi, people in the south don’t understand. Some comics like Vipul Goyal who mostly deliver in Hindi have faced problems in the past.”

For both hip-hop artistes and stand-up comedians, constant travel is a given. “In 2014, I did 20-25 shows, but in just January of this year, I did 19 shows!” says Bengaluru rapper Sumukh. Interestingly, most of his shows aren’t in colleges, although their target audience is largely the college-going crowd. “We perform predominantly in festivals like NH7 or clubs like Humming Tree. We are now breaking into a new target audience of people in their 30s to 50s by performing in theatre plays.”

When it comes to comedy, the challenge is to keep pushing boundaries of acceptability with the audience, while at the same time not “offending” anybody. “The only way you can know if you have crossed a line is by crossing it,” says Mittal, who was the sole woman panellist at the controversial AIB Roast, that introduced the genre of “insult comedy” to India.

“The reason AIB Roast members were slapped with FIRs is not because of AIB but because Bollywood celebrities like Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor were part of it. AIB have been making jokes like that for a while but there was no problem,” says Pant, a comedian for six-and-a-half years after working as a writer for TV shows on Pogo, Channel V and CNBC. “TV can’t be an aim for any comedian in the country because you have far too much censorship. The bigger problem now is just surviving because we don’t know if somebody will shut us down.”

Pant says there has been no change in laws. “Right now according to Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, anybody can file an FIR against me. The government isn’t pro-creativity. But we will continue to do exactly what we are doing and go down screaming if we have to,” he says, before quickly adding, “India is still the best place to do comedy because we have so many things happening here that make us angry, and enough people willing to listen to us.” (Section 66A has since been struck down by the Supreme Court.)

Another conspicuous problem is the lack of representation for women, with just a handful of female artistes in these two fields. “You have to understand that it is a cultural thing. I myself am a Brahmin and had to get over the cultural barrier, so for women it is much harder,” says Sumukh.

The permanence of these two fields will depend on the evolution of their content beyond basic regional stereotypes and popular clichés. “Rap hasn’t got to the stage of discussing social issues relevant to India yet because it has to sell to an audience. If I make a song like Kolaveri Di which is absolutely senseless, people will still love it more than a song that questions ‘why is the government like this’. The real bridge happens when you can bring commercial and conscious together, which is what are we struggling for.”

Pant largely concurs. “I’m 33 and still only heading to the place where I want to talk about more important things than ‘Gujaratis are stingy and Punjabis are alcoholics’. We did a news comedy show called Bottom Line, where we talked about serious issues like midday meals and crimes against North-East Indians. People weren’t as interested as you’d imagine.”

Outside India, recognition of English comedians as independent artistes is increasing thanks to our huge diaspora. “This year I’ve already done shows in 10 countries. These weren’t sell-out crowds or anything but there were 150-200 people at each venue.” says Pant. “Popularity for comedians is like a curse because we are essentially anarchists; we are not supposed to be part of the mainstream in any case.”

Today there are 50-70 non-exclusive venues for comedy. These are usually theatres and auditoriums such as the India Habitat Centre in Delhi that showcase comedy nights on specific occasions. “There are venues in both A and B cities. I’ve done comedy shows in places like Chandigarh and Lucknow, and planning to do one in Visakhapatnam. Every city should have some people who get up and talk about the city.” says Mittal who feels more comedy clubs and comedians are essential. “As of now Canvas Laugh Club, Mumbai is the only dedicated comedy club in India.”

Devoid of any competition, not surprisingly, Canvas Laugh Club has been witnessing a growth of 15-20 per cent every year in terms of number of performing comics and footfalls. Canvas Laugh Club plans to open a second branch in Mumbai and two venues each in Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru, before moving to other parts of India. Their focus is solely on comedy in English. “We do not have full-fledged Hindi comics. People performing at our club need to have at least 50 per cent of their 40 minute material in English.”

Beyond venues, what Indian comedy perhaps needs is for its practitioners to graduate into mainstream movies, TV sitcoms, and late night talk shows. At the heart of it all seems to be the lack of encouragement given to youngsters to pursue their “unconventional” dreams, particularly when it comes to artistic aspirations whether in comedy, music or otherwise.

“As Indians, we have this mentality of ‘settle ho jao’ [that you should settle down], but nobody actually knows what ‘settling down’ really means. We don’t have this concept of following your heart,” said Papa CJ in his inspirational talk to Delhi college students. “You are given a path when you are really young, that you are forced to follow. Fear is drilled into you that if you don’t do this, something bad will happen to you,” says Shivanand.

With the backing of Sony, Shivanand has moved on from being a solo rapper to setting up his own band. Richard continues to work towards becoming a full-fledged comedian.

Tellingly enough, last December, leading Indian entertainers in English across different fields came together to address this issue. Best-selling English author/entrepreneur Varun Agarwal, stand-up comedian Sanjay Manaktala, and Brodha V collaborated on a song titled Engineering Anthem encouraging youngsters to carve out their own niche and not succumb to the pressures of relatives. The video currently has close to eight lakh views on YouTube.

Explaining the rationale behind it, Shivanand says, “I want to stand up and say ‘you know what? I’m following my dream and I believe that there will be success and happiness eventually.”