Time Zones: Friday Night at a Mumbai Hot Spot

Where the Glitterati Go to Listen, Hip-Hop Meets Indian Classical

A series of occasional stories and pictures looking at life in foreign countries through the prism of time.
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

MUMBAI It's 10:30 on a Friday night and already a big, breathless crowd is trying to get into a former warehouse here. Inside is the Blue Frog, one of this city's few live music venues, which six nights a week hosts a stream of international rock and hip-hop acts that often fuse their sounds with Indian classical music.

People who make it through the door squeeze up to the bar. Apple martinis, cranberry flirtinis, cosmos and mojitos are all on offer, the usual libation lineup on the globalized lounge scene.

Nearby there's bright white pod seating, surrounded with glowing blue lights. Positioned around the stage, each pod looks something like a giant lily pad tinged in blue. Patrons are left to imagine the blue frog that might be resting on it.

Those lucky enough to score a pod -- heroes and heroines from Bollywood films, models and modelizers, plus a few literati -- settle in for the evening. They eye the crowd. But this is not a place where people come just to see and be seen. They come to listen.

Around them beats one of India's most powerful sound systems. Concert-size speakers are bolted to the rafters. The off-white walls are bubbled, as if beach balls were trying to squeeze through, the contours cutting the acoustic bounce that can muddy the music.

A sound engineer from Los Angeles designed the system, and high fidelity extends from the nightclub to the recording studios next door, which produce some of the up-and-coming acts that take the stage here.

Pushing through the crowd at 10:46 is Mahesh Mathai, a popular Bollywood filmmaker who co-founded the three-month-old club, along with a few musicians, a restaurateur and an MBA.

Mathai, who sports a sleek Caesar haircut, delivers a quick double-kiss hello to a pretty female friend. Then, raising his voice to be heard above the din, he explains that the club is "every boy's dream. . . . We wanted music to be the soul of the club. Everyone in Bombay thought it was time for a place that broke all the cliches of listening to classical Indian music in a conference hall. We wanted our sound to be fresh, to break down global boundaries."

As India's economy rises, it seems, so does the quality of its music scene.

The Blue Frog provides visual stimulation, too. On giant video screens suspended above the stage are streaming psychedelic montages of animated dancing babies, 1960s-style light-show shapes pulsating to the beat and cartoon-like figures rocking out with air guitars.

Since this is India, where people love to eat when they drink, there's a full kitchen with an award-winning chef, dishing up plate after plate of chi-chi foods -- ricotta and tangerine tortellini pot stickers with saffron aioli, perhaps, or duck breast with maple, mustard and coffee marinade.

Sucking down a cold beer and biting into some sweet chicken wings, Shiram Misra, 32, sits in one of the pods, which hold five to 10 people and are positioned so that the stage is always visible over the heads of others.

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