Maximum India festival

A tough, sexy blues singer at Kennedy Center India festival embodies country's rise

Tipriti Kharbangar, known on stage as Tips.
Tipriti Kharbangar, known on stage as Tips.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011

IN SHILLONG, INDIA On stage, Tipriti Kharbangar likes her red psychedelic electric guitar slung low and her microphone turned up high.

But the sound guys at the mixing board, even at India's newest live music venues, never got that memo. They're used to women performing as pretty little backup singers, not the main attraction. So less than a minute after her Indian blues band, Soulmate, starts its first song, Kharbangar, known by her stage name "Tips," signals the sound guy.

"Hey, turn it up now, huh?" she calls out hoarsely to stunned-looking men crowding the mixing board. "Yeah, man, louder!" The young crowd roars its support.

Satisfied with the mix, Tips explodes back into the music. With her coal-lined eyes sealed shut and her microphone festooned with giant butterfly magnets, she has an ephemeral, witchy aura. But she also comes across as tough and sexy as she sways her hips to the beat.

"You can have my husband, but please don't mess with my man," the 27-year-old belts out, and the women in the audience raise their hands high and hoot and cheer.

Soulmate performs two shows on March 4 at the Kennedy Center's Maximum India festival, a three-week bonanza of Indian music, dance, literature, crafts and cuisine that starts Tuesday. The wildly popular band was chosen to represent the rapidly evolving and leading edge of Indian society. Soulmate also stands out as an interesting pick because it has come from the margins of Indian culture, not the yoga-and-sitar fare for which India is better known.

Twenty years ago, electric guitars were hard to find in India. Owning one was considered an act of defiance. Learning to play it was open rebellion. To be a musician was to play the classical stuff - think tabla, sitar, flute and sarangi - which dominated public performances.

But as India's economy has liberalized, so has the country's live-music scene for dozens of rock, blues and heavy metal bands. Young people make up nearly 75 percent of India's population and, in many cases, are far more affluent than their parents. "Youngistan," the name given to this demographic by marketing strategists, is happy to spend money on concerts.

"We wanted to represent a different generation with a totally fresh look at India, and the band Soulmate kept coming up," said Alicia Adams, vice president of international programming at the Kennedy Center and curator of the program.

To many, Soulmate is an antidote to those ridiculously happy Bollywood hit movies. If Bollywood is about escapism, then the blues music that Soulmate plays is about articulating the ache of reality.

Sometimes a band can personify a shift in a country's narrative, the way Bob Dylan captured the zeitgeist of his time. With her Janis Joplin-meets-Aretha Franklin vocal style and powerful sexuality, Tips is emblematic of an ongoing upheaval among India's women, who are entering the workforce more than ever before and asserting their independence. More of them, for instance, are choosing their own partners over arranged marriages.

"I have the blues bad, as a woman, as a member of the Khasi tribe, as a human," Tips says, sitting in the hilltop house she has built for her family in Shillong. The house was built on money from the blues, she says.

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