Indipop is a term used to describe dancable Indian pop music, most of associated with Bollywood films. It has been described as "sugarcoated dance melodies" with Hindi lyrics, large orchestra film music, overdubbed with dance beats.” Indians tend to be more loyal to songs than singers. Much of the music that people listen to is still in the form of cassettes. Cassettes and CDs are often pirated.

Pop music got its start South Asia region with the playback singer Ahmed Rushdi's song ‘Ko Ko Korina’ in 1966. It is based on an amalgamation of folk music and classical music with modern beats from different parts of the world. Indian pop music is on the rise globally. All India Radio helps spread Indian music around the world. MTV was introduced in India in 1996. Bollywood music was initially not included and viewers didn’t watch it. When Bollywood music was introduced rating soared by 70 percent.

Nandini Lakshman of Bloomberg wrote: “Indian pop music has always been inextricably tied to Bollywood, and singers often made their reputation with vocal performances on film. Indians love their musical flicks, and plenty of so-called “playback” singers, whose songs are lip-synched by actors, have huge followings. But India’s vast youth culture and the multiplicity of media outlets has started to change that formula. Today, “Indi pop” is a broad range of styles, including elements from classical and folk music, often garnished with contemporary global beats. The pop scene still has its highly popular Bollywood crooners, but there are also plenty of independent acts and rock bands. Some Indian artists have considerable followings around Asia and elsewhere—and have, in turn, been influenced by hip hop, rap, and other Western sounds and beats. Here is a by-no-means-exhaustive sampling of the more prominent Indian recording artists.”

Some ethnic Indian music has found a Western audience. Bengali Baul music has found some followers in the world music scene. Western Indo-pop bands such as Fundamental have drown on emotional baul melodies. Bengali singer Paban Das Baul has produced rock-flavored album called “Real Sugar” that has done well on the World Music charts. Dogri love songs from the Jammu hills and chants from Uttar Pradesh have done well on the World Music charts. See Bhanga Below.

Bollywood Music

Bollywood music is used specifically to describe music from Bollywood musicals (musical films made in Bombay) and generally to describe all popular film music. Also known as filmi, it is the most popular form of music in India. The singing is rarely done by the actors. Instead it done by singers called playback singers who sing songs that the actors lip-synch to. The several thousand Bollywood songs that have been produced have been sung by a relatively small number of playback singers.

Bollywood songs are often featured in song-and-dance fantasies of Bollywood films. In many cases it is the songs that make the movie not the other way around. These songs have been a fixture of Indian film since sound was introduced to film in 1931. In the early days of Indian musicals it was not unusual for a film to have 50 songs. At that time the "singing stars" were required to act and sing. Today, in many ways Bollywood dominates the music scene of India the same way Broadway musicals and show tunes dominated the music scene did in the United States before rock n’ roll took hold.

Bollywood music is popular throughout India even though most of the songs are sung in Hindi, a language many Indians don’t understand. It is also popular among overseas Indians, Pakistani, Bangladeshis and people in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and other parts of the world.. Many Tibetans like Bollywood music. Although it is too kitschy for many Westerners it does have a cult following among non-Indians in Europe and North America.

Bollywood (Filmi) music itself is string driven with a tabla producing the rhythm and the “sarangi” giving it an Indian flavor. Much of the singing is done by female singers with a high-pitched nasally voice that many Westerners find annoying. The emphasis is on melody and rhythm.

Book: “Rough Guide to Bollywood” (World Music Network).

Bollywood Music Industry

The Bollywood music soundtrack industry is a $150 million business. It accounts for two thirds of the recording market compared to 10 percent for Hindi pop. Non-Bollywood recordings are known as "private albums." Many films begin with a few catchy songs. These are often more useful than a script in getting funding to make the film. Record labels pay up to $500,000 for the soundtrack rights to promising movies. Bollywood provides the music for many Hollywood films.

Bollywood songs are often released far in advance of the film and used to create a buzz. Film producer Syed Ayub told AFP that film music is also used to advertise films. "Producers have now set a trend of releasing audio cassettes of the music ahead of the film. Good music now opens up the market, pulls in the initial viewers and contributes a lot to making the film a hit," he said.

Bollywood Songs

The vast majority of Bollywood songs are love songs that deal with mostly cliche feelings about the discovery of love, separation and reunion and finally consummation of love. There are also communal songs, songs of friendship and devotional songs.

Bollywood songs are often used as a devise to express the inner feelings of the characters or offer a wild fantasy that departs from the relatively realistic narrative story of the film. The female and male singers often sing in a high-pitched, wavering nasal voices. Many of the songs are duets between potential lovers.

While the music is playing in the film there is a lot of dancing. The main characters perform ballroom dancing moves and make goo goo eyes at one another while background dancers gyrate their hips, rock their pelvises, flair their arms about, shake the shoulders, wiggle their heads back and forth and form conga lines in Alpine meadows, in surreal dreamscapes, and on the top of moving steam trains.

The music is often arranged to both Western and Indian instruments. Fifty piece orchestras are common in Indian film score music. String sections, sitars and tablas are often the most prominent instruments. Film ghazals were the popular in the 1950s. More melodic songs appeared in the Masala ("spice") actions films the late 1950s and 1960s. Modern films incorporate a number of styles.

A song can make a movie a hit and a movie can make an album a hit. When asked why a particular move is their favorite, Indians often say it had a great song. The soundtrack from the 1998 blockbuster “Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai” ("Something Happens") sold 8 million copies. Sony had the rights to film and the music and made a nice profit.

Sexy Film Songs

Lyrics from the hit song Sexy, Sexy from the 1994 movie with same name included: “I have blue eyes, What shall I do?, I have red lips, What shall I do?, Sexy, sexy...People call me sexy.” The disco song repeated the word “sexy” over 100 times. "My sales have doubled because of these vulgar songs," a record store owner told the Washington Post. His biggest seller was a cassette of a crude song called "With the Lover."

A film called the "The Villain” had a great impact on the sexy song trade. In one song, the main actress in the film is asked "What's beneath the blouse?" After the camera moves from her veiled face to her well-endowed chest she replies, "In the choli is my heart, and this heart I will give to my lover."

Other sexy movie songs that climbed the charts have included "Raja Babu" (with the lyric "drag your cot next to mine"); "The Road to Victory" ("First ball broke my bangles, slipped my skirt, very strong his ball was, with full speed"); and "Style" ("I am a goods train, give me a push")

Playback Singers

Playback singers are dub artists who sing on soundtracks which actors in films lips sync or mime. The term refers to the fact that the songs are recorded in a studio and played back on the music set while a scene is being filmed. For many years India’s most popular singers were unknown because they were not given credit in the films. This was so because there were concerns that if it was revealed that popular actors were not really singing their audience would feel betrayed. It was only after India became independent in 1947 that the film credits began listing the names of the playback singer and they began mass marketing recordings under their names. Top playback singer Lata Mangeshkar (born 1928) is the most recorded artist in history. According to the Guinness Book of World's Records, she recorded more than 50,000 songs in over 2,500 films in her 60 year career. The Rough Guide to World Music said the 50,000 figure is hopelessly inflated. It said a more accurate figure is around 5,250.

Mangeshkar’s younger sister Asha Bhosle has recorded more than 12,000 songs. She is an amazingly versatile singer. She sings with her own bhanga group. The New York Times said "her sweet, smooth girlish voice doesn't reveal any wear and tear."Nandini Lakshman of Bloomberg wrote: “ With a career spanning six decades, her range includes pop, film music, classical, and folk songs in every Indian language—and even English, Russian, and Malay. Bhosle, a proud grandmother and sister of singing icon Lata Mangeshkar, still gives any young pop diva a run for her money. In 1980, she sang with Boy George, and she occasionally performs live stage shows.” [Source: Nandini Lakshman, Bloomberg /]

On Bhosle’ chief rival, Lakshman wrote: “With a voice to kill for, Sunidhi Chauhan is the epitome of oomph and sensuality in the Bollywood playback scene. Sunidhi started singing at age four, participating in competitions and music shows on TV. Critics have noted that she has developed a distinctive vocal style rare for a singer barely out of her 20s. Sunidhi, along with Shreya Ghosal, is among the most versatile of the current lot of India pop singer. /

Mohammed Rafi (1924-1980) and Mukesh (1923-1976) were the most important male singers. Another male singer, Sumil Gavaskar, has recorded more than 10,000 songs. Other famous playback singers include S.P. Blasubramaniam, Kavita Krishnamurthi, Alka Yagnik, Idi Naryan, Geeta Dutt, Kishmore Kumar, Manna Det and Hemant Kumar. Unni Menon is a popular Tamil singer. Great singers from the Golden Age of India film in the 1950s and 60s include Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi and Mangeshkar.

Bollywood Music Composers

Songwriters (or music directors as the are known in India) often make out well financially but they are also under a lot of pressure to come up with new songs. They usually write the songs for the film with a lyricist and the background music. It is not unusual for a songwriter to be working on 20 to 30 films at once, and have to come with five or six songs for each film. To keep up they often have to resort to plagiarizing other songs.

Some of the most popular Bollywood songwriters were renowned Urdu poets from northern India who came to Bombay in search of work. Naushad Ali is the Indian equivalent of Richard Rodgers from Rodgers and Hart. He composed popular music for hit Bollywood songs for decades. For inspiration he listened to film music from Uttra Pradesh and Egypt. Popular Bollywood and playback composers in the 1990s and 2000s included Raamlaxman, Rajesh Roshan and the teams Amand- Milind and Jatin-Lalit

A.R Rahman

One of the masters of the Indian pop music scene is the A.R. Rahman, originally a Madras-based prodigy who had composed nearly 200 songs and scores for 70 Bombay films by 2000. Albums with his songs have sold hundreds of millions of copies. Born in Madras to a film-music composer, Rahman began taking piano lessons at the age of four and developed a keen interest in music when he discovered the synthesizer. He dropped out of school and played keyboard for local film scores and wrote advertising jingles. He attended Oxford and returned home for more ad work.

Rahman is the Indian equivalent of Gershwin or John Lennon. His big break came in 1991 after a Sufi dervish gave him a blessing and he landed a job writing the score for a major film that earned him a nationwide recognition. By 1997, he was earning $300,000 for a film score and soundtracks with his scores were routinely selling 5 million or 6 million copies. Unfortunately there are no royalty payments in India or he would be an extremely rich man.

Rahman worked on musical of “The Lord of the Rings” for the West End. Mostly has written songs but on occasion he has sung in the traditional “qawwali” Sufi style. Some of his songs have reggae, raga and Broadway influences. Among his most well known scores are for the films Mani Ratman’s “Bombay” and “Dil Se” and the Hindi films “Vishwavidhaata”, “Taal” and “Lagaan”. Many regard is lively bhangra “Chaiyya Chaiyya” from “Dil Se” and his most memorable song. It is sung on the roof of a speeding train.

One of his biggest fans, Andrew Lloyd Webber, said, Rahman “is writing in my opinion what Paul McCartney did at his peak. The melodies are sensational but they are exotic. They couldn’t have been written by a Westerner. It got an Indian twist to it.”


Bhangra is a funky, beat-driven style of Punjabi folk dance music. Popular in India and Pakistan and among South Asians in Britain and the United States, it combines traditional Punjabi drum-and-percussion music of field workers with Western dance music "in every-shifting East-West hybrids.” It is know for driving, danceable rhythms, ecstatic singing and goofy keyboard riffs.

Traditional bhangra music is performed at harvest festivals called “bisakh”. The name of the music is derived from the word “bhang”—Punjabi for hemp or marijuana—the crop that was often being harvested. The chanting lyrics are meant to entertain fields works and keep their mind off their work. It often incorporates humorous references to wives and mother-in-laws. Bhangra dancing is very popular and performed during the Baisakhi festival in the Punjab. It is performed by men and is very robust and energetic. Drummers playing “dholak” drums usually play at the center of the dancers.

The rhythm for the music is intended to match the movement of a reaper with a scythe. It is provided by a “dhol”, a large barrel drum found in many places in western Asia. It is struck with a stick for the basic rhythm on one side. Complicated cross rhythms are played with the hand on the other side and embellished with rhythms from tablas and dholak drums. Dances were developed to accompany the music.

Around 200 years ago, bhangra became a popular form of entertainment. The “dhol” was replaced by the “dlolak”, which is quieter and better suited for playing more complex rhythms. Other instruments such as the “alghoza” (duct flute), “thumbi” (one-stringed fiddle), Indian harmonium, santoori were added.

Modern Bhangra

In the 1970s, second- and third-generation young South Asian Britons began playing Bhangra music at parties and clubs and groups began making their own music. The ground breaking recording was the album “Teri Chuni De Siare” by a group called Alaap, one of many groups in Britain that played for Punjabi immigrants at parties at weddings. They used a violin, accordion, acoustic guitar, dhol and tabla and stayed pretty close to traditional forms.

Over time Alaap and groups like Heera, Premi and Holle Holle began incorporated more modern elements into their music and molding a unique sound. The music because a fixture of all-day or daytimer clubs, geared towards Asian youths, particularly girls, that had trouble getting permission from their tradition-bound parents to go out late at night. It was not long before bhangra concerts were attracting 2,000 people.

As bhangra grew the groups began using electric guitars, synthesizers, Western drum kits and drum machines. By the late 80s, bhanga began showing up in clubs frequented by white and black youths and the London music press began hailing bhangra as a possible next big thing. A lot of modern bhangra has a Jamaican influence, particularly dancehall reggae, and hip-hop influence. Bhangra parties were all the rage at American universities in the early 2000s. Meadow on “The Sopranos” is shown boogying to it in her car.

Bhangra Artists

Daler Mehndi, Bhangra's premier artist in the 1990s and early 2000s, has produced albums of dance music that became fixtures at discos and weddings. On stage he wore a turban and leapt around like a possessed snake charmer. Other Bhangra artists include Achanak, Vijay, Safri Boys, K.K. Kings, Kuljit Bhamra, Teenage Rebels, Asia, Fun-Da-Mental, Bombay Jungle—all of them based in Britain.

Bhangra did not find a wide audience in the 1990s and 2000s partly because no major record label picked up any bhangra artists. Most of the music was recorded and distributed by small bhangra-oriented labels that sold CDs mainly to retail outlets that dealt with the Asian community.

Britain-based Malkit Singh is the self-proclaimed King of Bhangra. He popularized the music form in the late 1980s and early 1990s with songs like “Tootak Tootak Thootian (Hey Jamalo”). “Gureh Nalon Ishq” was featured in the film “Monsoon Wedding”. “Jindh Mahi” was in the film “Bend It Like Beckham”. DJ Rekha is a pioneering New York DJ who introduced “basement bhangra” parties to the world. She helped spawn the “Asian underground” movement—fast dance music with sitars and tablas. Jay-Z and Britney Spears have incorporated Indian sound into their music.

Panjabi MC is credited with generating an international interest in bhangra. He collaborated with Jay-Z and worked with hip-hop producers like Timbaland. His work has been sampled in songs by Ashanti and Mariah Carey. Many say his best work is “The Album”. Sinder Brar is a popular Punjabi bhangra performer.

Bally Sagoo and Indian Rap and Dance Music

Like pop music around the world modern Indian music has become more beat driven as in many cases beats have replaced melodies as driving force. "Asian people love Western sounds," Indian-British, techno-rap, dee-jay-producer Bally Sagoo told Newsweek, "They love hip-hop, soul and house music. And when they hear it with an Eastern touch, they go crazy."

Hindi language singles from Asian artists Bally Sagoo and Trickbaby have showed up on the British pop music charts. Apache Indian, a British-born pop star, whose synthesis of Western rap and Indian rhythm took subcontinent cities by storm in the early 2000s.

Bally Sagoo was one of the most popular pop performers in India in the 1990s and 2000s. . Describing his music. Sagoo told Newsweek, "Indian songs normally have a loud vocal, with a very loud string. Something had to give, and what gave was the heavy eastern flavor. Basically, you have to give them a bit of tablas, a bit of Indian sound. But bring on the bass lines, bring on the funky drummer beat, bring on the James Brown samples."

Born in Delhi and raised in Birmingham, England, Bally Sagoo produces hybrid dance music that blends dance music from the British club scene in Birmingham and Leeds with traditional Hindi music—fusing classical Hindi and Punjabi singing, tablas, saxophones, soul and R&B with bhangra and hip hop beats.

Some regard Sagoo best album to “Magic Touch” (1990), which he made with Nusrat Ali Khan. His album, “Flashback” sold 250,000 legitimate copies and an estimated 1.5 million pirated ones. Sagoo's eighth album “Rising from the East” was a big hit on three continents. His Urdu/Hindi songs have reached no. 12 and no. 21 on the British charts, the highest position for songs sung with South Asian languages. He has appeared in BBC's “Top of the Pops” and was the opening act at Michael Jackson's concert in Bombay.

Indipop Artists

The best selling Hindi pop album of all time was Alisha Chinai's “Made in India”, which sold 4.5 million copes, half of them pirated. Popular Indipop artists in the late 1990s and early 2000s included Lucky Ali, Sunseeta Rao, Mehnaz, Anaida, ballad rocker Colonial Cousins, British-Pakistani rappers Funda-mental and pop singer Sharon Prabhakar, “Anokha”, Urdu for unique, was an Anglo-Asian group founded by tabla player Talvin Singh. Cornershops merged flutes, sitars and hip-hop. Viva was supposed to be India’s answer to the Spice Girls. They were created for India’s Channel V

Himesh Reshamiyya: A composer at heart, Himesh Reshammiya is today better known for his high-pitched nasal vocals. With a unique style based on pop music and catchy techno beats, Tere Naam and Aashiq Banaya Aapne are his most popular albums. His ordinary looks are embellished by his trademark cap, jeans, and stubble, a cleverly orchestrated marketing strategy devised by a childhood friend. He's the only Indian to have ever performed at Wembley Stadium in London. [Source: Nandini Lakshman, Bloomberg /]

Rabbi Shergill: Known for his soulful music, Rabbi Shergill is a fan of Western acts such as Simon & Garfunkel, but is also influenced by Indian classical roots. One of his biggest hits on his debut album is based on the work of an 18th century Sufi poet. He enjoys Punjabi spiritual music, yet one of his biggest influences is Bruce Springsteen. An accomplished musician, he composes his own music and handles the guitar work on his album. /

Sonu Nigam: His boyish good looks haven’t hurt his career, but he has established himself as the real deal. The son of a musical entertainer, Sonu got his start performing for his father’s shows. Today, apart from playback singing and hosting music shows on TV and radio, he cuts an occasional album and has even acted in Bollywood flicks. /

Shaan: With a singer for a mother, Shaan or Shantanu Mukherjee, began by singing ad jingles as a child along with sister Sagarika. His independent career took off in 2000 with work on a remix album called Q-funk, in which he both sang and composed songs and ballads. He is a favorite with young film music directors in Bollywood.

Indo-Rock and Heavy Metal

Euphoria: This band was the first to bring Western rock culture to India, but they mix electric guitar with traditional Indian instruments like the tabla, sitar,and dholak. A trained doctor is the lead vocalist, and they have now inducted female members into the band. Critics have dubbed their music Hindi rock. More than a decade old, the group’s popularity is holding. [Source: Nandini Lakshman, Bloomberg /]

Indian Ocean: Created in 1990 by a group of friends, Indian Ocean is a contemporary fusion music ensemble. One critic described their style as “Indo-rock fusion with jazz spiced rhythms that integrate Sanskrit prayers, Sufism, environmentalism, mythology, and revolution." With their first album, titled Kolkata, Indian Ocean went on to make music for the award winning film Black Friday based on the 1993 Mumbai bombings. /

Demonic Resurrection: Considered to be one of the best heavy metal bands in India, they identify their style as Demonic Metal. Their first album Demonstealer released in November, 2000, was a flop. A relaunch a year later was far better received. Today, most of the original demons have left the band, but the influence of Scandanavian-style black metal is still evident. Their most devout fans call them “Metal Gods.” /

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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