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April 30, 2019 // The Genres

From Folk Tales to Web Specials: The story of comedy in India

Few art forms have exploded as much as stand-up in India over the last decade. We have a look.

If laughter is truly the best medicine, you no longer have to be a doctor to write a prescription. In 2019, when everyone in India has unlimited appetite for content (thanks to the data revolution), there’s always a void to be filled. And right now, an art form earlier only known in the West is breaking new ground each day in India.

This is the story of stand-up comedy, and it’s meteoric rise to the top of urban pop culture.

Wisecracks and sharp wit weren’t invented in this country only when comedy clubs came about. India has always had a long-standing tradition of poets, jesters and writers, whose tales would make it to the mainstream of their time (and, eventually, the mythology of ours). Listening to your grandma talk about Tenali Ramanor Birbal is almost part of our cultural syllabus.

Post-independence, writers from across India would take to the stage to perform their work. Each state would have its own unique take. In a breakaway from standard oration, P. L. Deshpande, one of Maharashtra’s most beloved humorists, popularized the art of squeezing in improv into his performances, which during the 70s and 80s, was a rarity and a spectacle by itself.

Further down South, the art of mimicry took a life of its own in Kerala. Malayalees will fondly remember KS Prasad’s antics on stage. With a repertoire (or should we say, a sound bank) of over a 100 sounds all tied together in a perfect set, he made his name in Kalabhavan, Kochi, a stage that gave birth to more actors and comedians synonymous now with the Malayalam film industry.

A typical Malayalam comedy stage performance. Even if you don’t understand the words, you can appreciate the blend of the slapstick and cerebral which remains to this day in the state’s popular culture.

John Rao Janumala – or as he is much better known – Johnny Lever rose to fame around the same time, using Bollywood as his leverage (and sometimes, butt) for most of his material. Inspiring the likes of Raju Shrivastav, Sunil Pal and a whole lot more, by the early 2000s, it was a mainstay on TV. The Great Indian Laughter Challenge was the stage on which many Indian comedians honed their craft, to a growing audience that was only learning that telling jokes for a living could make sense.

Johnny Lever, considered by many as one of the finest comedians India has ever produced, still sends audiences into fits of laughter during his performances.

The ‘scene’ started to show some promise, and a few people felt brave enough to carve a niche for themselves in this incredibly nascent community.

Papa CJ was one of the first comedians to become popular in the true sense of the word, at least in the form we know it today: English stand-up. Having quit his day-job in the UK, he began doing shows in and around India. From setting up club shows (who at the time never even heard of a concept like comedy) to putting up open mics, he paved the way for others to follow. Not to mention, he’s funny too.

Papa CJ remains one of the only Indian comedians to have performed at the prestigious Comedy Store in London.

Another name that was doing the rounds at the time was that of Vir Das. Before Delhi Belly, he too came down to India from the US, and did hour-long specials that filled up auditoriums for months on end. His series of open mics paved the way for many comedians – in fact, interviews with several of today’s comedic stars will invariably have the line “won an open mic hosted by Vir Das” somewhere in there.

 

Three’s a Crowd

With audiences coming to check out this weird new art form in small rooms, it wasn’t a surprise when comedy-specific venues popped up, starting with The Comedy Store in Mumbai in 2010, which has since nurtured talent by giving them a stage to both fail and flourish. At first, it did seem novel to actually pay to see someone crack jokes on stage. But it soon caught on, and other clubs began mushrooming across the city, and soon in other metro cities across India.

Now called the Canvas Laugh Club, the legacy of this comic institution now continues to grow!

A spot at “CLC”, as it’s fondly called, is still considered a high point in an upcoming comic’s career.

Open mics, the oxygen for comedy, are now a part and parcel of the landscape, with Mumbai alone hosting close to ten every week, with performance spots closing in minutes.

Of course, comedy really took off (along with several other things) with the data revolution.

 

It’s all about You(tube)

With YouTube, comedians became content creators, and in between grinding the club circuit and open mics, a bunch of them banded together to take their humour to the next level.

With the liberty to make sketches and write longer gags, comics took to Youtube as quickly as Devdas turned to the bottle. It started small at first, with the likes of AIB, EIC and a whole bunch of comedians banding together to form collectives. Each group began to take on everything from contentious social issues to something that’s just, well, funny.

The “honest” series by collective AIB was a fantastic take on everyday things and our idiosyncrasies.

Through these groups piggybacking on the popularity of Youtube, comedy grew to become a force to reckon with. Inspiring a new generation of comics and sketch troupes, diversity and comedy go hand in hand.

 

Haan bhai mujhe bhi comedy karna chahiye

What was largely seen as an English-only experience quickly changed when the medium found the internet. Zakir Khan broke the mould for Hindi comedy, by bringing in a kind of story telling that has never been seen before. Regional languages are finally getting their due now, with collectives like BhaDiPa and The Comedy Factory (based out of Gujarat) finding a voice and an audience craving local content. And, of course, a lot of the “English” comics would have punchlines or video sketches in Hindi, further democratizing content.

Who would have thought a boy from Indore would be “the most important comedian in the country today”, as he was once described?

We also have supergroups that meld music and comedy. Alien Chutney (with Vir Das as the frontman) and Aisi Taisi Democracy (with Rahul Ram of Indian Ocean, Varun Grover and Sanjay Rajoura) have found a very unique blend of putting together musical shows woven around tales and material around Indian satire.

The results speak for themselves. Comedians are now household names across the country, with the tight-knit community looking out for each other and catering to varied tastes, cultures and people of all ages. No longer limited to plain mimicry, the time has come to acknowledge that comedy in India is now a mature force to reckon with.

 

All this happened in just ten years!

In just a decade, we’ve seen the comedy in India take off like no other. From foreign names like Bill Burr, Eddie Izzard and Russell Peters touring country to Indian comedians now finally crossing over and doing shows in the US across multiple cities, it’s only going to get bigger, better and funnier with each passing day.

Gaana Music Festival is proud to bring you three of India’s finest comics, in a way spanning three different eras within this decade: Rohan Joshi (who was among the first comics, and a Vir Das “alum”), Kanan Gill (who started his career bang in the middle of the wave and is one of India’s biggest comics today) and Anshu Mor (who had the confidence to quit a corporate job and start his career at 44!).

And this is just the beginning! As Rohan Joshi said in an exclusive interview with us, “we’re at the end of the beginning of Indian stand-up comedy”. Onwards, then – to many more laughs, web specials and of course, performances on the Gaana Music Festival stage!