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Music, Mysore And Microbiology: In Conversation with Raghu Dixit

Music, Mysore And Microbiology: In Conversation with Raghu Dixit

April 14, 2011

A microbiologist-turned-folk/rock musician. Meet Raghu Dixit - the rising star of India's independent music scene.

“The more attached you get to something, the harder it is to hold on to it,” says Raghu Dixit to me as we’re wrapping up our interview. It was a spontaneous moment of self-attested gyaan (wisdom) from a musician whose entry into and rise in the Indian music scene has been nothing short of fascinating. I met with Dixit just before his first ever performance in New York, as he sipped on a glass of warm water with honey to soothe his voice for the show later. He was on a whirlwind tour of North America, with his band The Raghu Dixit Project (he couldn’t come up with a better name, joked band member Gaurav). Dixit is a shining example of a rapidly growing new breed of independent musicians in India that are taking the youth population by storm. It’s an odd, hybridized renaissance of sorts. These hip and young artists are referencing back to traditional folk and classical music and literature, re-fashioning them with modern music and sensibilities. What you get, as a result, is hordes of enraptured college students around India screaming classical literature and poetry as they attend concerts by this rising army of folk-classical-pop-rock bands. Dixit has become one of the flag bearers of this movement, a grounded rock star who is just as passionate about holding on to his roots as he is to delivering highly charged performances to his ever-growing legion of fans. Hailing from Mysore and living in Bangalore, Dixit found music on sheer impulse. “I was in my second year in BSc doing molecular biology,” he reminisces, “and I also used to be a classical dancer for seventeen years. So I [had] just finished a performance of bharatnatyam, I was removing my makeup. And there was this classmate of mine who used to have long hair, play guitar and sing songs in English and impress girls.” He pauses to laugh at the image he just described. “And he came up to me and made fun of me saying you know, ‘this makeup and all make you look so effeminate. Holding a guitar is what makes one a man!’” So, doing what any self-respecting man would do when a longhaired Anglophone wannabe rock star challenges his masculinity, Dixit took up the challenge. “Out of sheer spite, I started learning to play the guitar and showed him in two months that I could do it too.” At 22, Dixit finished his masters, got a job at a leading pharmaceutical company and moved to Belgium. To try his luck, he performed a couple of songs on a local radio station, which triggered an overwhelming response from the listeners. He remembers, “[The radio jockey] called and said, if you can turn on an audience that doesn’t understand your language at all, imagine what you can do back in your own country.” Within a week, Dixit quit his job and moved back to India. And as with anyone who decides to take the plunge into showbiz, Dixit “came back to Bombay thinking I would become a rock star overnight. It took seven years from then to actually get my first album out.” Those seven years came with many obstacles, most pointedly the realization that his sound was nowhere close to that of Bollywood. The go-to route for many artists in India was thus blocked. He was also given the condition that releasing an album would mean financing it all himself. Perhaps the biggest slap in the face an often-shallow entertainment industry could give him was to say, “you’re not good looking enough, I can’t put your posters up,” Dixit remembers grudgingly. “Ironically it took two Bollywood music composers to recognize the non-Bollywood music,” he says fondly of composer duo Vishal and Shekhar. “It was good to get recognized by two musicians and not by two businessmen looking to make a business transaction out of me.” Dixit’s self-titled debut album (available on iTunes) released in 2008, with eight eclectic tracks sung in three different languages – Hindi, English and Kannada. But it took about a year for Indians to really take notice (despite a ringing, and ironic, Bollywood endorsement). In 2009 the album became the highest earning non-Bollywood album in India, sparking performances worldwide. He became young India’s latest rock idol, an even more impressive accomplishment considering his upbringing. “I grew up in a very conservative south Indian Brahmin family,” he explains, “There was no scope for me to listen to anything that was Western and my dad would never even let me wear jeans! When I got my first guitar, I would wait for when dad was not around and then start playing.” Dixit now plays, quite uninhibitedly at that, around the world. His band, The Raghu Dixit Project, is also a unique experiment as far as bands go. “It’s a floating band,” he shares, “It’s never the same members.” The revolving door policy for the band seems to be working well for him and his music. “For me the biggest criteria is to find the best of the humans first and not the greatest musicians. The camaraderie finally leads to great music anyway. And because it is such a fluid band, the solos and interludes are never fixed. It’s interesting to see how the same song gets colored differently each time.” When his songs are already quite colorful, watching him perform with his band becomes an even more engrossing experience. His biggest hits have been Mysore Se Aayee (homage to his hometown, Mysore) and Gudugudiya Sedi Nodo (where smoking a hookah is an allegory to living a good life), while his personal favorite remains the soulful Ambar. His musical influences come from culture and heritage, rather than iconic musicians. “I would say, very proudly, it is the country that I live in that is the inspiration. We have such rich traditions and culture, also at the same time this huge bombardment of globalization and the Internet revolution that is happening, which is bringing other cultures together. That is what is defining my music today.” The Raghu Dixit Project is making noticeable waves in the music world. Dixit’s music is quickly become a favorite at a growing number of music festivals, and record labels on foreign shores are now paying attention. And he is more than ready for this career growth. “It’s always like that,” he explains, “People listen to an artist and say, ‘hey, where did he come from suddenly?’ But then behind every genuine successful artist – I’m not talking about manufactured artists – there’ll be years of turmoil and struggle and learning and giving.” All the toil, it appears, is finally paying its dividends. Just in time for his upcoming shows in the UK, Dixit’s album sales have spiked on Amazon and iTune’s UK ranks, with the latter listing it as the top selling world album this week. He has also been nominated (by a popular vote) in the Best Newcomer category of the Songlines Music Awards 2011. Back in India, Dixit will make his Bollywood debut as composer this year with Y Films, the new youth-branded wing of Yash Raj Films. The film – Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge (Will You Friend Me?) – is releasing later this year. The move comes after already proving himself with the soundtracks of three successful Kannada films. Looking ahead, Dixit wants to bring Indian music out of the shadows of the world music niche and into the mainstream. “The western audiences know Indian music as only sitar, tabla, Bollywood and Bhangra. They don’t know India is a lot of rock and roll too. They don’t know there is a burgeoning Indian independent music scene, cooking up lots of bands.” His mission is thus clear, and he wouldn’t mind collaborations with artists such as the Dave Matthews Band. “In fact, several times we’ve been called the Indian Dave Matthews Band," he adds. “I would love for people outside India to know India better,” Dixit sums up, “that it’s more than elephants and cows on the streets. Or snake charmers. If I can manage to show that India is also so much more than just sitar, tabla, Bhangra and Bollywood, and if I can carve out a road that other bands from India can follow, then I think that will be my contribution to the world.” It seems like a juvenile college dare can really change your life, after all. Check out the official website of The Raghu Dixit Project. Dear NRI readers why not connect with us on the following social media platforms. Click here to join our Facebook Fan Page Click here to join our LinkedIn Group

4 Comments

  • Pulkit
    By
    Pulkit
    23.07.11 07:32 PM
    Hi Rige, thanks so much for your comments. I'm glad you enjoy their music and my piece helped. :-)
  • Rige
    By
    Rige
    23.07.11 04:34 PM
    Hello,

    It was an absolute pleasure going through your article. Now m a big fan of "The Raghu Dixit Music", would recommend it to my folks too, thanks to you!!!!!
  • Pulkit
    By
    Pulkit
    20.04.11 09:05 AM
    Thanks for the comment, Kartik. Yes, he is very down to earth and very talented. Great combination!
  • Kartik
    By
    Kartik
    18.04.11 06:10 AM
    Hey Pulkit,
    Amazing article. I happened to have met Raghu sometime last year when he was in Melbourne. He came to the place where I work. Though didnt interact much as I hadnt heard much about him. He is very down to earth and simple! He deserves all the success:)

    Cheers!

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