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Raghu Dixit on why his hard disk is divided into two parts: money and love.
Raghu Dixit's laughter is just like his music. Earthy. Soulful. Unpretentious. It's 8. 30 in the morning but the 36-year-old musician is game for a chat and the words tumble unstoppably out of his mouth. You can't help but be swept along by the jollity that he seems to exude.
Watching the Raghu Dixit Project, India's biggest indie export, perform is a similar experience. No sooner is the first verse done than you find yourselves enveloped in the warmth of his voice and swaying to the melody. In the case of Lokada kalaji, he will even teach you the words, which are in Kannada, as he often does while performing the song. Whether or not you know the language you find yourself singing along.
The Raghu Dixit Project was born out of an idea that was simple enough: an open house for musicians.
"The Raghu Dixit Project was started with the basic idea that I didn't want to get stuck with a formal band where you have a constant line-up, " he says between bites of poori-bhaji at a South Indian restaurant in Mumbai. "You end up fighting eventually, which is what happened to my last band, Antargani. Eventually you realise that all members can't have the same goals or ideas or walk with the same pace to achieve those goals. Then I thought that I should just play with people who want to play with me and whom I want to play with. The collaborations can last for one week, one song or six years, " and he points in the direction of bassist Gaurav Vaz. "The beauty of the project is that we play the same songs but every time it's different because a new musician adds his own flavour."
The current line-up of the band is Raghu, who sings and plays acoustic guitar which he taught himself, Vaz on bass, Wilfred Demoz on drums, Karthick Iyer on violin and Joseph Vijay on guitar.
Try and ask him to define the band's sound and he starts smiling like a Cheshire cat. "It's Indo-world-folk-rock, " he grins and watches your face contort in confusion. "Earlier, questions like what is your music, define your music used to irritate me. For me there are only two genres: bad music and good music. People called us fusion, folk fusion. Some people even called us rock bands (laughs). The initial irritation then became a game. We wanted to confuse the audience so we called it Indo-world-folkrock. Take that. Now you can assume whatever you want to about our music. We ourselves don't know what that means! The fact is, at the core, we are very Indian but we also marry styles from all across the world. The sound is very folksy but there's also a strong element of rock. Indo-world-folkrock sounds damn hep, no?".
In their colourful lungis, beads and ghunghroos (on the frontman's ankles), a Raghu Dixit Project gig is as much a treat for the eyes as it is for the ears. It wasn't a look they stumbled on. Instead, minute planning went into determining how the band should look on stage. "It was a meticulously planned look attained after a lot of trial and error. We started with long kurtas and pyjamas and we looked like classical musicians trying to look yo holding guitars, " explains the man who is a trained Bharatnaytam dancer and used to work as a microbiologist before he gave it up for music. "Then we tried wearing short kurtas with jeans and ended up looking like Euphoria. We tried various options but nothing felt right. I, then, sat down to define what is our music and who are we. We are very proud to be from South India. We've all grown up wearing the white dhoti at home. Our music is very vibrant, colourful, earthy, folksy. So we changed the white dhoti, what we call panchay in Kannada, into a very colourful piece of clothing. There are other bands which are using the lungi to make a fashion statement but they'll never be the first one to do it. Now they will have to skirt around our skirts!"
Although RDP is a huge success story today, the early years weren't easy. Raghu had to swallow his ego and cross over to the evil side - composing music for films, something he hated initially but has now come to relish. "It's tough to survive on music in India. But I have a clear-cut vision of what I do for what. On my computer, my hard disk is divided into two parts, money and love. So what I do for money is clearly defined and what I do for love is also clear cut. Of course the two have very rarely met. There are projects which I have thoroughly enjoyed making and yet made money on them. Like the Kannada movies I did. The first one I did, Psycho, was a smash hit. I became an instant household name though I cringed at the idea of making film music then. Now I've begun to enjoy the whole process of putting songs together defined by someone else or the script.
"You have to remember that a movie score is not a musician's prerogative. It's defined by the script, its defined by the director, by some market requirement. This work belongs in the money drive on my computer. But there are also projects that completely tickle the mind of a musician. Filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap have used music in a totally unique way and his idea of cinema-making really challenges a musician. "
The year 2010 has been thrilling in more ways than one for the four-year-old band. They have performed at some of the biggest world music festivals including the WOMAD in UK and were even featured on the famous Later. . . with Jools Holland show on the BBC, along with former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and his band, Band of Joy, and American indie band Arcade Fire. If that wasn't appreciation enough, then his 2008 eponymous debut album, which had become the highest-selling non-Bollywood album that year was released worldwide and ranked number one on the World Music Album on iTunes UK as recently as last week.
"I didn't realise the importance of it till the time people started responding to the how," Raghu says. "Till we landed there I was wondering why my management was being so fussy about this one show. Also they had dictated what song we would sing and which instrument we could use. I was, honestly, a little pissed off about it, thinking, 'Why are we sucking up to these guys?' And we weren't even on the main show, we were on the repeat telecast. But after that show on TV with just one song, No man will ever love you, like I do, suddenly the UK has woken up to the fact that there's someone like Raghu Dixit. Not just the UK but Europe and Australia too. Three million viewers through that one show. It's unbelievable."
Next year, RDP is playing at Glastonbury. The magical moment that Raghu is so fond of alluding to just seems to be beginning.
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