The Raghu Dixit Project is among the first independent musical outfits from India to have gained worldwide recognition and a truly international fan base. Bulbul Sharma speaks to the band’s multitalented front man, Raghu Dixit, about how a former microbiologist became a commercially successful indie musician.
Q. Your professional journey from being a microbiologist to a renowned musician has inspired many. But for you, this couldn’t have been an easy decision—to leave a financially rewarding job for a career in music. How did you convince yourself to make the switch? And what sort of challenges did you have to face?
A. It all started when I was working as a microbiologist. On an off day at home, I was playing the guitar in my room when my landlord accidentally heard my music and happened to take me to the Radio Station in Belgium and got me to perform there in an acoustic impromptu interview. The positive response which I got from the radio show convinced me that if my music can generate such a response there, I could definitely make something of it back in India. That was the tipping point in my life—to quit microbiology and come back to India as an aspiring musician.
My journey has been full of challenges. When I came back to India and was starting out in early 2000, nobody took my music seriously. It wasn’t as if people were looking to back other indie-pop musicians back then. The Indian Indie-pop scene was all about Alisha Chinoy, Apache Indian and Baba Sehgal. My music wasn’t fitting anywhere among them because it was different.
Eventually, when music composer duo Vishal-Shekhar’s break happened in 2007, the indie-pop scene died… We literally missed out a lot on that front and then we started focusing on a live touring career. Also, it took longer for us back then to establish ourselves, as there was no penetration of YouTube and Facebook. The music videos we made, we had to put them together. So the journey has been full of ups and downs. But overall encouraging. In spite of having played 8,000 shows year after year, we still continue to be in demand and try to perform as much as we can. This is the true testament to the organic growth we’ve had as a band, and to the loyal fans we have gained over a period of time.
Q. Your music draws on varied folk traditions and languages. Did you consciously set out to transcend the language barrier as a musician?
A. We really don’t consider language as a barrier. I am a latent speaker. I can speak in Hindi and Kannada both. It was never a conscious decision. It just comes naturally to us as we are making music in Kannada, singing in Hindi and now even in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. We always create sound first, which is followed by whatever language and lyric comes naturally to it. In fact, if there is any barrier right now, it is singing in English. We have never consciously targeted any market, nor tried to sing in some particular language for that reason.
Q. The Raghu Dixit Project is one of the first big international acts to have emerged in India, and to have gained great repute in the global indie music circuit. What were the factors that worked for you so well?
A. Well, I believe the thing which has worked for us is my story—how I entered into music, our dressing style, the storytelling that goes into the show, the meaning behind the songs, and the positive messages in the shows which hook the audiences. And the music itself is completely transcendent. We have played in more than 30 countries and in some of our shows we require translators and interpreters on stage, to tell the people what we are saying. There’s another thing which could have worked in our favour: we did not change our music. We still perform in Tamil, Kannada and Hindi. We have played in South Korea, Russia, Japan, Hong Kong and Spain. Places where they usually don’t even speak English. When we get on the stage, the only thing we have in our mind is to make the show work for thousands of people who have come to watch us, and to connect with them. We would prefer playing one song in a 40 minute-slot rather than compromise on the detailing—like, where we are coming from, the message we are trying to convey, what the music is all about and other relevant things, which we feel form the core essence of the band.
Q. Tell us about your early influences in music.
A. I grew up in a very traditional and conservative Brahmin household, which meant that it was forbidden to listen to any commercial music. My early years were spent listening to Carnatic, classical or devotional music, which used to be played at my home anyway. I wasn’t even exposed to Bollywood songs. I picked up the musical instruments on my own. So there wasn’t much music reference or influences. This probably helped me to develop my own, unique sense of style.
Q. Live performances by independent bands are now a big part of our mainstream urban culture. The audiences, too, are doing their bit to promote and support such gigs. What explains this cultural shift?
A. I personally feel that in our lives today we are surrounded by a lot of technology and instant gratification. Most of the time is spent on staring at the screen on some sort of technology or listening to some sort of recorded music. Eventually, there is always a craving among people to go out and feel a human connection; to feel involved and appreciate another human being who is a performer and is fantastic at his or her craft or art. It’s mesmerising for people to watch someone demonstrating such skills on the stage. To break from the monotonous routine in their lives, people seek out these live performances and find them very uplifting. That’s another reason why we as a band have always avoided composing songs around sadness and anger. We have always tried to maintain the vibes of happiness in our music.
Q. Your live performances are very engaging. Does the Raghu Dixit Band have a secret mantra for success?
A. There is no secret mantra as such. The fact is that we try to remind ourselves from time to time that people simply don’t turn up to listen to songs being sung. They come to a concert to immerse in an experience, and we have to try to offer that. So the shows have to be very engaging and interactive. This makes the performance energetic and lively. The music is very positive. We don’t focus on only one thing; it’s with a combination of everything that we try to achieve that effect, so that people go back and remember us in every possible way they could. This especially works well when it comes to performing before people who might not be able to get the lyrics of the songs, but who nevertheless remember us for other things we did at the show.
Q. You have a very original style—all the way from how you appear on the stage to how you write your songs and compose your music. Is it important for all artistes to have their unique signature style?
A. In my opinion, being unique is not my focus so much as showcasing my individuality is. It’s important in my perspective for every artiste to have his or her own personality, and for them to individually shine in their music, their appearance as well as in their stage performances… There is no need for someone to sing like someone else. That’s certainly not going to impress people. It’s important for any artist to be true to their own personality and their individuality.
Q. You have also composed music for films. How different is your creative process when you’re making music for a film, as opposed to when you’re working on your own project?
A. It is not like movie music is somehow lesser or not as interesting as independent music. But the difference is that when you make music for movies, the songs are being made for specific situations. The situation is the vision in which the director aims to take the story forward. When you see a fantastic composer making an item song that you don’t agree with, it’s not their choice. The composers are not given enough liberty to make any song they want to when it comes to movies. The composer is specifically asked for a song which, once it goes into the movie, becomes something that takes the movie’s plot forward, as per the director’s vision. So when you make music for a movie, the key is to remember that this is not a composer’s own piece of music even though he or she is responsible for it. It is important for you to bring your individuality and style in it. But it is still something by which the director’s vision is to be executed. When you make your own independent music that situation no longer exists. When you are working on a commercial project, you have to live up to the brief you are given.
Q. Do you think Bollywood and other regional film and music industries are doing enough to promote independent artistes?
A. I don’t think it’s for them to promote independent artistes. Bollywood is not a platform for independent music. It’s an industry which is completely commercial and is trying to make money. There is a chain of people—from producers and directors to composers—who are trying to make a living out of it. What has definitely started happening in the last five years or so is that a lot of musicians from the independent scene have started contributing to the movie industry in their own way. But independent musicians like us don’t have large marketing budgets or the muscle power to promote our work. We are still trying to figure out things for ourselves in terms of promoting our music on a large scale.
Q. You have won several awards for your music. And you have recently been nominated for the Artist Aloud Music Awards as well. What do such awards and plaudits mean to you?
A. It is great to be nominated for the Artist Aloud Music Awards and I believe every award which we have received so far means a lot to us. Such awards validate the fact that the fans have voted for us and that the people in the industry have noticed our work, which is great. Also, these awards help get introduced to new fans who haven’t heard us before.
Q. Tell us about your future projects.
A. I am working on a movie as a music director with Anjali Menon, a Malayalam film director whose last film was Bangalore Days. Apart from that, I am contributing to her Telugu web series as well, which will come out this year. There are also a couple of Kannada movies, which will be out by the end of this year or early next year.