Vasu Dixit, Bangalore-based music composer-vocalist-guitar player for the folk-fusion band Swarathma, has recently turned music-director with his first movie Bengaloored. The 90-minute English movie directed by Swaroop Kanchi features Kannada actors and has received good reviews both for its music and performances.
From humble beginnings in 2002, Swarathma has grown to be one of the major fusion bands in the city now. After regrouping in 2006, the six-member band’s first music album, also called Swarathma, was released in 2008. Their second album was Soundpad Sessions, a project by UK Producer John Leckie, in which they were featured as one of the four bands selected from India.
Swarathma’s first music video Pyaasi was released in May this year. The video focuses on water scarcity in India and is one of the band’s many works that highlight social issues.
Citizen Matters had an insightful tête-à-tête with the artist. Dixit gives you his take on his music, his band and ‘Pyaasi’ – the song on water that is already making waves in the music scene:
How did ‘Pyaasi’ happen?
Pyaasi was one of the songs in our first album Swarathma. It was written two years back, but this April when Global Water Challenge (GWC), a Washington-based Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) and Gibson Foundation also an NGO, came together to find musicians who could do a track on water scarcity and conservation, we sent in our song. They liked it and the video was shot in May.
Harsha Prabhakar of Black Picture Company directed the video. We didn’t have huge funds, so everyone worked for a small fee. The creative consultant of the song was Shekhar Kapur. He suggested that having a female voice will add another dimension to the song. So we approached Subha Mudgal. She had heard the song before and agreed instantly. She recorded the song for free in half a day. She has made additions to the song only where it was needed, which shows what an ample person she is as an artist.
Was the song originally written on water scarcity itself?
The actual theme of the song was based on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu dispute regarding Cauvery river water. One day when I was travelling by train from Bangalore to Mysore, I heard a conversation between some young men and an old lady regarding the issue. The conversation went on for about an hour. The men were saying that the water belonged to them, to which the old lady said – “but do you know what the river might be thinking?”
The men didn’t have an answer and it struck a chord with me. That was the seed for the song. But Cauvery is not mentioned anywhere in the lyrics, so it is not obvious. GWC liked the song as it was. If you do not know the context it was written in, it is just the lament of mother water.
The video also seems different in its approach.
Last year, when we performed in Rajasthan International Folk Festival, we had been put up in a palace in Jodhpur with a huge pool in the middle of a desert. It was very surreal, so we decided to shoot the song there. Harsha’s idea was to shoot a girl looking for water in many places. Usually bands are portrayed as being with the protagonist and understanding their pain. We decided to do something different even if it would show us in a bad light. The idea was that, just because we are singing this song does not mean that we understand the story or the value of water.
For urban youth, the idea that a person in a rural area spends half a day to find water, is something they can’t understand. We wanted to get people thinking, to light that spark. There have been many artists who rallied for causes, not all showed results in their own generation, but later people started understanding them. So one song doesn’t change things, but it has potential.
Like Pyaasi, many of your songs are in Hindi.
Growing up in Mysore, I speak Kannada at home, so it comes easily to me. I studied in a Central Board School and most of my classmates spoke in Hindi. Doordarshan was the only channel available at the time, and it was also in Hindi only (smiles). So Hindi was just there and I didn’t have to try hard to learn it. It only made sense to use Hindi in songs to reach out to a larger audience.
In the Swarathma album, there is only one song in Kannada, rest are in Hindi. I’ve composed couple of songs in Punjabi also, but for those I had written the songs in Hindi and then had a friend translate it to Punjabi. That was done because Punjabi suited the mood of the song.
What about English?
Abroad, people have this craze for live shows. It’s like what Bollywood and multiplexes are for us. In India, language matters a lot, but abroad they don’t care. They understand the language of music, not the language of the language in music.
I cannot express much in English, I don’t feel in English. If I swear at you in my mind, I’ll do it in Kannada not English (laughs). What we have understood is that wherever we played, language only plays second fiddle to music, especially abroad.
What foreign trips are you planning now? How has the experience been?
We are going to UK this Sunday to perform in some festivals. Our first foreign tour was to Singapore in 2009. We have also been to Hong Kong, UK and Morocco before. Abroad, people have this craze for live shows. It’s like what Bollywood and multiplexes are for us. In India, language matters a lot, but abroad they don’t care. They understand the language of music, not the language of the language in music.
How has your experience been performing in Bangalore?
When we started out initially, we were young. Not that we are old now (laughs), but we were just starting, we were bachchas of music. We were just learning how to do live shows. People hardly listened to us or gave slots to play. But when we started playing outside, especially when singing in Kannada, people started noticing us. There are many good bands in Bangalore that do not get enough exposure. Abroad tours add to profile, but that should not be the measure for judging a band. I am not complaining, but this has been our experience.
Do you have many shows in Bangalore now?
Yes, we have lot of corporate shows and we play in places like Kyra and Opus. We have also played in Freedom Jam and Fireflies festivals. I would love to play for Namma Habba also.
What are your future plans in film-music and how has your experience been with Bengaloored?
There are four Hindi, one Kannada and one Malwai folk song in Bengaloored. Hopefully the release of this film will create some buzz. We are looking to work on film music. We are growing as musicians and experimenting with new sounds. Live songs are our main forte, as it helps us reach out to the audience.
There are lots of new bands coming up. Bangalore is a nice place because people come from different backgrounds and accept any kind of experimentation – new or traditional, rock or carnatic.
Tell us more about fusion and Swarathma’s brand of music.
In fusion there is classical fusion – the kind that groups like Shakthi and Nadaka plays – wherein Indian classical and Western classical music is mixed typically. Our fusion involves rock, classical, reggae, jazz, heavy rock etc. We include many genres instead of one or two styles. Like the band Indian Ocean – whom we all admire – says, fusion music should be a fusion of minds. That’s when music flows and you are not able to distinguish the different components that make it.
Any other Indian bands that you appreciate?
As a band, we like Avial from Kerala, Pentagram, Motherjane, Shair n Func, Something Relevant and a former band called Zero.
How well has Swarathma been accepted in India?
The culture of music bands itself is not Indian, it’s a borrowed concept. In our classical music performances, there’s only one singer and others who play instruments; there is no coming together of artists. Music bands are new for the Indian audience and it will take time for them to accept and enjoy it. We have to think about how best we can add our own values to a format that already exists.
If I say that I am with a band, people ask me what I do otherwise. It takes 10-15 years of hardwork and dedication for a band to establish itself. We have just started, but we have seen the light at the end of the tunnel. After three-and-half years, we have stabilised and are getting some returns from our work. It’s great to earn money from something you love. But nothing is constant. We get 7-8 shows in a month and may not get any show the next month. It’s not that easy, but you don’t call it a struggle.
How do you select the theme of your songs?
Artists can use their medium to convey a message, then why can’t the message be useful to society? As an artist you have to let things affect you, and then it will show in your work. In the 60s, globally there was a struggle to find one’s identity, and hence there were many songs on universal love and peace. Songs by Beatle and Pink Floyd became popular because everything out in the world looked superficial then.
In the post-modern world, everything looks rosy. But somewhere we are so closed that we are not looking at many things. As artists, our senses are open and we consciously make an effort to make something meaningful.
For instance, we did a satirical song called ‘Topiwale‘, on politicians. We don’t talk about politics anymore because again we don’t want to be politically incorrect. There is so much more than everyday boy-girl love, that’s why we look at varied subjects. We are not against other kinds of expression. For instance, we did this song called ‘Pyaar ke rang‘, which is a love song that we set in a funny folk style.
‘Pyaasi‘ is very coloured in its emotions, but if you just change the lyrics a little bit, you can turn it into a love song also. Like any other artist, we try to colour our songs uniquely through lyrics and composition.
Do the preferences of audience affect the selection of themes?
There are no constraints in choosing themes. Most of our themes are something every human can relate to. The audience in UK may not be able to relate to the concept of ‘Pyaasi‘, but they can relate to the emotion. Everyone is connected to it in different emotional levels. We are working on a song on transgenders now. People see them as separate from society, but they are also part of the society. We try to talk about such issues.
How did your interest in music start?
I grew up in a middle class Brahmin family. I was put into a music class where I learned the basics in Carnatic. I didn’t like it as all other students were girls (smiles), so I quit. Later, when my brother Raghu (Raghu Dixit, founder and core member of the band The Raghu Dixit Project) and left for Bangalore, I tried playing his guitar and enjoyed it. I started playing guitar when I was around 20.
How does the band work, with everyone coming from different backgrounds?
We have lot of disagreements and discomfort in each other’s way of approaching music. But after all we are together because of the music we have created. We feel complete with all of us together. We are not greater than the songs we create. Being in a band is just the same being in a marriage, just without the sex (laughs). Each person has a different role.
Are there plans to enter mainstream movie music?
No such plans now. But if somebody gives an opportunity, who wouldn’t want to? If it pleases us, then why not?
What do you have to say about new bands in Bangalore?
There are lots of new bands coming up. Bangalore is a nice place because people come from different backgrounds and accept any kind of experimentation – new or traditional, rock or carnatic. Rock by itself is popular here and draws a huge crowd. So no complaints, it has only been good. ⊕
To earn money from something you love is more than great, is… a beautiful dream come true.