There's been a definite uptick in the number of vernacular Indian acts performing these days. Central to their success has been two hitherto elusive elements: a firm grip over songwriting and the ability to find an emotional core to their music. It seems they've found their voice—a solid, open-throated, local sound (as opposed to the constant yowling about relationship problems). For this handful of musicians making down-home connections, it's a world away from the top-10 Bollywood format. And it's a refreshingly natural one at that. Jaunty, sorrowful, bruised and optimistic, this is music you can believe in.
Mysore se Aayi: Raghu Dixit of The Raghu Dixit Project
For vernacular bands, success has taken its time and they are only now coming into their own as stable, if modest, sellers. For 33-year-old Raghu Dixit who heads the loosely knit The Raghu Dixit Project (he's the only permanent member), an initial foray into the arts was as a classical Bharatanatyam dancer (he still sports ghungroos and a bright vermillion lungi on stage). The switch came in 1999 while he was pursuing a master's degree in microbiology at Mysore University. A friend had challenged him to learn a "more masculine pursuit". Stung by taunts that dancing was too effeminate an effort, he accepted a wager to perform an English rock number in two months.
Raghu soon went on to form Antaragni, a band that first attracted notice with the single Mysore se Aayi. Antaragni, in fact, landed many a coup during its time—opening for the Bryan Adams concert in Bangalore in 2001 and other big-ticket shows at IITs and IIMs. It was at one such live gig that he met Vishal Dadlani of Pentagram who asked him why he was so bent on singing in English. It was at the latter's urging that Raghu gravitated to experiment more with Kannada and Hindi.
But it wasn't to last. Antaragni broke up in 2005 and a disappointed Raghu left India to work for a pharmaceutical company in Belgium. "One day, they were playing Mysore se Aayi on the radio in Belgium, and the presenter told me if the music appealed so much to his people, imagine what the response would be like back home. I packed my bags and returned to India the following week."
It took Raghu four years after he formed The Raghu Dixit Project to land a record label contract (Vishal-Shekhar Music and Counter Culture Records) and bring out his first self-titled album. A standout track on it was Gudugudiya Sedi Nodo, a soothing Kannada song set to the poetry of a 19th century Sufi saint from north Karnataka, Shishunaala Sharif, known for his use of simple metaphors to explain life's intricate philosophies.
Just as Raghu's outfit has made a persuasive case for promoting original content, Avial, the five-piece alternative Malayalam rock band from Thiruvananthapuram too has its own high-voltage self-titled album out that bristles with energy and originality. Their single Nada Nada has had over 1,50,000 hits on YouTube to date, its sound in equal parts lush, spontaneous and organic.
Tony John, the band's lead vocalist, says the group has infused their own writing with traditional folk songs and rhythms from the deep interiors of Kerala. And it shows. Chekele is a powerful frantic plea for a sharecropper couple whose crop has been destroyed in the floods; Aadu Pambe is an allegory on learning to live amicably with nature. "We came together in 2003 specifically in the hope of giving some shape to the Malayalam rock scene," says Tony. "There are hundreds of rock bands and rap artists that sing in Malayalam, but none of them get the right exposure...."
Anand Surapur of Phat Phish Records, the company that has been at the vanguard of the 'original sound movement' and has given us Avial, Oikyotaan and Da Saz, says "it's hard to pinpoint what is so appealing about these bands. Perhaps it's the rough-around-the-edges feel, their disdain for clearly defined formats and structures, the stream-of-consciousness kind of approach."
What is clear is there is a sizable market now for original, non-Bollywood music, a climate for independent labels like Counter Culture Records, Blue Frog and Phat Phish to survive and flourish in. (Just this month, A.R. Rahman in collaboration with Phat Phish and Doordarshan has unveiled plans to launch a reality TV show shot in a travelogue-like format—a massive band hunt across South Asia that seeks to promote original, non-filmy music.)
To be fair, Raghu Dixit and Avial aren't the only players on the scene, nor are they the boldest "experimentalists". Spread across India, especially in pockets in the east and south, are hundreds of artistes still selling CDs from merchandise tables at live gigs just to earn a little extra scratch while on the road. "There are about 600 rock bands in Coimbatore alone," says Rahman. "The idea is to draw them out of basement gigs and get these guys to sing in Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam on stage." As Surapur puts it, "These are people who can fashion intelligent, iconoclastic folk music that's cleverly assembled, almost like a delicate rope bridge. They shouldn't hold up, unsupported as they are. But our experience shows they do, beautifully."