Ankur Tewari: ‘I Take My Own Time’
India’s best-known Hindi singer-songwriter on victories,
Bollywood and why he feels he still has a long way to go
At the start of our interview, singer-songwriter Ankur Tewari makes it clear that he’s not here to sing praises or promote his mainstream work. “Chef should be side-plot,” he says over the phone about his latest Bollywood gig as a lyric-writer, for the film starring Saif Ali Khan and music and vocals by the likes of Raghu Dixit, Vishal Dadlani and Amaal Mallik.
“I’ve always been okay with mainstream work. What I’m against is certain aesthetics,” says the songwriter who’s had over a decade’s experience slogging it out in the music industry. The written word remains a constant wellspring for Tewari, so he’s never short of ideas— whether it’s having up to 60 songs in his repertoire with his band, The Ghalat Family or working on a children’s album with composer and multi-instrumentalist Sidd Coutto. “Over the years, with every book you read, you become a different person, or with every poem you read. The story changes constantly,” Tewari says.
And over the last couple of years, Tewari has changed his story to a certain extent as well. He released a two-part collection of songs Side A and Side B between October 2016 and February this year, portraying his reflective, celebratory best —from “Aa Jaao” to the sing-along set staple “Mohabbat Zinadabad.” He says, a bit defeated, that the audience gets “really upset” if the band ever skips a few songs from their catalog at a gig. “Over the years what has happened is that there are certain songs we try and avoid in the setlist, since they don’t go down too well with the crowd when we play in pubs and bars. When you don’t give people under influence what they want, it can get a bit violent.”
Does that explain why a lot of songs have always been there in a Ghalat Family setlist over the years? Tewari says the setlist has changed year on year, “apart from two or three songs that if you don’t sing, people won’t feel happy about it.” The current lineup of “amazing” bandmates includes Coutto, drummer Vivaan Kapoor, guitarist Gaurav Gupta and bassist Johan Pais, whom Tewari cites as enablers when it comes to growing as a musician. “I don’t consider myself a kick-ass musician. There is a sense of insecurity that I have.”
The songwriter sort of agrees when asked about how, musically, the Ghalat Family is much less adventurous than it ought to be. He says he still has a “long way to go” before he can express himself best as a musician more than songwriter or singer. He says, “I know a few chords on the guitar, I strum them along and I really take crutch of the words more than I take crutch of the music.” He chalks it down to his nature as a person. “I’m a very slow person, I take my own time. I think I’ve taken a long time but I still haven’t got where I should get to. But it’s something that I’ve identified and need to work on harder.”
Watch the video for “Aa Jaao”
Still, Tewari is not one to jump on the folk fusion bandwagon and slap on classical instrumentation or even, say, a horn section to every other song to break it out of its current acoustic guitar-leaning style. He says with a laugh, “I don’t care what other people are doing. It’s just that if I get a string quartet working, I won’t know what to tell them.” The minimalism of Tewari’s songwriting (“If I can tell it in two words, I probably won’t even use the third word”) certainly seeps into his sensibility as a composer and musician as well. He admires that some of his peers like Dixit have worked with full orchestras, or a string or brass section. Tewari says he’s a “bit timid” on that front, but recent collaborations, including “Dil Beparvah” (featuring singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad), have made him enjoy any extent of experimentation. He says, “I unfortunately never went to music school, so my school is every time I hit the studio.”
If there’s one thing that strikes immediately when you hear his tunes and when you speak to him, it’s the humility and vulnerability of Tewari, something that makes him enterprising but also steadfast in what he wants to do. Outside of just songwriting, even. Tewari just wrapped up a two-day festival dedicated to spoken word and poetry under the open sky, Spoken Fest. It was created by arts organization Kommune, which Tewari co-founded with TV and theater actor Roshan Abbas and TV personality Gaurav Kapoor. “I’m also doing music supervision for a film called Gully Boy, which is directed by Zoya Akhtar,” he says, referring to the film that’s said to be based on the lives of desi rappers such as Divine and Naezy.
This month, Tewari will also release three songs for an upcoming children’s album he’s working on with Coutto, out via Sony Music India. “Interestingly, I’ve noticed over the years, where we’ve played, a lot of toddlers and kids come in front and are dancing to our music,” Tewari says. Timed with Children’s Day on November 14th, Tewari says after the first three songs are out, there’ll be a song releasing each month. Understandably, this is the spot of exploration that Tewari is excited about. He says while the music is “quite unlike” Ghalat Family material, the lyrics are way different too. “The first three are more in terms of kids who have the munchies, then there’s a song about magic and a song about a pet cat.”
Even his next release after that looks like it’s set on an annual holiday—Valentine’s Day. Tewari says about his forthcoming EP, “My idea was that since in February, a lot of people celebrate love, I was hoping to release an album of heartbreak, considering there are more heartbroken people than people who are enjoying life.” Spoken like a true troubadour who knows how to dish out honest tunes.
This feature appeared in the November 2017 issue of Rolling Stone India.
Watch the video for Ankur Tewari’s new children’s song below.