Parikrama: India’s Most Hard Working Band
The story of the Nineties band that is still going strong, playing more gigs than anybody else
Subir Malik won’t allow the slightest inaccuracy in remembering gig details. “No, Srijan [Mahajan, drummer],” says the co-founder and keyboard player of the Delhi-based rock band Parikrama, “We were going to play in Jamshedpur that day, not Ranchi…This was on January 25th 2008. Remember, our flight from Calcutta to Jamshedpur was delayed and then canceled? So we hired a tempo traveler – a bad version of it actually – drove for 10 hours, played the show, came back to Calcutta and from there flew back to Delhi where we had a show the next day.”
When your gig memories run into thousands, attention to detail isn’t a virtue worth upholding at every anecdotal retelling. Or so we thought! Another memorable concert: Recalls Subir, “On December 28th, 1995, we played our first concert at IIT Bombay – Mood Indigo. We traveled in a second-class train – we took 18 thousand [rupees] including travel. That was the deal. We lost money to do that show but we got all-India established. Farhad Wadia noticed us at the show and he immediately called us for Rock Yatra in February the next year and for Independence Rock for almost every year after that.”
Turning 25 cannot be easy for a rock band. Especially in India, where pursuing music professionally is still not a practical option for even the best of talent. Parikrama started as a four-month project in 1991 for the founding lineup comprising Subir, his brother Nitin (vocals), Chintan Kalra (bass), Sonam Sherpa (guitars), Prashant Bahadur (guitars) and Rahul Malhotra. “We just wanted to play some Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones,” says Subir. Their first concert – at Delhi’s Father Agnel School on September 15th, 1991 – was too good for the band to restrict their rock & rolling to only four months. Bahadur and Malhotra soon left the band to pursue higher studies but Parikrama had only just begun. It seems their tunnel vision – or the cocksure college-boy resolve they wore along with long hair – went a long way. The Nineties were a rather turbulent period that saw rockers appear, disappear and gingerly reappear only to fade away all over again. In the face of a fast-changing music scenario, playing gigs consistently and playing them well became a matter of dogged determination for these young men. The current band is an eight-member outfit featuring, apart from founding members Subir, Nitin and Sonam, Saurabh Chaudhary (guitars), Gaurav Balani (bass) and Mahajan. They are joined by Imran Khan (violins) and Shambhunath Bhattacharya (tabla/percussions).
Band is bigger than you
Parikrama maintain that they haven’t merely survived in the business. “We have kicked ass and are still kicking ass,” says Subir. The band play over a hundred shows every year and in some of their busiest years, have averaged a show every two days. Following their successful debut gig at at Mood I in 1995, Parikrama were able to capture the college festival market like no other band. It was a case of perfect timing – interest in rock music was at its peak among urban Indian youth, MTV had launched in the country and big brand sponsored college festivals provided a ready-made stage. Economic liberalization had had its desired effect. Of course it helped that Parikrama made badass showmen. “They were these big rock & roll guys that I read about in RSJ [Rock Street Journal] and heard songs of in the GIR [Great Indian Rock] tapes. They were stars,” says Prithwish Dev, frontman of Delhi-based rock band Them Clones and a big Parikrama fan.
The funny thing is that Parikrama could easily have been one of those bands that young musicians usually grow out of in time. It’s not as if there were any role models around for an English classic rock band. Their notable predecessor, Mumbai’s Indus Creed – or Rock Machine as they were called in their early years – had three albums out by 1995 and were hailed as one of the original rock bands that India produced in that era. But they didn’t stick it out. The band disintegrated in 1997 after over a decade of ruling the fledgling rock scene in the country [they reunited in 2012 after 17 years and released a comeback album].
Parikrama maintain that they haven’t merely survived in the business. “We have kicked ass and are still kicking ass,” says Subir.
Parikrama, on the other hand, had no reason to call it a day because by the late Nineties, they had already cracked the code to being not just a sustainable project but a most sought-after act too. The band played all kinds of gigs and rarely ever refused shows. College festivals, fundraising corporate events, school shows and what have you. A strict code of discipline within the band ensured practice was priority. Rehearsal had right of way. There was another unusual tenet that the band set in stone back in 1991, one that guaranteed that the members never left the band in frustration.
Parikrama members decided to not depend on the band for their bread and butter. They had to find other sources of income. “So that in summers, when you don’t get shows, you don’t start blaming a Bandish or a Pentagram,” explains Subir. This move, according to the musician, was the smartest one that they ever made. Also, punctuality. “Even till date, if we finish a gig at 12 in the night and have to report at the airport the next morning at 4, all of us are there by 3.55,” says Subir. The band also make it a point to never drink before a show, unless on rare occasions when someone grabs a beer during the last song or if it’s a fun pub gig. For all their rock stardom, the men that form Parikrama could well be a bunch of industrious IIT graduates spearheading a startup that is on a roll. Or rather one that has been on a roll for a quarter of a century. “The tightness and the way we sound on stage all comes from working hard,” says Sonam, who also runs the Parikrama School Of Music [founded in 2003] which offers courses in instrumental and vocal music, not to mention artist management and marketing. At the school’s annual concert last month at Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium, close to 20 student bands played an all-originals show.
Mahajan joined the band eight years ago and is one of the youngest members who has also had stints with Delhi rock bands such as Half Step Down and Cyanide. He is also one-half of the electro-rock duo FuzzCulture. The 28-year-old minces no words to call out the vainglory of the ‘scene’ guys. “I also play for the indie scene but trust me, those guys – we guys — don’t know anything. We think that playing three gigs over eight days is ‘Oh my god I am so tired, it’s a tour’… With Parikrama, we’ve done nine gigs in 10 days in different parts of Indonesia with zero sleep. We have played on the crappiest sound systems in the most fucked up places in our country – on jaagran sound systems – and there is not even one percent chance of the gig not being delivered from our end.”
At one of the gigs on their Indonesia tour in 2009, the band met with a strange situation upon arriving at the venue, an auditorium. In the name of a sound system, there was only one vocal mic on the stage. Apparently, the organizers had mistakenly assumed that Parikrama was a bharatanatyam group from India that was going to present a recital! The band brought the situation under control by using an age-old trick. They went acoustic. While the guitarists played unplugged, Shambu managed percussion on whatever instruments he had with him. “And I played drums on a dustbin,” says Mahajan, tch-tching that the dedication to play a good gig even in the face of adversity is something he doesn’t see in his indie counterparts. “The discipline and the will power are lacking.”
Parikrama plays covers only: Myth or fact?
“It’s a dead topic for us,” says Subir. He and the band have come to the conclusion that they can’t bust the myth of Parikrama The Cover Band. While they couldn’t care less about the cover band chides, could critics and fans (mostly the older ones who haven’t bothered to check them out since they left college) get their facts right at least? The band hasn’t played a covers-only gig in ages and almost all their shows these days feature only originals.
Srijan: I joined in 2007 and I have never played a cover setlist. It is just one of those things that is stuck in people’s minds.
Subir: How does it matter whether I play a Boney-M song or a Bappi Lahiri song? People are calling us for gigs. They call us the last man standing in indie music. We are not ashamed of playing covers. See, you also have to understand that with the kind of schedules we follow, writing originals is difficult. We can’t write 20 songs in a year.
Nitin: I still think that a very, very difficult and crowd-wise enjoyable cover played really well gives you and the crowd more satisfaction. More than an original which is so screwed up that neither make you nor the audience feel well.
Does calling out Parikrama for playing covers that they love reflect a sort of hypocrisy on the part of the indie music-loving community that strangely finds no problem with an electronic artist generously using songs/samples from other artists’ compositions? “Of course,” says Srijan, “How is that a DJ is allowed to lift a song from Skrillex and just push play on it? And why are we criticized for playing a song that we love or grew up listening to? A song like “Baba O’Riley” [The Who] is one that all of us grew up listening to and we have a lot of fun playing it?” Subir offers the final word: “We don’t get emotional about it.” His unhurried, pacifist plaindealing even in the face of journalistic probing is strangely inspiring. Whenever the discussion even so much as grazes indie ribbing or EDM teasing [“We need three Innovas for our gear while those guys need only a pen drive!”], the musician makes it a point to reiterate that he and his band have absolutely no problems with anybody. Let them play and do what they like.
“A cover played really well gives you and the crowd more satisfaction–more than an original, which is so screwed up.” -Nitin
Does round-the-clock success experienced over two decades explains this disinclination to diss? Probably not. Subir says he’s fought hard to enjoy this state of supremacy. “I don’t get every Parikrama gig on a platter. I have to work for it and I work very hard. For the Parikrama For A Cause tour, I spent around eight months. And for the army show in Pune last week, I spent four-and-a-half months.” Subir and Nitin come from a family of businessmen. The Malik family owns a motor spare parts shop in Old Delhi’s cut-throat trading hub of Kashmere Gate where, says Subir, he worked from 10am to 6pm everyday till 2006. Parikrama’s success and monopoly in the ‘commercial’ rock business is often credited to Subir’s tenacious business acumen. “I believe there is enough work for everybody in the market, you just have to go and get it,” he says.
“Subir kuch bhi kar sakta hai [Subir is capable of doing anything],” says Rahul Ram, vocalist/ bassist of the veteran Delhi band, Indian Ocean, and an old friend of Parikrama’s. He also considers Subir to be the original band manager in the Indian indie scene. There is nothing that Subir didn’t do for his band back in the day that modern managers do today. All through their early years, the business mastermind would promote his band at every possible platform, from the Internet [Parikrama had a website up as early as ’95] to classified ads. The music sector was horribly unorganized at the time – Parikrama were often mistaken for a ‘shaadi [wedding] band’ – and Subir attempted to consolidate it by founding Parikrama Inc. in 2001, the artist management agency which currently books over 70 acts from across India. “It was a breakthrough,” says Rahul.
“I don’t get every Parikrama gig on a platter. I have to work for it and I work very hard.” -Subir
Rahul notes that it was Parikrama who back in the day pioneered things like pyrotechnics and introducing tabla and violin in rock.
Apart from that, the band also realized the significance of strict division of labor quite early on in their career. While Subir managed the band, Sonam and Nitin took the bulk of writing and composition-related work. Each of them holds the same roles even today. Says Subir, “When Chintan was around, he was brilliant at making creative, design oriented things – websites, T-shirts and other things. Dilip [Ramachandran, former drummer] used to be great at writing.”
Prithwish says that it was Parikrama’s ability to be a big act that changed the dynamic in their favor. “Whenever Parikrama came on stage, everyone knew that the big boys had arrived. Not every band can get on a big stage and prove to be bigger than the stage. They were always the headliners.”
Among the countless headlining gigs they’ve done, the band themselves count three shows as their biggest milestones – opening for Iron Maiden in Bengaluru in 2007, playing at Download Festival, UK the same year and performing for a mammoth crowd at the Kennedy Centre in 2011. Subir says, “There was a popular Bollywood name that played the night before us – I won’t take the name – but we got four times the crowd at our gig.”
Time for an album?
Unlike other bands, Parikrama have never seen the point in releasing an album – their fans are more than familiar with their originals tracks which they routinely upload on their website for free download. Songs such as “Am I Dreaming” and “But It Rained” are always sung along to at any gig, lyric for lyric. Parikrama’s mass popularity rendered the concept of an album redundant. “We always told our fans to make an album with the tracks that we have on the site,” says Subir. However, the pressure to release a legit album has been at an all-time high in the last few years. The lack of an album has also put members in amusing situations. Sonam, who endorses Laney amps, recalls one instance when he was filling out a form during the endorsement deal. “One column in the form said ‘How many albums do you have?’” he shares, adding, “People often ask us ‘Oh, you’ve been around for 25 years, how many albums has the band released?” For Sonam, an album will be a weapon to “silence the critics”. A “medal” to the band’s name. For all we know, there could be two clinking medals. Parikrama might just surprise everyone with a double album. “We are working on it,” says Subir.
Exclusive band photographs by Amit Sharma
All band members are wearing T-shirt and jeans from Aeropostale and leather cuffs and wristbands from Koovs
Styling by C. Vansangmawia, assisted by Lalhriatpuia Ralte, hair and makeup by Anand