Raghu Dixit: Troubadour in Tinseltown
How India’s most successful indie musician is making inroads into Bollywood and winning at it
Our cover shoot with Raghu Dixit is scheduled for noon, so around 9 a.m. we drop a text asking the musician if his flight from Bengaluru to Mumbai is on schedule. Pat comes the reply that he’s already landed in the city and is waiting it out at the airport—he wasn’t sure if the shoot venue would be open that early in the morning and didn’t want to inconvenience us with a special request either. Who knew India’s biggest cultural export in recent times would also be its humblest!
For a man who owns every stage he steps on and makes sure everyone has a great big party—he has been at it for over a decade now and admits to employing a fair bit of bullying to get the crowd to dance—Dixit the folk-rock icon is an unfussy South Indian chap off stage. He is thrifty, books his own flight tickets, and turns into an excitable teen at the prospect of anything new and thrilling. Like the shoot today. Barely 20 minutes on the set and Dixit knows the entire crew by name. The stylists can’t get enough of his self-deprecating jokes about his body and the makeup artist cackles every time the musician pesters his selfie-clicking publicist. Dixit has also picked his favorite person—our resident videographer. “Because she is the quietest of them all,” he says.
“I don’t mind being treated as a newcomer in Bollywood. I don’t mind people having a predefined idea of who I am.”
It is the eve of the release of Chef, Dixit’s Bollywood comeback as a composer, and we’re at the cast-and-crew premiere at a plush Mumbai multiplex. A couple of songs from the film’s soundtrack have been doing well on social media lately, especially the boisterous “Shugal Laga Le,” but Dixit can’t wait to ‘see’ them on the big screen. Chef—the Hindi remake of the Jon Favreau’s 2014 Hollywood hit, starring Saif Ali Khan—is Dixit’s fourth Bollywood project.
After the tepid Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge (2011) and Bewakoofiyaan (2014), and one-song stint in Quick Gun Murugan (2009), Dixit is certain Chef will change the course of his Bollywood journey in a bigger, better way. And if there were a need for a redeeming virtue, good ol’ humility would probably be it. Despite playing 1500 shows across 30 countries as an independent musician, he doesn’t fear the new struggle to re-establish himself as a composer. “I don’t mind being treated as a newcomer in Bollywood. I don’t mind people having a predefined idea of who I am. I love that kind of challenge. I like this journey where I am being pushed to the wall again, and am asking myself, ‘Can you really do this?’ And I think that is the kind of environment in which I thrive, always,” says the 43-year-old musician.
Just like life’s other mysteries, Dixit received his biggest validation as an artist in his most frustrating moment as one. It was 2009 and the musician was to play his first show with The Raghu Dixit Project in the U.K., at the Lovebox Festival, Victoria Park, London. A two o’clock set at the festival wouldn’t have been that bad if it didn’t have to start raining in sheets as soon as they got on stage that July afternoon. “The only audience we had was a lady with a big umbrella with two kids clinging to her legs,” Dixit reminisces as he sips on a mug of Stella Artois at a pub in suburban Mumbai. “That’s when I asked myself, ‘Is this why we came all the way after spending so much money?’” Half-way through their first song, a ray of hope literally cut through the clouds and the rains stopped. “We could see the crowd running away from the bigger stage towards our stage, which was the smallest one at the festival. By the end of the show, we had about 3000 people in front of us, all jumping and dancing. For me, that was the biggest confidence-boosting gig till date.”
When the band finished the gig and went backstage, a man was waiting to speak with their manager. Turned out there was a slot available at the WOMAD Festival after an Arabic band ran into visa troubles. The gig was in two days. TRDP took it up. “Just like Lovebox, at WOMAD, we started with some 30-40 people in the crowd and accumulated thousands by the end of the show. That tour was a testimonial that whatever I had imagined in my head—that we deserved to be heard around the world—was true.
Raghupathi Dwarkanath Dixit grew up in traditional joint family in Mysuru. Although music wasn’t really worshipped within the household, it was always around: Dixit’s earliest childhood memories are of his mom listening to Carnatic music on an old transistor. In another part of his house, his cousin practiced Bharatanatyam to classical music, which initially amused and eventually fascinated Dixit so much that he ended up training in the dance form himself for the next 17 years. “At one point, I wanted to become a professional dancer.” But thanks to a juvenile bet with a college friend at 19, Dixit picked up the guitar and learnt a few chords. Realizing he wasn’t all that bad, he formed his first band Antaragini in 1996 and did the local college circuit for a bit before moving to Bengaluru two years later. Armed with an MSc in Microbiology, Dixit took up a job in a pharmaceutical company and also played shows with Antaragini on the side. Owing to constant lineup struggles, Dixit had almost called it quits in 2005 when he met bassist (and current manager) Gaurav Vaz at a café. The two hit it off and The Raghu Dixit Project was born.
From the stage to the studio
In their decade-long career, TRDP have released two studio albums and played more headlining sets and overseas shows than any other Indian indie act. Their U.K. debut at the memorable Lovebox Festival in 2009 has seen them returning to the country every year since, and currently, the plan is to steadily capture the folk-loving diasporic markets in the U.S., Middle-East, Australia and South-East Asia. Says Vaz, “Raghu’s motivation as an artist is to seek recognition, while mine is more money-oriented.” Considering India’s music market is fueled by sponsorship and brands, and is not ticket-driven, Vaz has over the years devised a more global approach to securing Dixit’s artistic goals. “What if you thought of the world as one big show and looked at how many tickets you sell overall? Our projection for 2018 is 25,000 tickets over 40-50 shows around the world, at say an average of 25-30 dollars per ticket.”
If TRDP are hailed as a path-breaking act today in terms of branding, messaging and community building, it is courtesy the formidable Dixit-Vaz partnership. “Gaurav has been my trusted ally all these years,” says Dixit. The former, on his part, feels he got a “lucky break” with TRDP. “People often ask me what is the key to becoming a successful artist manager and I always say this: You find a successful artist and manage it!”
Although Vaz no longer handles bass duties for TRDP—he moved to Canada earlier this year—he continues to manage the band as well as Dixit’s film work. The duo’s next goal is to find their groove in mainstream Bollywood and probably hit the ball out of the park there as well. In that pursuit, Dixit’s identity as an infectious melody-churning urban troubadour becomes an asset as well as baggage. “It’s a very natural tendency for this industry to stereotype people. As soon as you do a certain kind of work, people think you’re capable of doing only that kind of work,” says Dixit, adding, “When I first started doing composing work, people thought I could only do folk. But Ashish [Patil, film producer] knew better and offered me Mujhse… where there’s no folk music at all. So I think the onus is on me now—to tell the industry that I am actually a versatile musician and folk music is something I do with my band.” At the same time, Dixit believes that if his signature brand of sound is what filmmakers are looking for and he gets projects on that basis, it will be a win-win. Chef was, in a way, an ideal project where he got a chance to explore both the familiar and the exotic.
If “Shugal Laga Le” was a straight-up TRDP fare, on “Tan Tan,” Dixit whipped up a swingy, big band, jazz melody. “Khoya Khoya,” a modern take on ghazal, fell into to the “4/4 rock, very Coke Studio Pakistan zone,” according to the musician, who has been honing his production and sound engineering skills since he last composed for Bollywood. “During Bewakoofiyaan, I realized I was handicapped big time when it came to technical knowledge… I was only making tunes, and waiting for everyone to pitch in was not working out. I felt very guilty of the fact that I had to depend on so many people to get my work done. I didn’t really have a rock solid team at that time.”
Today, a large chunk of Dixit’s money has gone into building a studio in his hometown and installing a team of producers. “Over the last three years, I feel I have learned quite a bit when it comes to production. I am fully ready now.” The agenda for the next few months is to meet the right people with the right scripts. “I am at this cusp where I want to shift base to Mumbai. Till now, I have only worked with people who invited me to work with them but now I want to take that body of work and show it to people and kind of impress upon them that I can do a good job.”
Victories and vulnerabilities
Convincing people you can do a good job of something almost always demands displaying high levels of confidence, which may also be misconstrued as arrogance—something that Dixit gets serially accused of. “I am just a brutally honest and blunt person who tells people what he has to their face,” the musician argues, “Diplomacy, negotiation and compromise are just not my forte.” He is also aware that in the past, many of his peers thought of him as proud and big-headed. “They probably still do!” he jokes. But Dixit can’t understand why his self-belief is confused for narcissism. “You know, nothing came to me on a platter. I have worked for hours and hours, months and years to get where I am today. And if I am not protective about it or not gung-ho about it, or if I don’t beat my chest about it in my own isolation in front of the mirror, I am a stupid ass… If I don’t tell myself, ‘Raghu, you did well today,’ I think it’s very cruel. That is being perceived as arrogance from the other side. It’s really their misery that is showing rather than my arrogance.”
As much as he likes practicing patting his own back, Dixit admits he is also vulnerable to experiencing acute bouts of self-doubt. He cares very much about what people think about him and is easily bothered if the stuff being circulated is not nice. After all, as an artist, he is doing what he is doing for validation. “Every song that I write, sing or perform—I seek validation from the people who listen to it. When people don’t like it, or when something goes unnoticed, I feel very upset.” He makes no bones about the fact that he chases the spotlight. “I crave attention. It would be a big lie if an artist told you they do music for their self-satisfaction and enjoyment. If that is the case, bloody hell, play in your bedroom; why do you want to be on stage or put yourself on YouTube and check every hour how many views your videos get?” How many times does he check his social media on a given day? “I am addicted to Instagram. I check it maybe 10 times a day.”
If you follow Dixit’s social media handles closely, you’d notice he replies to almost every comment on every post. It’s not easy retaining fans in India’s fickle indie music scene but Dixit is a pro at it. “I think it’s my duty [to reply to comments and personal messages from fans]; somebody has taken time out to say nice things, so I make it a point to personally say thanks.” That’s how you earn your fans, according to him, and there are no shortcuts to it. “When you’re grateful for them, you know your fans will stick with you; I have fans that have stuck with me for 15 years, ever since I started.” Including one ardent admirer, Anirudh Kulkarni, in Belgaum, Karnataka who has a tattoo bearing Dixit’s name. “It’s incredible what we have achieved!” he says.
The reason why Dixit doesn’t take his celebrity for granted today is because he knows the frustration of being an unsung indie warrior. “It is very cruel that we spend so many years doing our best [as artists] and not many people know about it. Not many people in this bar know The Raghu Dixit Project. But if I were a mainstream Bollywood artist, everyone would know who I am.”
Mumbai might be Dixit’s mecca for now but he knows what he really loves—being a nomad. Thanks to his travels abroad, he’s become a sucker for experiences, and the more musically thrilling they are the better. “Like, next year, I want to travel through Latin America for three-four months and meet street musicians and strike up conversations that eventually lead to jams.” He says the idea is to make a socio-economic documentary through music about how similar societies and human responses to similar issues are. “I think it would be a phenomenal juxtaposition of Indian melodies with Latin grooves and instrumentation. Hopefully, I will be able to make some great friends and music along the way. I see it more as an experience rather than a goal to make an album.”
Did the Bharatanatyam-loving teenage Raghu ever dream he would go on to conquer stages around the globe as a legit rock star? “Nope, never. I feel very fortunate to be living my dream. This lifetime was meant to be an experience, a story. I think I am destiny’s child. Everything is now I know very well-programmed for me.”
Photographs by Juhi Sharma
Art Director: Amit Naik
Fashion Director: Kushal Parmanand
Junior Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva
Hair: Asha Gadade
Makeup: Laxmikanta Vaishnav
Location Courtesy: Lord of the Drinks, Andheri, Mumbai