Swarathma: Working Class Heroes
With new album ‘Topiwalleh’, the band claims to have finally discovered the Swarathma sound
Before they came up with the more appropriate name of Swarathma to go with their loud and rambunctious folk rock sound and the socio-political causes that they espouse in their songs, the Bengaluru band went by the more floral appellation of Twin Daffodils. Vasu Dixit, the 31-year old flamboyant front man slips by this gem during our conversation last month about the band’s upcoming new album Topiwalleh. He sportingly laughs as soon as the embarrassing confession is out. Co-founder Abhinanth Kumar and Vasu were students at Mysore’s Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts (CAVA) when they first started playing together. “Abhinanth was a student of Literature and maybe that’s why he came up with this name after reading a poem or something,” Vasu says. The hilarity of being stuck with the name was lost on the singer back then. In fact, in the early days, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to be in a band. “I just knew I wanted to take up some form of art,” says Vasu, who trained in Carnatic music while growing up in Mysore.
It was only after the band expanded to include percussionist Pavan Kumar KJ, flautist Arvind Shamanna Iyengar and violinist Arjun N, that it was renamed. “Abhinanth showed up drunk one day and decided we’d call the band Swarathma. He said, ‘It’s the note of the soul or soul of the note, whichever way you want to look at it’,” says Pavan, who was Vasu’s junior at CAVA and joined the band after Vasu noticed him rhythmically beating the tables in the classroom during a jam session. Like Vasu, he was trained in classical music and played the tabla as a kid. But he was a novice when it came to rock music. “I vaguely knew that a band called The Beatles existed, but didn’t really know what a band was. My rock stars were Bhimsen Joshi and MS Subbulakshmi,” he says. Pavan’s first instrument as a band member was the kanjira, the tambourine like percussion instrument used in Carnatic music
The band relaunched itself as Swarathma in 2002, “at a girl’s college in Mysore,” as a grinning Vasu remembers. In the early days, Vasu was not sure if he would be able to make a living as a musician. So a year later he left to pursue his Masters in films and video communication at NID, while the other members similarly went their way as well. But by 2006 Vasu was back and the music scene was picking up once again. The band regrouped and roped in Montry Manuel to play the drums. Their fresh new sound and animated live shows won over Bengaluru to the extent that they won a contest organized by Radio City to pick the city’s best band. That proved to be a turning point inasmuch as it provided the band the confidence to think about the future. A year later, there were further changes in the line up with Vasu, Pavan and Montry being joined by Jishnu Dasgupta on bass, Varun Murali on lead guitar and Sanjeev Nayak on violin.
The six-member band was now complete and their sound was good enough for British producer John Leckie to select them as one of four Indian bands (Medusa (now Sky Rabbit), Advaita and Indigo Children were the others) for the British Council-sponsored Soundpad sessions. It resulted in them recording two tracks under the direction of Leckie and Massive Attack producer Dan Austin for a Soundpad compilation, as also the chance to play at the Great Escape Festival in Brighton in May 2009. Recalls Tasneem Vahanvanty, Head of Music, British Council India, “The Great Escape audience was completely in love with Swarathma. When the band brought out the ghodi, it was like a theatrical performance. The band had not just invested in how they sound, but also how they look and that is what set them apart from the rest of the bands (that traveled from India to perform at TGE).”
The band has not looked back since, wowing the audience with their spectacular Indian folk inspired stage show, their sound and their singing in mix of languages including Hindi, Kannada and English. Their songs also invariably stood out for the social message they carried, tackling issues like environment degradation (“Patte Saare”), communal harmony (“Yeshu Allah aur Krishna”) and the Cauvery river dispute (“Pyaasi”). It proved to be a winning package, so much so that Swarathma along with the likes of Indian Ocean and The Raghu Dixit Project are among the most popular live bands in the country today. By their own estimate they have played nearly 500 concerts since 2009.