Anyone Can Play Guitar
After having won over India with his brand of folk, Bengaluru rocker Raghu Dixit now seems intent on world domination. A profile of the musician who just came back from a UK tour that included gigs at the prestigious WOMAD and Lovebox festivals
So it was out of pure spite that you learned to play the guitar?” I ask.
He chuckles deeply, his quasi-baritone singing voice just a few notes away. “Yeah. It was.”
Among the youth of the rock generation, the reasons for picking up a guitar were usually fairly simple: status, money, chicks. Any armchair Freudian knows the electric guitar is a phallus, and to brandish a Gibson Les Paul a la Jimmy Page was about as confirmed a rock star complex as one could diagnose. Once in a while a teenager may even have picked up a guitar for the love of music.
For Raghu Dixit, 34, a man whose musical career has him at the point where he “can’t really go out on the street” without being “spotted,” spite wasn’t the driving force I’d imagined for a South Indian musician lobbed to stardom after scoring the Kannada film Psycho, and who has just wrapped his second tour of the UK with his band, the Raghu Dixit Project.
Known across the country and beyond for his particular brand of Indi-folk-fusion and his thunderous vocals, Dixit sits in his small home studio in Bengaluru, swivelling in a chair in front a keyboard and dual monitors beaming Pro Tools. A framed CafÃ© Coffee Day ad that features a picture of him in mid-strum, belting out a tune, hangs beside the door.
“I learned how to play guitar on my own, because of a very silly, stupid incident that happened in college,” he says. “I had just finished performing Bharatanatyam at my college function and I was removing my make-up and in came this dude with long hair and jeans – acid wash jeans.”
The affronting student, usually seen around campus strumming songs to impress girls, proceeded to insult Dixit about the effeminate nature of Bharatanatyam, an art Dixit spent 17 years practising.
“I always felt very ”˜yuck’ about him,” said Dixit, “and after the dance performance, he walked into the green room and said, ”˜Whoa man, that’s such a girly thing to do,’ and started to really mock me.
“ ”˜This is how you hold a guitar. This will make you a man, not those bloody bells on your feet.’ ”
He may have been joking, but Dixit took it very seriously.
“So I said to this guy, ”˜Give me two months, fucker, and I’ll learn to play guitar as well as you.’ ”
As his thousands of fans would attest, he managed to learn the guitar just fine; but he still goes onstage barefoot with bells wrapped thick around his ankles to this day.
Dixit’s single-mindedness and his need to prove himself would again chart his course when, according to him, his future wife described him as “a very bad musician” after their first meeting.
“So it wasn’t love at first sight?” I ask.
“No,” he says, chuckling thunderously, “it was very much repulsion.”
He eventually persuaded her to come to one of his gigs in Bengaluru. She relented, and her sister was the chaperone. He must have done something right that night. They’ve been married for four years.
He said growing up he always associated the six-string with Christianity (perhaps the singing nun had something to do with it), and through his Christian friend, Leo, Dixit managed to first get his hands on an acoustic guitar.
“But my conditions were very funny,” he says. “The first thing I needed was to be taught for free because I didn’t have any money to pay for it. Also, the teacher would have to teach me at his house, and – he would have to lend me the guitar whenever I wanted.”
“You didn’t want much, did you?” I joke.
“Yeah, [laughs]. And I didn’t want them to tell my parents.”
Dixit’s father was a traditionalist and considered Western culture a bad example for Kannadiga children. Anything “Western” was taboo. Dixit didn’t buy his first pair of jeans or sneakers until after his father’s death, and the curious adolescent would sneak home mixed tapes with songs by Michael Jackson and George Michael to play them when his parents were out.
“There used to be a shop where if you paid for 60 minutes worth of music, the guy would just fill an empty tape for you,” he says, admitting that his traditional South Indian upbringing couldn’t have prepared him for what awaited him on one pirate compilation.
“It was [Guns N’ Roses’ first album] Appetite For Destruction. I was completely scandalised and appalled by the noise that came from the second side of the tape. I remember going back and yelling for my money back”¦ Of course a couple years later I started liking it, too.”
Dixit says as his college years went on, he found himself on the fence between his upbringing and the things he was being exposed to at school.
“Rock music was really big then. There was this demigod status attached to everyone who played a guitar, so I was growing up with all this around me.”
His college friend, Leo, suggested Dixit visit a nearby seminary to go and play the guitar they kept there. Dixit dropped in, and on subsequent visits two “brothers” taught him the C scale, chord structures and a couple of songs – for free – and allowed him to come and play the instrument whenever he wanted.
“Well, only a priest would have agreed to your conditions, Raghu,” I say.
“They taught me from the chord book – how to figure out hand positions,” he says, “and I told them clearly the reason I was learning; that beyond these two months I didn’t have any interest to stick to playing the guitar.”
In those fated two months, though, Dixit went to the seminary to play every day. He caught on quickly, much to the pleasure of the theological scholars, and he didn’t only learn a song to best his adversary, but began to realise he could make things up on his own.
“I started singing that day’s newspaper headlines to the melodies I invented and I thought ”˜Why don’t I write a song?’ And that’s when Phil Collins came out with ”˜Another Day in Paradise,’ so I thought, ”˜Writing a song about homeless people would be so cool.’ ”
Dixit’s first original tune may be a benchmark for the professional musician he would become, but it won’t exactly be remembered for its potency as a ballad.
“It was rather lame,” he says, “it went like: ”˜I was walking down the lane and I saw a child in pain…dah dah dah dah dah”¦’”
Nevertheless, after the two months were up, true to form, he “took the guitar to college, played the song to that guy, said ”˜Fuck you’ and walked out.”
Dixit says he didn’t play guitar for almost a year after that.
By the time he eventually realised that music was his true calling, the years spent at Bengaluru’s English medium schools where he met “students from all around,” and his little challenge that would lead him to his first guitar, would end up greatly influencing his style.
“In those two months I learned about the joy and the happiness – the freedom of making a sound from your own body, and singing about whatever you feel like singing about.”
But the impetus to pursue music full-time wouldn’t crystallise until Dixit’s 20s, while he was studying microbiology in Belgium. He was given a few opportunities to play on a radio show, and managed to induce the notoriously reserved and understated Flemish to, as he said, “flip out.”
“If you can turn these guys on, imagine what you can do in your own country?” said the DJ, according to Dixit.
It was after such a radio performance that he received his first phone call from a celebrity listener. It was Peter Gabriel.
When he finished his degree, he moved back to his hometown and took a respectable job in software, a profitable racket in the IT-boom Bengaluru of the Nineties. But once the radio ad jingles he’d composed started being requested on call-in shows, he knew it was his time to go pro.
“I quit my software job, cashed in my stock options and started a home studio, eventually giving up working directly for anyone. It’s been nine years since then.”
Scoring the Kannada-language films Psycho and Superman established his name as a professional musician but it is his solo project that, if things keep going the way they are, will be his personal success story.
The Raghu Dixit Project is a genre-splicing album, where various folk styles of Indian music bedrock everything from Flamenco finger picking to power chords. And there is that voice – that sonorous bellows he hides in his broad chest.
“I sing straight from my heart with no vocal training,” he says, “therefore my music is folk music. It is an uninhibited way of singing without any rules or boundaries.”
For a self-taught vocalist, his octave-blazing range doesn’t show it.
“I do take influences from classical sometimes, but I wouldn’t know what raga is what, or what scale is what. If I come up with a melody, I can’t write it down. I usually sing it into my phone so I remember it.”
In his studio – soundproof, egg carton-like walls keeping reverberations contained – even his regular speaking voice occupies the entire space. His frequent, easy laughter is that of a friendly giant; one wearing a stretched Bob Marley and the Wailers T-shirt, Bob’s chin a bit less gaunt than usual as it spreads over Dixit’s paunch.
“…I learned Bharatanatyam for 17 years, but now I’m a belly dancer,” he laughs, giving his Buddha belly a playful slap. If there had been a drum kit in the room, his resonant chortle would have surely jangled the snare.
His chirpy good humour belies the spiteful drive that has played such a part in strumming his life’s chords. But maybe now, Raghu Dixit doesn’t have so much to be spiteful about.