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Beyond Nirvana

After recording for the who’s who of international music, Kolkata-bred Miti Adhikari sets his eyes on India

Shamik Bag Jul 21, 2009
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“My only regret is that I have not been able to work with Bob Dylan yet.” As opening lines go, there is little chance to better this one. For the pure purpose of creating effect, it’s a clincher too. Having said it, Miti Adhikari hangs on to a loaded pause, the silence sitting like a crown on his words.

We are at the sprawling campus of the Saregama factory in Kolkata and Dylan is a lodestar – the guiding light that can only inspire but never be reached. Forget work with. Adhikari though is looking contemplative and sounds genuinely rueful. His work as sound engineer with the BBC in London has found him at the recording console for many of music’s greats, but not for the American troubadour many would claim as the greatest. Yet.

He’s got most of those who matter in his bag though. The White Stripes, Radiohead, Coldplay, Neil Young, the Strokes, Oasis, Beyoncé, Madonna, Suede, Blur, Morrissey, REM, Badly Drawn Boy, Def Leppard, PJ Harvey, New Order, Macy Gray, Blink 182, Brand New Heavies, Snow Patrol, Pavement, Pixies, and the band that they reportedly inspired, Nirvana – the listing of Adhikari’s work on the Discogs website, and in albums like Nirvana’s Insecticide, the White Stripes’ Elephant or The Peel Sessions of PJ Harvey, is a veritable smugfest, a shout-out across artistic generations and genres. “Radiohead has been my favourite band to record, especially their seminal Glastonbury performance, Madonna the worst for being unreasonably finicky. I had to play her game. I also didn’t like recording Jay-Z, since I don’t really get hip-hop.”

Then there are music festivals like the annual Glastonbury, where he is a regular behind the mixing board, and 2005’s gargantuan Live 8 concert series, mixing sounds, Adhikari mentions dryly and as a matter of fact, “for bands like the reunited Pink Floyd.” “I was in charge of one of the two recording trucks there and got barely three minutes between bands. But though the band had not heard of me and were a bit weary, it helped that I knew every note of Floyd’s music. It was actually quite easy to mix,” he adds. “In fact, Live 8 was easier than at Glastonbury, where bands don’t get to soundcheck. So I’ve to get the mix right within the first song itself. But it gets simpler with experience.”

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That Adhikari enjoyed a career beyond Kurt Cobain when he was invited to record the Foo Fighters, and beyond the Pixies, when he worked separately with former members Kim Deal and Black Francis, possibly points to the fact that he “had it going.”

With three-four years to go before he retires from work at the BBC studios, the 52-year-old is back in Kolkata, nursing a plan to settle down in his native city and within the growing independent music scene in India. Mana, a music production outfit that Adhikari has formed with cousin Neel Adhikari (vocalist and songwriter of Kolkata bands Span and Five Little Indians) is the first step. The idea is to work together to not just record but also to create new music, informs Neel.

Mana has already released The Music of Superstar India on Times Music, an album that is a follow-up to author Shobhaa De’s recently-published book Superstar India. The album has used Baul and other folk music from Bengal, the Langas of Rajasthan and De’s reading of passages from the book within a sonic setting that includes lounge, reggae and club music. Maby Baking, Kolkata band the Supersonics’ debut album on Saregama, is Mana’s second venture, where the cousins are acting as the executive producers with a creative license. It’s a mutually admiring society out there; the Supersonics returning the compliment that Adhikari held for the band’s brand of music. “The whole concept of professional music producer is non-existent in India and Miti knows his shit. He got the best out of us,” says Anando Sen of the band. “And for someone of his experience and stature, he’s got a great vibe going,” seconds Rohan Ganguly, guitarist.

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For Adhikari, having a studio in Kolkata will complete the circle. Around the time Adhikari left the city for London in the late-’70s he was doing guitar duty in local band Mahamaya with guitarist Sanjay Mishra, on whose collaboration album with Grateful Dead-frontman Jerry Garcia, Blue Incantation, Adhikari later went on to get recording credit. He left India when Mahamaya shows dried up and an addiction problem grew out of hand. “England cured that problem,” he laughs. “You don’t get those cheap there.”

He returns when the “music scenario is getting vibrant” and with a word of advice for young Indian bands. “Many Indian rock bands get into the bombastic American rock mode very easily. There is also an overt reliance on digital production, though in the West more and more bands are going back to analog and hate that sort of digital cleanliness. Here bands should realise that distortion with good taste is the key,” he notes, adding as an afterthought, “Also, there isn’t any need to pretend to be someone else.”

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