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High Priests of Indian Electronica

The ubiquitous MIDIval Punditz cap over a decade of pioneering Indian electronica with a third disc that’s more rock n’ roll than ragatronic. Samar Grewal finds out what keeps them going on and on.

Samar Grewal May 20, 2009
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While trying to fix a date for my meeting with the Punditz, I was going over their upcoming schedule with manager Dhruv Jigasia. They were in Delhi for another five days, during which time they had two gigs lined up. Then it was Mumbai for a weekend show at Blue Frog, back for half a day and then Langkawi for a private party, soon after which one half of the duo, Tapan Raj, would be coming back to take his wedding vows. “Maybe we should do this sometime next month,” I suggested, “Because it’s going to be the honeymoon after that, right?” “No, we’ll do it before they leave for Mumbai,” Jigasia

stopped me. “And anyway, I don’t think he’ll be going on his honeymoon right away. It’s bang in the middle of season, after all.” Over the five weeks following his wedding, Raj and other half of the Punditz Gaurav Raina had shows lined up in Delhi (a DJ/tabla set with long-time collaborator Karsh Kale), Nepal and another two dates at the Frog, to be followed by recording for two as-yet-undisclosed album projects and soundtrack work on a couple of Bollywood films.

Meeting the two at Raina’s South Delhi apartment with an hour in hand before they were to leave for the airport to catch that flight to Mumbai, I’m greeted by the perennially boyish smiles I’ve come to expect from their publicity snaps. They have an easy, conversant charm, even if all the years of chasing down the witching hour have left their mark under the eyes. And if they’re a bit anxious that they barely have time to be done with me, pick up Raina’s girlfriend from halfway across town and make it to check-in, they’re not showing it. “We travel a bit. Around the turn of the year we’re in India because there’re a lot of gigs all over the place in December-January. From April to June we spend time in America, mainly between New York, San Francisco and Chicago. We try to stay on till July, because the summer festivals start around that time, or we go across to London,” says Raina. After the time they packed a tent to capacity at Eastwind in early 2008, I saw the Punditz perform next at a fundraiser just a fortnight before this interview, this time with Shubha Mudgal. And their appeal worked equally well on a hitherto scattered gathering of somewhat disinterested socialites as it did then on a horde of dusty, tired festival-goers. In the year that has passed in between, they’ve played about 75 shows in over a dozen cities globally.

It all comes together. Considering the consistency and regularity with which they put themselves out there, it’s little surprise that they continue to find favour more than a decade after they first thought of making music.

But the Punditz are hardly an overnight success story. At the time they started playing club gigs in ’97, the nightclub scene was just picking up in the capital, essentially around hip-hop nights with a bit of house and DnB thrown in. The idea of using classical music over DnB was quite new and exciting and the Punditz tried to make the best of this. They began by tinkering around, laying Bhimsen Joshi’s alaaps over snippets of beats. Their first proper track was a remix of a song called ”˜Aaja Re’ from an old Hindi film, Noori. “At the time we started, we really didn’t know much. The beat we used [in ”˜Aaja Re’] was lifted from Morcheeba and Anything But The Girl. We didn’t even know what DnB was till we heard Talvin Singh”¦ Delhi was kind of isolated in those days and there was hardly anyone else doing what we were doing,” Raj says. With up to ten thousand rupees a night in payments to clubowners, the cost of putting up a party every two months could run up to twenty five thousand per event. Besides, these early events (dubbed Cyber Mehfils) were more listening sessions for a small group of experimental-minded friends and less centred on dance. The process of reaching a wider audience was a slow one, one that grew alongside the gradual rise of the electronic music clubbing scene. Ultimately they realised that the Mehfils would have to wait. “We were barely into our twenties”¦ it was a big thing for us in those days. But we were stupid or naïve-enough to persevere,” Raj adds.

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In a way, their musical journey up to that point is what really defines the character of the Punditz sound to this day. In these first three years together, they were not signed on to any label (Six Degrees would snag them later, making them label-mates with Kale) and tried their hand at everything to find a sound both the members were comfortable with. Through experimenting with their tastes for pop, rock, qawwali and Hindustani classical music and later during the course of their performances with Tabla Beat Science in the US in 2000, they gained the kind of experience that brought them closer to a potential album-worthy sound. And throughout the process of fine-tuning this palette, one thing remained constant. “Our comfort with classical music was a very important factor in the development of our sound over the years,” says Raina. “Initially, it was important for us to realise that though we were not educated in that form, we shouldn’t hesitate from approaching it as something that belongs to all of us as Indians. At the same time, we knew we’d have to respect the complexity in it ”“ from the time signatures to the development and flow of a raag.”

The Punditz know they owe a debt of gratitude to each of their classical collaborators over the years (from flautist Ajay Prasanna to tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain, sarangi player Ustad Sultan Khan and sitar player Anoushka Shankar), for mirroring this respect and sense of understanding. “Once at an airport on tour we were getting our stuff scanned and while putting his sarangi on the belt, Khan Sahib joked that our instruments were our laptops, which made me realise that he got precisely what it was about. He said it exactly like it was,” Raj recalls, adding that “At the same time he trusted us not to come up with something distasteful and was honest enough to tell us when something wasn’t working for him.”

Given the pedigree that these names represent, the two have also had the good fortune of never having to face friction of the nature that might arise if one had asked Tolstoy to stick War and Peace in the space of a Penguin 60. Most of the musicians they’ve collaborated with already came to them from a background of experimentation. Ustad Sultan Khan, for one, was a part of the Tabla Beat Science core team, alongside Zakir Hussain, Bill Laswell and Karsh Kale, when the Punditz first collaborated with him. “Fortunately, we haven’t faced the wrath of the Hindustani Classical world till now,” Raina jokes, “We’ve been lucky that most of our collaborations have happened because we were approached by interested musicians, as was the case with Khan Sahib.”

But if the Punditz entered the most popular phase of their careers at the turn of the millennium with a sound that we know well today, no one seems to be more eager to keep moving past their various successes than they themselves. “We’re scared (Hello Hello) might be a bit of a rude shock to our listeners. But frankly (they’ll) have to realise that we are not a sound, we are an expression, an idea or concept,” Raina says of their third album.

Since their US debut with Tabla Beat Science in San Francisco, in front of a 15,000-strong crowd, The Punditz have often found themselves playing at settings one always thought were only meant for rock bands. Perhaps fittingly, their third disc sees the introduction of a bigger, more thumping sound than before. “I find that since 2005’s MIDIval Times we’ve been listening to more old-school rock and new pop besides returning to our earlier influences like Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy and Underworld,” says Raj. “This album is going to go inwards. It’s more a personal expression than before, which is why we didn’t gun for any big collaborations. The only person we’ve worked really closely with is Karsh,” Raina adds.

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And the change is not only limited to the dozen tracks on the disc. The recent past has also seen the duo trying to revive the Cyber Mehfil idea. At an evening last month at the newly opened The Living Room, they manned the tables alongside Kale with a DJ set that included such diverse cuts as a Ryan Adams/Oasis cover, an Angelique Kidjo/Hendrix cover and a Neptunes/Rolling Stones remix. In the same exploratory, try-anything spirit on which their partnership was forged, the Punditz have ventured into soundtracking this past year as well. When Karsh Kale was approached by the organisers of the Celebrate Brooklyn Festival to rework the original soundtrack to the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon, he enlisted the duo’s help. The finished product, which took a month to put together, was performed live (with the film running at the back) at the festival in June ’08. The setup featured Karsh on tabla and drums and Raj on loops being routed through Raina’s processing rack, besides a flute player. The experience proved so successful that they were later asked to take it all the way across the globe to the Sydney Festival as well. (Till they work out how to bring it to India, you can catch low-resolution snippets on YouTube.)

The way the duo has spread itself out since their second album, one can only say that while we might’ve become accustomed to the Punditz sound of the recent past, perhaps now more than ever before in their careers, the Punditz sure haven’t. If in the past they set themselves apart by bringing a rare focus, structure and urgency of rhythm to their more obviously fusion-based output, they are now set on distinguishing themselves by turning the same sound at least on its side, if not its head.

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Partners in Rhyme

Longtime collaborator and friend Karsh Kale talks about his experiences with the Punditz

I remember sitting on the New York subway with Gaurav Raina back in 1999 making plans for the future. We had met in London, not too long before this, after being passed demo tapes of each other’s music. We had both been performing at out own local Asian electronica events: The Punditz in New Delhi (Cyber Mehfil) and myself in NYC (Futureproof). On the subway ride back to my Brooklyn home we made a plan to spread our music worldwide. Neither of us had struck a record deal at this point, yet we were determined to push our sound to the next level and take it over-ground.

It’s been 10 years since that conversation and since then we have collaborated on many album projects, produced music for films, produced music for other artists and performed before thousands of people around the world together. Though we have maintained separate careers in India and the States, our fans have been well aware of the long-standing collaboration we have shared over the years.

Coming together to compose and produce Hello Hello was truly the culmination of all our work and experience over the years. We have all grown as artists, producers, composers and musicians, and though I come from a live music background and them much more from the electronic idiom, we have learned much from each other and have since created a language that we speak both in the studio and the stage that we share with few other musicians in the world. The best part about collaborating with the Punditz over the years is that we have always pushed each other to try and outdo whatever we have done in the past and have always remained open to whatever musical possibilities are out there for us. We have never let expectations get in the way of innovation and inspiration. Since our collective pool of influence remains wide, we have always been daring enough to try something new, and sometimes it takes friends to give you the courage to do so. I think Hello was proof to us that we have much more to say as artists and will continue to push each other to evolve, just as the music does.

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