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Parikrama: Still Rocking After 30 Years

The continuing enthusiasm for playing and touring despite being together for three decades is what makes Parikrama standout amongst Indian bands

Narendra Kusnur Jun 28, 2021

Parikrama celebrated their 30th anniversary on June 17th, 2021. Photo: Parikrama photographed by Amit Sharma in 2016. Guitarist Sonam Sherpa (extreme right) passed away in February 2020.

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Nitin Malik, lead vocalist of Parikrama, is busy practicing scales when his phone rings. “This is something I did regularly 30 years ago, and this is something I do regularly today. It’s important to keep exercising your voice to keep it in shape,” he says, from his residence in New Delhi.

On June 17th, Parikrama completed 30 years, and to mark the occasion, launched a range of T-shirts and hoodies, proceeds of which will go entirely to the Society for Himalayan Environment and Geology, which is providing Covid relief work in rural Uttarakhand. “Earlier this year, we were hoping to celebrate with a show, but the second wave of Covid 19 forced us to change all plans,” says Nitin’s elder brother Subir, who is camped in the Sattal region of Uttarakhand.

The band suffered a huge shock just before the first lockdown when its 48-year-old lead guitarist Sonam Sherpa suddenly passed away in Kurseong, near Darjeeling, on February 14th, 2020. “Sonam had been an integral part of the band, and he and Nitin would do most of the songwriting. We were all shattered but had to move on. We auditioned three guitarists, but nothing happened because of the lockdown,” says Subir.

For the band, 30 years have just flown by. In a scenario where almost all rock bands have had limited runs, their achievement is a landmark. While Kolkata-based High lasted from 1974 to 1980, Savage Encounter, Atomic Forrest and Human Bondage were huge in the 1970s, but the glory lasted only a few years. Rock Machine had different phases, transforming into Indus Creed, breaking up and then reuniting with a different line-up. Parikrama’s other contemporaries like Agni, Millennium, 13 AD, Shiva, Brahma and Pentagram lasted a few years after which members started pursuing other paths. In the folk-fusion space, Indian Ocean has lasted three decades too, but that was another genre, with two line-ups.

Subir attributes Parikrama’s longevity to the desire of band members to just go and enjoy the music. He says, “Our emphasis has always been live shows, and we approached each one with equal focus. We had creative differences, but that happens with most families who seek a common goal. Ultimately, the band came above our individual opinions.” Nitin points out that the priorities of members were always in place. “When you want to play for fun, play for your soul, you never get bored. Each musician had that approach, and that egged us on. Being brothers who stayed together, Subir and I often carried our differences home, but we moved on each time,” he adds.

The Parikrama story began when the Malik brothers first met Sonam at a festival in Kirori Mal College, New Delhi, where Subir studied. He recalls, “I remember him loitering around, looking very excited as he had never played a foreign guitar before. He played the opening four notes of the Doors song ‘LA Woman.’ and we instantly decided he was perfect for our band. It didn’t matter that he didn’t know shredding or other fancy techniques then.” 

Parikrama was thus formed on June 17th, 1991. Their first show was held at New Delhi’s Father Agnel School on September 15th, 1991, and they were enthused by the response. Subir, who earlier played bass, was now playing the organ. He recalls, “The original plan was to stick to cover versions of our idols, mainly Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Deep Purple. We would play four months after which I would join the family business of selling motor parts, and the others would either pursue further studies or take up a job. But we quickly built up a cult following and continued with the band.”

When Parikrama was gaining in popularity in 1992, acts like Rock Machine, Gary Lawyer, Shiva from Kolkata, Agni from Pune, Millennium from Bangalore and 13 AD from Kochi were regular on the live circuit. Subir says Rock Machine were like gurus for everyone in the band. “Our song ‘Xerox’ was blatantly inspired by their ‘Rock n Roll Renegade,” he says.

Though Parikrama initially stuck to cover versions. they slowly began composing originals. Nitin points out, “We introduced them gradually, after we had played two or three years. By 1995, we would play Deep Purple’s ‘Lazy’ or Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ and suddenly slip in an original. I remember earlier on, we would play an original suddenly, and see the reaction. If the audience response looked good, we would announce it was our own creation.”

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Subir, Nitin and Sonam would initially write the songs, and “Till I’m No One Again” was one example. According to Nitin, the task slowly came down to him and Sonam, as Subir focused more on managing the band. He explains, “Very often it worked this way. I would come up with the basic tune and words. Then Sonam would give it the rock ‘n’ roll flavor and suggest where the solos would be. He twisted “But It Rained” into something else that was simply brilliant. With Sonam no more, I will find it difficult, as there was a certain equation between us.”

Besides these three members, the group has featured guitarist Saurabh Chaudhury, bassists Chintan Kalra and Gaurav Balani, and drummers Srijan Mahajan and Dilip Ramchandran. Shambu Nath or Gyan Singh accompanied on tabla and percussion, and Mukul Jain temporarily joined on vocals. Many songs included violin parts, and till 1999, Sharat Chandra Srivastava was part of the band. Later, Imran Khan stepped in, and Suhail Ali Khan did some shows. Says Nitin, “In each case, the violin had to suit the song, and add some value. Sharat felt the same way too, so we all gelled. The violin added a unique twist too.”

Over the years. Parikrama originals like “But It Rained,” “Tears Of The Wizard,” “Vapourize,” “Am I Dreaming?” and “Open Skies” became popular, and the Pink Floyd-inspired “One” was written as a tribute to the Mumbai terror attack victims. To make their songs easily accessible, the band distributed them free on the Internet – a practice they continue today. Says Subir, “It started because of logistics about how payments would come. In the mid-1990s, the most common way of collection was through money order, but that was difficult to monitor. We also felt that giving the music free would increase our fan base, and help more people come to our concerts.”

The live shows always remained the band’s priority. By the late 1990s, music companies and channels were concentrating more on Indipop, and rock bands found the going tough financially. There were examples of musicians getting into Indipop or Bollywood, and some joined the business side. According to Subir, since Parikrama’s focus was the college circuit, they just decided to do as many shows as possible.

Nitin says all of them understood that there were good weeks and there were bad weeks. He adds, “Or as Led Zeppelin sang, there are ‘good times, bad times’. So we would keep the spirit alive, and enjoy each other’s company. Of course, many of us did jingles to earn a living, but we made sure they didn’t clash with our concerts. We also did a Hindi film Manjunath in 2014, but that had rock music, and thought it went with our sound.”

Over the years, Parikrama gained the reputation of being one of India’s most hard-working bands. If conditions were favourable, they would do over 100 shows a year. Subir says that right from the beginning, the band enjoyed each other’s company. He adds, “We had certain rules, that were intended to keep us grounded. Nobody would drink before a show. We entered the rehearsal room and songwriting sessions like they were sacred places.”

For fans, every live show has been something to look forward to. The versions they normally did included Deep Purple’s “Child In Time,” “LA Woman” by the Doors, Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” and Iron Maiden’s “Fear Of The Dark.” For many years, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” was a staple, but they hardly played it later. Says Nitin, “I don’t remember why exactly we stopped playing it, but I guess it was because other songs came in, and we slowly started including more originals.”

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Besides the early shows at IIT campuses and college festivals, Parikrama says their most memorable moments came opening for British band Iron Maiden in Bengaluru in 2007. They were then invited to play at the Download Festival in Donington Park, U.K., opening for Iron Maiden, Evanescence and Lamb Of God. “It was a first time an Indian band played at the festival, and we had a great time,” says Subir.

Nitin points out that the task of preparing set lists was entirely Subir’s. He elaborates, “The songs would vary, according to the crowd, according to the occasion. We kept changing the order, but he would ask me whether it would suit me. Some songs are tough to do back-to-back, so I would tell him what worked better.”

Noticing that they had become a huge inspiration for younger artists, Subir started Parikrama InC to promote fresh talent. He says, “It was a natural progression, and we thought managing the live shows of younger bands would be a great idea. The established acts get more opportunities, but it’s the upcoming ones which need a boost.”

The keyboardist points out that the effort would be to go beyond rock and tap other genres. ‘We have worked with pop-rock band Faridkot, singer Jasleen Aulakh, folktronic duo Hari & Sukhmani, and the group Astitva, which does both college and corporate shows,” he says.

At the moment, Subir and Nitin are just waiting for things to return to normal. Besides getting back to live shows, they plan to release videos of some of their recordings. In 2019, they received a fantastic response to the new video of “Tears Of The Wizard,” shot in Mechukha, Arunachal Pradesh. Last year, they did a lockdown version of “Vapourize,” which was reworked by Mahajan, and relaunched a video for “But It Rained” as a tribute to Sonam on his birthday on October 8th. Nitin also worked on the song “Life Is Certain.” As Subir says, “The phrase is ‘life is uncertain,’ but we had to give it a Parikrama touch by doing something opposite.”

The brothers agree that during the lockdown, the physical distance between members hampered a lot of plans. Sonam’s demise has shattered them individually and as a group. Says Nitin, “We haven’t gigged after that, and we’re going to miss him. His on-stage interaction with every member was unique. We also realize that we’re all getting older. As a vocalist, one has to be extra careful after a certain age, though luckily, I haven’t felt anything untoward. I equate vocal preparation to working out in a gym. One doesn’t directly go and lift 150 kg. There are warming-up exercises, and some routines to be followed at the end of the session,” he says.

The discipline has worked, obviously.  For the band, 30 years have just flown by, and one looks forward to the new material that’s being prepared. “Right now, the only thing is to be patient. Once the conditions improve, we’re ready to go all-out,” says Subir.

The continuing enthusiasm for playing and touring despite being together for three decades is what makes Parikrama standout amongst Indian bands. The five-decade-long history of Indian rock and roll is littered with the detritus of bands that broke up or stopped playing because of a lack of financial rewards and opportunities to make it big. Save for the likes of Indus Creed, Indian Ocean, Pentagram and a few others, not many survived into double-digit years. 

What is it that still motivates Parikrama after 30 long years? Says Nitin, “We all believe in a common philosophy. We may have done thousands of shows but each one is new for us. It’s the crowd that drives us and when they have paid money and come with expectations, the last thing we want to do is disappoint them. We follow that same diktat at free shows and corporate gigs too.”

Clearly, the Parikrama men have their hearts in the right place. Plenty of hard work has gone towards reaching this milestone, and there’s no stopping them. One will, of course, miss the genius of Sonam Sherpa.

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