Raghu Dixit: Troubadour in Tinseltown
How India’s most successful indie musician is making inroads into Bollywood and winning at it
Our cover shoot with Raghu Dixit isÂ scheduled for noon, so around 9 a.m. weÂ drop a text asking the musician if his flightÂ from Bengaluru to Mumbai is on schedule.Â Pat comes the reply that he’s already landedÂ in the city and is waiting it out at theÂ airport””he wasn’t sure if the shoot venueÂ would be open that early in the morningÂ and didn’t want to inconvenience usÂ with a special request either. Who knewÂ India’s biggest cultural export in recent times would also be its humblest!
For a man who owns every stage he steps on and makes sure everyone has aÂ great big party””he has been at it for over a decade now and admits to employingÂ a fair bit of bullying to get the crowd to dance””Dixit the folk-rock icon isÂ an unfussy South Indian chap off stage. He is thrifty, books his own flight tickets,Â and turns into an excitable teen at the prospect of anything new and thrilling.Â Like the shoot today. Barely 20 minutes on the set and Dixit knows theÂ entire crew by name. The stylists can’t get enough of his self-deprecatingÂ jokes about his body and the makeup artist cackles every time the musicianÂ pesters his selfie-clicking publicist. Dixit has also picked his favorite person””our resident videographer. “Because she is the quietest of them all,” he says.
“I don’t mindÂ being treated as aÂ newcomer inÂ Bollywood. I don’tÂ mind peopleÂ having aÂ predefined idea ofÂ who I am.”
It is the eve of the release of Chef,Â Dixit’s Bollywood comeback as a composer,Â and we’re at the cast-and-crewÂ premiere at a plush Mumbai multiplex. AÂ couple of songs from the film’s soundtrackÂ have been doing well on social media lately,Â especially the boisterous “Shugal LagaÂ Le,” but Dixit can’t wait to ”˜see’ them on theÂ big screen. Chef””the Hindi remake of theÂ Jon Favreau’s 2014 Hollywood hit, starringÂ Saif Ali Khan””is Dixit’s fourth BollywoodÂ project.
After the tepid Mujhse FraaandshipÂ Karoge (2011) andÂ BewakoofiyaanÂ (2014), and one-song stint in Quick GunÂ Murugan (2009), Dixit is certain Chef willÂ change the course of his Bollywood journeyÂ in a bigger, better way. And if there were aÂ need for a redeeming virtue, good ol’ humilityÂ would probably be it. Despite playingÂ 1500 shows across 30 countries as anÂ independent musician, he doesn’t fear theÂ new struggle to re-establish himself as aÂ composer. “I don’t mind being treated as aÂ newcomer in Bollywood. I don’t mind peopleÂ having a predefined idea of who I am. IÂ love that kind of challenge. I like this journeyÂ where I am being pushed to the wallÂ again, and am asking myself, ”˜Can you reallyÂ do this?’ And I think that is the kindÂ of environment in which I thrive, always,”Â says the 43-year-old musician.
Just like life’s other mysteries, DixitÂ received his biggest validation as an artistÂ in his most frustrating moment as one. ItÂ was 2009 and the musician was to play hisÂ first show with The Raghu Dixit Project inÂ the U.K., at the Lovebox Festival, VictoriaÂ Park, London. A two o’clock set at the festivalÂ wouldn’t have been that bad if it didn’tÂ have to start raining in sheets as soon asÂ they got on stage that July afternoon.Â “The only audience we had was a ladyÂ with a big umbrella with two kids clingingÂ to her legs,” Dixit reminisces as he sips onÂ a mug of Stella Artois at a pub in suburbanÂ Mumbai. “That’s when I asked myself, ”˜IsÂ this why we came all the way after spendingÂ so much money?’” Half-way throughÂ their first song, a ray of hope literally cutÂ through the clouds and the rains stopped.Â “We could see the crowd running awayÂ from the bigger stage towards our stage,Â which was the smallest one at the festival.Â By the end of the show, we had aboutÂ 3000 people in front of us, all jumpingÂ and dancing. For me, that was the biggestÂ confidence-boosting gig till date.”
When the band finished the gig and wentÂ backstage, a man was waiting to speakÂ with their manager. Turned out there was aÂ slot available at the WOMAD Festival afterÂ an Arabic band ran into visa troubles. TheÂ gig was in two days. TRDP took it up. “JustÂ like Lovebox, at WOMAD, we started withÂ some 30-40 people in the crowd and accumulatedÂ thousands by the end of the show.Â That tour was a testimonial that whateverÂ I had imagined in my head””that weÂ deserved to be heard around the world””was true.
Raghupathi DwarkanathÂ Dixit grew up in traditionalÂ joint family in Mysuru.Â Although music wasn’t reallyÂ worshipped within theÂ household, it was always around: Dixit’sÂ earliest childhood memories are of hisÂ mom listening to Carnatic music on an oldÂ transistor. In another part of his house, hisÂ cousin practiced Bharatanatyam to classicalÂ music, which initially amused andÂ eventually fascinated Dixit so much that heÂ ended up training in the dance form himselfÂ for the next 17 years. “At one point, IÂ wanted to become a professional dancer.”Â But thanks to a juvenile bet with a collegeÂ friend at 19, Dixit picked up the guitarÂ and learnt a few chords. Realizing heÂ wasn’t all that bad, he formed his first bandÂ Antaragini in 1996 and did the local collegeÂ circuit for a bit before moving to BengaluruÂ two years later. Armed with an MScÂ in Microbiology, Dixit took up a job in aÂ pharmaceutical company and also playedÂ shows with Antaragini on the side. OwingÂ to constant lineup struggles, Dixit hadÂ almost called it quits in 2005 when he metÂ bassist (and current manager) Gaurav VazÂ at a cafÃ©. The two hit it off and The RaghuÂ Dixit Project was born.
From the stage to the studio
In their decade-long career, TRDP haveÂ released two studio albums and playedÂ more headlining sets and overseas showsÂ than any other Indian indie act. Their U.K.Â debut at the memorable Lovebox Festival inÂ 2009 has seen them returning to the countryÂ every year since, and currently, the planÂ is to steadily capture the folk-loving diasporicÂ markets in the U.S., Middle-East,Â Australia and South-East Asia. Says Vaz,Â “Raghu’s motivation as an artist is to seekÂ recognition, while mine is more money-oriented.”Â Considering India’s music marketÂ is fueled by sponsorship and brands,Â and is not ticket-driven, Vaz has over theÂ years devised a more global approach toÂ securing Dixit’s artistic goals. “What if youÂ thought of the world as one big show andÂ looked at how many tickets you sell overall?Â Our projection for 2018 is 25,000 ticketsÂ over 40-50 shows around the world, atÂ say an average of 25-30 dollars per ticket.”
If TRDP are hailed as a path-breakingÂ act today in terms of branding, messagingÂ and community building, it is courtesyÂ the formidable Dixit-Vaz partnership.Â “Gaurav has been my trusted ally all theseÂ years,” says Dixit. The former, on his part,Â feels he got a “lucky break” with TRDP.Â “People often ask me what is the key to becomingÂ a successful artist manager and IÂ always say this: You find a successful artistÂ and manage it!”
Although Vaz no longer handlesÂ bass duties for TRDP””he moved to Canada earlierÂ this year””he continuesÂ to manage the band asÂ well as Dixit’s film work. The duo’s nextÂ goal is to find their groove in mainstreamÂ Bollywood and probably hit theÂ ball out of the park there as well. In thatÂ pursuit, Dixit’s identity as an infectiousÂ melody-churning urban troubadourÂ becomes an asset as well as baggage.Â “It’s a very natural tendency for this industryÂ to stereotype people. As soon as youÂ do a certain kind of work, people thinkÂ you’re capable of doing only that kind ofÂ work,” says Dixit, adding, “When I firstÂ started doing composing work, peopleÂ thought I could only do folk. But AshishÂ [Patil, film producer] knew better and offeredÂ me Mujhse… where there’s no folkÂ music at all. So I think the onus is on meÂ now””to tell the industry that I am actuallyÂ a versatile musician and folk music is somethingÂ I do with my band.” At the same time,Â Dixit believes that if his signature brand ofÂ sound is what filmmakers are looking forÂ and he gets projects on that basis, it will beÂ a win-win. Chef was, in a way, an ideal projectÂ where he got a chance to explore bothÂ the familiar and the exotic.
If “Shugal Laga Le” was a straight-upÂ TRDP fare, on “Tan Tan,” Dixit whippedÂ up a swingy, big band, jazz melody. “KhoyaÂ Khoya,” a modern take on ghazal, fell intoÂ to the “4/4 rock, very Coke Studio PakistanÂ zone,” according to the musician, whoÂ has been honing his production and soundÂ engineering skills since he last composedÂ for Bollywood. “During Bewakoofiyaan, IÂ realized I was handicapped big time whenÂ it came to technical knowledge”¦ I was onlyÂ making tunes, and waiting for everyone toÂ pitch in was not working out. I felt veryÂ guilty of the fact that I had to depend on soÂ many people to get my work done. I didn’tÂ really have a rock solid team at that time.”
Today, a large chunk of Dixit’s moneyÂ has gone into building a studio in hisÂ hometown and installing a team ofÂ producers. “Over the last three years, I feelÂ I have learned quite a bit when it comes toÂ production. I am fully ready now.”Â The agenda for the next few months isÂ to meet the right people with the rightÂ scripts. “I am at this cusp where I wantÂ to shift base to Mumbai. Till now, I haveÂ only worked with people who invited meÂ to work with them but now I want to takeÂ that body of work and show it to peopleÂ and kind of impress upon them that I canÂ do a good job.”
Victories and vulnerabilities
Convincing people you can do a good jobÂ of something almost always demands displayingÂ high levels of confidence, whichÂ may also be misconstrued as arrogance””something that Dixit gets serially accusedÂ of. “I am just a brutally honest and bluntÂ person who tells people what he has toÂ their face,” the musician argues, “Diplomacy,Â negotiation and compromise are justÂ not my forte.” He is also aware that in theÂ past, many of his peers thought of him asÂ proud and big-headed. “They probably stillÂ do!” he jokes.Â But Dixit can’t understand why his self-beliefÂ is confused for narcissism. “YouÂ know, nothing came to me on a platter. IÂ have worked for hours and hours, monthsÂ and years to get where I am today. And if IÂ am not protective about it or not gung-hoÂ about it, or if I don’t beat my chest aboutÂ it in my own isolation in front of the mirror,Â I am a stupid ass”¦ If I don’t tell myself,Â ”˜Raghu, you did well today,’ I thinkÂ it’s very cruel. That is being perceived asÂ arrogance from the other side. It’s reallyÂ their misery that is showing rather thanÂ my arrogance.”
As much as he likes practicingÂ patting his own back, DixitÂ admits he is also vulnerableÂ to experiencing acute boutsÂ of self-doubt. He cares veryÂ much about what people think about himÂ and is easily bothered if the stuff beingÂ circulated is not nice. After all, as an artist,Â he is doing what he is doing for validation.Â “Every song that I write, sing or perform””I seek validation from the peopleÂ who listen to it. When people don’t like it,Â or when something goes unnoticed, I feelÂ very upset.” He makes no bones about theÂ fact that he chases the spotlight. “I craveÂ attention. It would be a big lie if an artistÂ told you they do music for their self-satisfactionÂ and enjoyment. If that is the case,Â bloody hell, play in your bedroom; why doÂ you want to be on stage or put yourself onÂ YouTube and check every hour how manyÂ views your videos get?” How many timesÂ does he check his social media on a givenÂ day? “I am addicted to Instagram. I checkÂ it maybe 10 times a day.”
If you follow Dixit’s social mediaÂ handles closely, you’d notice he replies toÂ almost every comment on every post. It’sÂ not easy retaining fans in India’s fickleÂ indie music scene but Dixit is a pro atÂ it. “I think it’s my duty [to reply to commentsÂ and personal messages from fans];Â somebody has taken time out to say niceÂ things, so I make it a point to personallyÂ say thanks.” That’s how you earn yourÂ fans, according to him, and there are noÂ shortcuts to it. “When you’re grateful forÂ them, you know your fans will stick withÂ you; I have fans that have stuck with meÂ for 15 years, ever since I started.” IncludingÂ one ardent admirer, Anirudh Kulkarni, inÂ Belgaum, Karnataka who has a tattooÂ bearing Dixit’s name. “It’s incredible whatÂ we have achieved!” he says.
The reason why Dixit doesn’tÂ take his celebrity for grantedÂ today is because he knowsÂ the frustration of being anÂ unsung indie warrior. “It isÂ very cruel that we spend so many yearsÂ doing our best [as artists] and not manyÂ people know about it. Not many peopleÂ in this bar know The Raghu Dixit Project.Â But if I were a mainstream BollywoodÂ artist, everyone would knowÂ who I am.”
Mumbai might be Dixit’s mecca for nowÂ but he knows what he really loves””being aÂ nomad. Thanks to his travels abroad, he’sÂ become a sucker for experiences, and theÂ more musically thrilling they are the better.Â “Like, next year, I want to travel throughÂ Latin America for three-four months andÂ meet street musicians and strike up conversationsÂ that eventually lead to jams.”Â He says the idea is to make a socio-economicÂ documentary through music aboutÂ how similar societies and human responsesÂ to similar issues are. “I think it would beÂ a phenomenal juxtaposition of Indian melodiesÂ with Latin grooves and instrumentation.Â Hopefully, I will be able to make someÂ great friends and music along the way. I seeÂ it more as an experience rather than a goalÂ to make an album.”
Did the Bharatanatyam-loving teenageÂ Raghu ever dream he would go on toÂ conquer stages around the globe as a legit rockÂ star? “Nope, never. I feel veryÂ fortunate to be living my dream. ThisÂ lifetime was meant to be an experience, aÂ story. I think I am destiny’s child.Â Everything is now I know very well-programmedÂ for me.”
Photographs by Juhi Sharma
Art Director: Amit Naik
Fashion Director: Kushal Parmanand
Junior Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva
Hair:Â Asha Gadade
Makeup: Laxmikanta Vaishnav
Location Courtesy: Lord of theÂ Drinks, Andheri, Mumbai