Shaa’ir and Func Let It Bleed
India’s defining electro dance rock band on being sexy, hated and famous
Monica Sharma Dogra takes a simple question and comes up with a gloriously bizarre answer. “I feel like another. I feel like I’m too gay to be straight, too straight to be gay, I’m like too mainstream to be indie, too indie to be mainstream. I’m too American to be Indian, too Indian to be American, I never fuckin’ fit anywhere. I can’t categorize myself nor can anyone categorize me. It’s not like I see a hot guy and I want to hit it. It doesn’t work that way for me. It never has. Though I like to have sex with men, I would be with a woman if she moved me, and I have. I approach love that way,” drawls the 31-year-old singer, songwriter and frontwoman of Shaa’ir and Func, in an American accent that makes most sentences sound like they end with a question mark instead of a full stop.
Dogra, who is Shaa’ir to Randolph Correia’s Func, always has front row groupies, both male and female of all ages, gawking at her bold sexuality, usually enhanced by some artful midriff baring. It’s this stage dynamic that made me bring up the subject of her looks working to her advantage, which somehow turned into a sexual confession. Yes, Dogra has known a woman intimately. “I met her while I was bartending when I lived in New York. She was a dominatrix,” says Dogra, as she works her way through a plate of salad. It is a particularly hot afternoon and Dogra walked into the interview at 3 pm, straight after an 8 am shoot for a women’s magazine. It wouldn’t be wrong to suspect that the merciless heat has loosened Dogra’s tongue ”“ Indian musicians are seldom so candid about their lives, sexual or otherwise. But then again, Dogra is not most Indian musicians.
“What makes me so mad about women and our industry in India right now is that femininity, beauty and sameness are the things that are perpetuated,” says Dogra
A Kashmiri by birth, Dogra was born and raised in Hunt Valley, Maryland, in Baltimore. Every summer, Dogra heads to New York, a city where she earned her musical chops, at NYU, to pursue her other passion ”“ acting. While Dogra has acted in Hindi films such as Dhobi Ghat, David and will be seen this month in another Hindi film titled FirefliesÂ¸she has regularly been taking on film projects in the US. This year, she acted in a 12-minute short film titled Relapse, where she played one half of a lesbian couple alongside Casey Legler, the first woman to be signed onto Ford Models’ male division. Taking her own meandering route, Dogra comes back to my question: “Working in this film made me realize a lot of things. What makes me so mad about women and our industry in India right now is that femininity, beauty and sameness are the things that are perpetuated. Deepika Padukone’s new ad has the tagline ”˜Just Be Gorgeous.’ No one ever talks about being something else or wanting people to be attracted to something else. How is that creating space for a variety of things? For people who aren’t a certain type or who aren’t super skinny or who aren’t super hot?” This is what Dogra sets out to do when the spotlights are turned on her on stage or in a film ”“ talk about diversity. Dogra sings in her take-me-to-bed voice on “Broken” from Shaa’ir and Func’s debut New Day: The Love Album released in 2007: “I’m Not Perfect/ And I’m Not A Beauty Queen / But I Want You/I’d Do Anything For You/ And If you need my blood/I’d cut myself to bleed.” Besides imperfection, love has been an obsessive theme in all three albums including Light Tribe, out in 2008, and Mantis, released in 2010. Dogra adds that sexuality and gender are two subjects that have influenced her songwriting on their fourth album, slated to release this year.
If it weren’t for love, Shaa’ir and Func wouldn’t exist. Dogra and Correia fell madly in love when they first met in Mumbai in 2005. “I heard Monica sing at a party and I’d never heard anything like that,” Correia told me in a previous interview. Dogra, too, recalled hitting it off as soon as they met, and moved to Mumbai from New York to form Shaa’ir and Func the same year, performing at clubs such as Zenzi, in Mumbai. Their first big festival appearance was in 2007 at the Indian edition of UK’s Big Chill Festival, held on Ashwem beach, in North Goa. I was at the festival and remember two groups that got the crowd up on its feet despite the scorching April heat ”“ The Raghu Dixit Project and Shaa’ir and Func. Even as political parties threatened to disrupt the two-day festival, Shaa’ir and Func brought to stage a boundary-pushing performance.
Soon after Shaa’ir and Func hit big in 2007, two-member electronica projects such as Tatva Kundalini from Delhi and Tempo Tantrick from Bengaluru began to find their feet. While both bands no longer exist, Shridevi Keshavan from Tatva Kundalini went on to form Gods Robots with DJ Janaka Atugoda. Bengaluru band Sulk Station is another two-member project, playing triphop and electronica, also fronted by a female vocalist, which has gained a following. The fact that the band opened up doors for other artists across the country is another testimony to their success. Says drummer Lindsay D’Mello, who played with the band on their first two albums, “For audiences across the country, it was a fresh, new sound.” D’Mello and guitarist Correia, who is also the lead guitarist of Mumbai electro rock band Pentagram, go back to 1998. Says D’Mello, “Randolph and I were part of a collective called Bombay Black. It was important for all of us [in the collective] to find a new sound besides the instrument we played. Even with Pentagram, Randolph was always experimenting. He got a groovebox on stage for Penta and they made that transition from rock to electronica easily. So with Shaa’ir and Func, he finally found that new sound that he was looking for.”
Correia has a remarkable knack for multitasking. Besides playing with two bands and doing a couple of solo DJ sets as Func, Correia is a sought after producer. In 2013, he began working simultaneously on five albums including Mumbai reggae hip hop band, Bombay Bassment’s debut, vocalist Ramona Arena’s debut, an EP of Shaa’ir and Func’s older material titled Re:cover , an album of Pentagram tracks, treated to sound like reggae versions, titled Skank Be The Rock and of course, Shaa’ir and Func’s fourth album. “The writing part is like the sex,” says Correia of the new Shaa’ir and Func album, “After that, it’s nine months of incubation. And what you feed it is important. It’s like your baby. You don’t rely on other people to deliver it ”“ you go through that process yourself.”
“If it’s a rainy day and you’re hung over and want to curl up on a couch and smoke a joint, it takes you back there,” says Correia
We’re at Pentagram drummer Shiraz Bhattacharya’s man cave that doubles up as his office. Music and photography books are stacked neatly on a shelf and Correia is here to pick up his guitar before he heads out to rehearsals. But there’s time for that, so Correia’s rolling. He says, “You’d expect a Shaa’ir and Func album to be 80 percent uptempo, dancey and stuff. But this new album is 80 per cent blissed out and contemplative. It’s very nostalgic and takes you back.” Takes you back where, I ask. “Anywhere,” offers Correia helpfully, “If it’s a rainy day and you’re hung over and want to curl up on a couch and smoke a joint, it takes you back there.” It is raining outside and Correia is smoking, so I’m not sure how to read this bit of information.
The rest of the interview makes perfect sense. Correia tells us that the only thing left to be done on their new 11-track album is the mastering. “That should take three days at the most, but there’s always some tweaking to be finished until then. I feel we’re in the space to experiment,” he says. The guitarist has always had a leaning towards genre-bending sounds. “My dad introduced me to Kraftwerk and Floyd,” says the 39-year-old guitarist, whose current favorite artist is Rihanna’s band mate Nuno Bettencourt. “I love what he does with the guitar,” he says.
Just like New York is Dogra’s safety valve, Correia has been getting away to Berlin since 2012. Says Correia, “Berlin is progressive. It’s like a time walk ”“ we live in the past and it’s like going to a futuristic country where things work properly. That’s a breather.” Correia talks about how shows abroad have also been a learning experience. The band played their first international gig at Knitting Factory, originally a jazz club, in Brooklyn, New York in 2007 and performed at Glastonbury in the UK in 2008 along with clubs shows in London. This year, they went back to perform at two stages in Glastonbury. But like an artist manager from a well-known booking agency in India tells me, “Most of the time, bands invest their own money to play gigs abroad. It adds value so that they can charge a higher fee when they come back home.” Correia looks at it like an artist should: “You’re a nobody abroad so you want to work hard. You’re humbled because you’re playing for the love of music and for the exchange of a new culture and new music.”
Germany is also where I watched Shaa’ir and Func first perform their hardest grinding set to an international audience at the Cologne Pop Festival in 2008. It was Shaa’ir and Func with UK-based drummer Pravin Mukhi at his loudest. Most of the crowd gathered was absolutely unprepared for a band like Shaa’ir and Func from India. Some of them were put out because they were expecting an Indian classical fusion band. Correia bristles when I bring this up, “It’s very narrow-minded for people to think that if you’re a band from India or Bombay, you have to have an Indian sound. We had rock, jazz and blues in India even in 1978, and this was 2008. But we were always aware that this was being said. This is lazy feedback. You’re not standing at a world music stage. C’mon, this is rock n roll.”
A lot of the band’s early videos for tracks such as “Oops” from their debut New Day: The Love Album and “Together Again” from their second album Light Tribe have been received with as much hate as love. Some of it is plain trolling and some others diss it for its unIndian-ness. Dogra says it’s still a letdown when someone takes them down. “I do feel like every singular person counts,” she says, “It hurts me still. I wish it didn’t. Sometimes, if I feel like the person is smart, then I’ll try and write them sincerely back if it’s a message or a tweet. But if I feel like someone is straight up evil, then I’ll be evil back.” Correia mostly turns a deaf ear to haters. He says, “I was born speaking English in a Goan family. We listened to Beatles, Bob Marley, James Brown and Pink Floyd while growing up. We are mutated fucking children of some western culture. So if someone in India is saying this, I want to tell them that this exchange is beautiful. If we’ve accepted Italian food, sushi and American burgers ”“ why be so weird about music?”
A blog notorious for shooting down Indian metal bands, took a swipe at Dogra, who is known for her existential babble on stage and in her lyrics (listen to “We’re Not Alone”). The blog post read: “May the stars align and the universe nurse your soul through its full, shiny teet. Let the winds and the sands dance to your tune of living. Let it come together as one and form a full circle. Step through the circle like an eagle and soar into the ground to meet the Earth in a warm embrace.” Dogra is amused when she recollects this bit and says that she can take the taunts about Dogra-speak in her stride. She admits with a laugh, “I thought that was funny and clever. But this is who I am. I own tarot cards. Right now, I have essential oils in a plastic bag in my bag. I wear black tourmaline like I’m a fuckin’ clichÃ©. I get it, but what I don’t get is the rest of it.” There was another line in the post that alluded to masturbation: “If you are expecting us to make a witty remark about Monica, you are mistaken. We don’t pee where we ma”¦never mind.” Dogra adds, “I’d like to find the guy who wrote that and knee him in the groin.”
“You’re listening to the same fucking version on the iPod, radio and computer anyway, so at a gig, we want to create an experience,” says Correia
Some of the negativity works in the band’s favor, says Dogra. “I’ve now learnt how to channel all the hate. As much as people want to hate on us and show up to see if we’re not as good as we were before, we always show up and are better.” I’ve never witnessed Shaa’ir and Func on an off day. In 2013, I saw the band take to stage after almost a year’s gap. Most of their older material including “Sexy Scam,” “Everytime You’re Around” and “Light Tribe” had been completely transformed by Correia. While the melodies remained the same, the arrangements had been reshaped using a host of tones and sound swirls. Says Correia, “You’re listening to the same fucking version on the iPod, radio and computer anyway, so at a gig, we want to create an experience. It’s like when I go to a party, I want the DJ to play me versions and build up a set.” The drag set, as I remember it, because the men wore dresses and Dogra arrived all buttoned up in men’s wear including suspenders, was one of the best club gigs that year.
One weekend, last month, Shaa’ir and Func are readying for a 15-minute, three-song gig for a leading German car brand at a star hotel in Mumbai. As I walk towards their room, I overhear a girl shrieking into her phone: “Shaa’ir and Func have run up a room service bill of Rs 15,000. Will you get an email confirming who will pick up the tab?” The room smells of weed and seafood. Dogra is in a room next door resting her throat.
The guitarist spotted Ashok at a one-off gig at Razzberry Rhinoceros in Mumbai. Says Correia, “He was great at learning the songs ”“ he learnt 14 songs in two days.”
Twenty-five-year-old Aditya Ashok, the band’s youngest member and drummer, and bassist Rohit P-Man Pereira have been with the band for three years now, and by the look of it, are thick. Correia has known Pereira for over a decade, since the time the bassist was part of the metal band Pin Drop Violence from Mumbai. “I just called him up because we needed a bassist for a show in London and asked him if he wanted to come along. That was it,” says Correia. The guitarist spotted Ashok at a one-off gig at Razzberry Rhinoceros in Mumbai. Says Correia, “He was great at learning the songs ”“ he learnt 14 songs in two days.” The band’s manager, Anu Anna George, interrupts with an announcement, “Monica just got a call that the fire alarm went off. This is a no smoking room.”
Backstage, Dogra mingles with a group of models readying for a fashion show, which is scheduled after Shaai’r and Func’s performance. Dogra has been gargling since morning to get rid of a sore throat. She asks nobody in particular, “Dude, I’ve had the shits for a week. Do you think it could be the sore throat medicine?” There’s nothing like too much information with Dogra. In a previous interview she tells me, “When I was in New York this time, I had the greatest period ever. The blood was bright red. That’s when your body is in perfect harmony. Most of us bleed like brown or black. It’s not nourished. I called my girlfriend who’s into the same thing that I’m into ”“ shamans and all that ”“ and she was like when your blood is that red, ancients say you have to go squat into the earth. I didn’t do that. I thought about it though.”
At show time, there’s no evidence of a sore throat or any other bodily malfunction. The band is in form. It’s been four years since Dogra and Correia ended their relationship, but the fire is alive on stage. Dogra tells the audience, seated on either side of the ramp, “I know you’re sitting but feel free to get up and dance. This is rock ’n roll. Anything goes.” They open with a stormy version of “Shine” from their third album Mantis, move onto “Everytime You’re Around” and end with “Everybody Wants To Go to Heaven,” a song from their new as-yet-untitled album. Electronica producer and one half of the Delhi-based electro project Midival Punditz’s Gaurav Raina is in the audience. He later tells me, “As performers, I wouldn’t change a thing. They’ve got great energy, they look good. Musically, I definitely would like to hear some slower songs.” Shaa’ir and Func’s fourth album sounds like it’s been made for Raina.
This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of ROLLING STONE India.