Two Summers Away

That’s how much time it will take Raghu Dixit to become Indian rock’s biggest musical export.

December 13, 2010 8:56 am by

He probably doesn’t realise it but Raghu Dixit says the word “probably” a lot. It’s an appropriate choice of word when you consider that out of all of India’s indie rock acts, his band The Raghu Dixit Project has the best chance of making it in the West. What sets him apart from his contemporaries is that he’s got a plan. “We’re still two summers away,” says Dixit, who is one of those rare performing artists who will actually scale down the hyperbole.

Dixit has been in the music news frequently over the last year: he acquired a UK-based manager, signed an international record deal, toured Europe and Australia, played some pretty prestigious music festivals including Womad in Spain, and appeared on one of the most popular music shows on British television, Later With Jools Holland. Most recently, his album topped iTunes’s world music chart in the UK.

But as Dixit told the Mumbai Mirror, he headlined Womad but he did the afternoon slot; he featured on Jools Holland but in the hour-long repeat telecast, not the prime time half-hour programme. “I think we’re still two summers away from becoming a big band,” Dixit says. “It’s a slow, well thought-out strategy, which is also planned to take over territory by territory rather than releasing everything worldwide, and then fizzing out. The idea was to break into the UK because that’s direct access into [the rest] of Europe. Then we tried Australia, and we realised that they were much warmer to us than the UK initially. But after Jools Holland, the UK has lapped it up so well that complete strangers are messaging to ask when we’re playing next.”

The strategy sounds simple on paper: Bangalore-based Dixit scores music for Kannada films (such as 2008’s Psycho) and for advertising jingles, and uses the money from that and the proceeds from the gigs he plays in India, to fund his travels abroad, where with the help of his new UK-based managers Robert Horsfall and Paul Knowles (he credits 80 per cent of his international success to them) he performs a mix of concerts and showcases (gigs organised especially for industry folk).

Over the last year, Dixit says he has spent more than Rs40 lakh for his travels abroad. In an industry where bands continue to complain about the lack of music sponsorship, he might be seen as either foolhardy or plain naive. But we doubt Dixit cares. This has as much to do with Dixit’s music as it has to do with his personality. His music, songs in Hindi and Kannada with an occasional mix of English, is joyous, feel-good, foot-tapping folk-fusion rock that can get the stuffiest shirts to loosen their ties and throw their hands in the air. This is exactly what happened when Dixit performed at the Hard Rock Cafe last Wednesday. Dixit and his band, dressed in their trademark lungis—a nod to their South Indian backgrounds—frequently exhorted the crowd to jump in sync with them, and by the time they got to their encore “Mysore Se Aayi”, at least three-quarters of the people in the restaurant/bar seemed to be equipped with invisible pogo sticks.

If it wasn’t for the encore, Dixit would have probably gone home unhappy. Because Dixit is not just talented—he’s blessed with a booming voice that can completely envelope a space as big as the 6,000 sq. ft. Hard Rock Cafe—he’s also the type of person who thrives on challenges. Dixit, who was born and brought up in an orthodox Tamilian Brahmin family and grew up studying bharatanatyam, got his first real introduction to Western music only in his early twenties, after a college friend taunted him that Indian classical dance was effeminate. His comeback: he would learn the guitar, and prove to him that dancers could learn rock much easier than rockers could learn a few steps.

When The Raghu Dixit Project’s self-titled 2008 debut album topped iTunes’s World Music chart after the Jools Holland show aired last month, it provided sweet redemption for an artist who waited nearly 10 years to put out his debut album; it was famously released after music directors Vishal and Shekhar saw him perform at Bandra bar Zenzi, and got so impressed by what they heard that they decided to form a record company to launch him. Record companies before that, Dixit said, rejected him on two grounds: either they felt his music wasn’t commercial enough, or that he wasn’t good-looking enough. The album went on to sell 50,000 copies, plenty more than what most Indian pop artists push today.

The audience at the Hard Rock Café were also pleased to find that his newer material, most of which is in Kannada, has the same buoyant feel of hits like “Hey Bhagwan” and “Mysore Se Aayi”. But a natural fall-out of Dixit’s three-year plan is that he’s barely had time to go into the studio. “The tendency is to get out your second album when you’re hot in the market, but I’m super-confident that even if we release it five years from now, we’ll only be an improved product.”

So while fans may have to wait indefinitely for the second record, Dixit says that he’s toying with different ideas. “My second album won’t be just a studio album—at least that’s my dream,” he says. “Maybe only financial constraints might prevent me from doing this but I really want to do a road trip through Latin countries and jam with street musicians. [The album] will probably be in more than one or two languages. The first album was Hindi and Kannada mainly, but my second album will probably have a Bengali song or a Punjabi song and a Tamil song. Bringing it all together will be some process that will need a considerable amount of time and patience.”

And if by chance, Dixit gets a call from Bollywood, the album may be pushed a little further. “I want to,” says Dixit frankly when asked if he’d consider working in the big-bad world of Hindi films. “I hope I’ll get into it very soon, because the face of Bollywood has also changed considerably. There are a number of bold, new directors working on bold, new themes wanting different kinds of music. I think that’s the space I’ll fit into. Probably not mainstream. But I’ll definitely fit into the great wave that is going in Bollywood right now, with directors like Anurag Kashyap and gang.”

For now though, the focus is on consolidating the buzz The Raghu Dixit Project has built over the past year or so. They already have a couple of big-ticket festivals lined up in 2011, including Celtic Connections in Scotland in January. “We’re getting upgraded to the next level of stages, we’re getting headlining status in certain festivals,”  says Dixit. “We’re getting bigger festivals and better slots. Hopefully, this time we’ll break even.” But for all the journeys, experiences, critical acclaim and commercial success that Dixit has seen recently, he says that there isn’t a single event or achievement that counts as the most significant. The whole, according to him, is greater than the sum of the parts. “I think it’s only boosted my self-confidence, the belief that my music deserves to be heard not just in India but in the rest of the world.”