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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 21, Dated 28 May 2011
CULTURE & SOCIETY  
MUSIC

A man. A guitar. A lungi

Sunaina Kumar meets Raghu Dixit, the music industry’s most unlikely success — a chartbusting folk rocker from Mysore

Raghu Dixit

Pulling the strings Raghu Dixit

IAM JUST a guy with a guitar.” But does Raghu Dixit, 37, need anything else? We meet him one sunny afternoon when Raghu, clad in a bright lungi with ghungroos tied on his ankles, sings Mysore Se Aayi to an audience of four slum children. By the end of the performance, the children whistle. Raghu is thrilled. Perhaps as thrilled as he was when he got Ratan Tata to applaud and join him at an award ceremony a while ago.

In the past one year, the folk rocker from Bengaluru has become the biggest musical export of the country since AR Rahman. The Guardian has already branded him “one of the unexpected success stories of the year”. The reasons are aplenty. He just won the Songlines Music Award for world music in the newcomer category. His album topped the iTunes world music chart in the UK. Back home in Karnataka, he has performed to a crowd of more than a lakh.

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Hype aside, it is hard to believe he has just one album to his credit, Raghu Dixit that released three years ago. Ever since he has been in the music festival circuit across Europe, and will be playing at major music festivals this year, including Glastonbury. “People react to the sheer joy in my music,” he says. His most popular number Hey Bhagwan is a rousing anthemic rock song.

Almost all great artistes have stories that turn into folklore. Raghu has plenty. There is a story of an eightyear- old whose father saw him copying a cousin’s moves, realised his talent and forced him to learn Bharatanatyam. In another instance, Raghu was humiliated by a classmate in college for being “effeminate” and not playing what the “real men” play, read guitar. He learnt to sing and play guitar in two months.

Growing up in a workingclass family in Mysore meant Raghu had to put education above everything else. “I never rebelled. There were financial constraints. I knew I had to build something for myself.” Till the age of 19, he was only exposed to Carnatic sangeet on his mother’s tape recorder. A gold medallist in microbiology, Raghu took up a teaching job in Mysore University before working with a pharmaceutical company. Music then was just a hobby. “My father would have killed me first and then himself had he known I would become a musician.” His father passed away when he was 21. Four years later, Raghu gave up his job (that of a researcher) in Belgium, came back to Bengaluru to pursue his dream. His mother did not talk to him for months.

The next seven years saw him perform at college festivals with the now defunct band Antaragni, working on ad jingles and corporate films. He was rejected by most major record labels. Just when he was about to pack up, music director Vishal Dadlani heard him at a gig in Mumbai, and was so impressed that he formed a label (Counter Culture Records) so that he could launch him. Released in 2008, Raghu Dixit was the top selling album of the year.

ALONG WITH his music, Raghu’s appearance too began to captivate people. Before his debut album, a record company had asked him to pay money to promote his music because he wasn’t “good-looking”. Cut to present, his look is so popular that in Mysore and Bengaluru, parents dress their children in lungi, guitar and ghungroos for fancy dress and send him pictures. “My dance background taught me the importance of a unique look. The lungi represents the folk sound of my music.” His wife Mayuri, a dancer, agrees, “He knows it’s not just the music, but how you build an aura.”

In many ways, he is the antithesis of a rockstar. He dresses in traditional garb, sings in regional languages and never smokes or drinks. “When I started, I wrote English songs. I was told I sound stupid, and that got me thinking.” He began to weave ancient Kannada poetry into his lyrics. The song Gudugudiya Sedi Nodo (Smoke the Hookah) is based on the lyrics of 19th century Sufi poet Shishunala Sharif.

Despite the fame, even his most charitable critics will not call him a musical genius. Bobin James, executive editor of Rolling Stone magazine in India, says, “He uninhibitedly sings in Kannada or Hindi and feels no compulsion to be ‘cool’.” This is evident in soundtracks of the 2008 Kannada movie Psycho and the upcoming Yash Raj Films’ Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge. Gaurav Vaz, the bassist for the Raghu Dixit Project, a collective of musicians, says, “Put him in front of a family audience, a corporate show, a college fest or a bar. He will click everywhere.” His talent lies in composing catchy hooks accessible to everyone.

Some believe he’s been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, some feel his is a brand of music Indian Ocean already experimented with a decade ago. But most would agree that the rise of Raghu Dixit was foretold.

Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.com.
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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 21, Dated 28 May 2011
 

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