Robin Denselow catches up with Songlines’ 2011 Best Newcomer Award-winner, Raghu Dixit, and reflects on the young singer’s remarkable career to date. Photograph by Nikhil Madgavgar
This has been an extraordinary year for Raghu Dixit, the Indian folk-rocker who has won the Songlines Newcomer Award for 2011. He was unknown in the UK when he released his debut album in the spring of 2010, but he succeeded because his music is original and accessible to Western audiences, even if he is singing in Kannada and Hindi as well as English, and because he is a rousing live performer with a remarkably powerful, soulful voice. His aim, he says, is to “represent what India is today, deeply rooted in our tradition and culture, but at the same time marrying influences that the internet boom and globalisation are throwing at us from all around the world. But at the core it’s just Indian folk music.” Meeting Dixit in India, it becomes clear that he is also a man with a mission.
He lives in the bustling modern city of Bengaluru (formerly known as Bangalore) in southern India. It is, he says “the fastest growing city in India, thanks to the call centres and IT industries that have moved here. But there’s a huge influx of outsiders coming in to look for work, there’s new building work, trees are being cut down, and the temperature in the city has been rising.” The changes are cultural as well. Bengaluru is the capital of Karnataka state, where the traditional language is Kannada. But now, says Dixit, “Kannada is under threat.”
The problem is not just that many of the outsiders moving into the region speak Hindi or Tamil. India is obsessed with cinema, which means not just Hindi-language Bollywood films, but films in Tamil from Chennai, and Kannada films from Bengaluru. “Other states are making better movies than we are,” says Dixit “because their markets are huge and their budgets are bigger. So we have developed this inferiority complex about our language, and we refuse to speak it if there are people from other states present. We speak English to show we are as good as them. That inferiority has started creeping into our subconscious and we are ignoring Kannada in every sense – we have stopped going to Kannada concerts and movies, and stopped writing our names in Kannada.”
So Dixit deliberately sings in Kannada, and revives the lyrics of Kannada poets, to try to bring back a sense of pride. He says he wants to achieve international success “because if a Kannada-speaker is getting a standing ovation at a British festival, that’s a matter of pride for every Kannada-speaker.”
He’s not alone in his campaign. Taking a break between concerts, he hails a tuc-tuc (auto-rickshaw – his favourite means of transport in the city) and heads across Bengaluru to the little studio where he recorded his first demo record 15 years ago. It’s hidden away down a little alleyway, and the recording session is already underway when we arrive, under the control of a poet and arranger HS Venkatesh Murthy, who has composed a new song, simply titled ‘Kannada,’ to celebrate a conference on the future of the Kannada language. A wide variety of Kannada-speaking musicians have been invited to contribute to the composition, from film stars and playback singers through to one of the region’s greatest classical singers, the 91-year-old star, RK Shrikantyan. The composer sings Dixit his part, and he immediately goes into the studio to record to a backing track, waving his arms as he sings, after “learning on the spot, just like a playback singer.” Within a week the song would be finished and broadcast on radio stations across Karnataka state.
I’ve joined Dixit and his band, The Raghu Dixit Project, towards the end of an exhausting 60-date Indian tour, in which they have criss-crossed the country on cars and planes, playing anywhere from small halls to massive festivals. One of the smaller shows is in Chennai (formerly Madras) where Dixit sets out for the concert in a tuc-tuc, clutching his guitar and singing the English folk tune ‘Scarborough Fair’ – “a song I’ve always liked,” he says as the driver tries to find the venue, a modern concert hall at the Chinmaya Heritage Centre.
This is a Tamil-speaking area, and Dixit hasn’t played here for over four years, but the crowd consists mainly of young students and he chats to them in English as if they were close friends. “Hey Raghu,” I love you” shouts one girl. “I can’t reply to that. I can’t see you in the dark.” He and the band are dressed in their customary stage gear – barefoot, they’re wearing traditional Indian kurta shirts, with a lungi wrapped around the waist. Dixit has hastily borrowed the clothes from another band member after leaving his bag (later recovered) in the tuc-tuc. He carefully explains the songs in English, but the lyrics are mostly in Kannada. There’s the pounding ‘Hey Bhagwan’ – “a prayer to the Lord to give us a second chance,” and the party song ‘Mysore Se Ayi,’ in which the entire audience begin pogo-dancing when ordered to do so, followed later by songs in English, including the pop-soul ballad ‘No Man Will Ever Love You, Like I Do.’ Dixit plays acoustic guitar, backed by a sturdy folk-rock band with electric guitar, violin, bass and drums.
The bravest, most interesting songs are his new settings for lyrics by the 19th century Kannada poet Saint Shishunala Sharif. “He wrote quirky songs to explain complex philosophies of life that people could understand,” Dixit tells me later. “His songs were once very popular but the younger generation are ignoring them, even in Karnataka. I put them in a form that young people can relate to.” In Chennai, Dixit explains the lyrics of Sharif ’s songs like ‘Sorutihudu Maniya Maligi’ (The Roof is Leaking with Ignorance) and so spreading the work and wisdom of the poet known as the ‘Kabir of Karnataka’ to a new generation in a different part of India.
A few days later, playing at a massive outdoor festival in his home city of Bengaluru, he puts on a very different show.
A crowd of 20,000 are packed into a square to celebrate Shivrati, which Dixit explains is “a religious festival – where according to the legend Lord Shiva has drunk poison to save the world, and his followers have to make enough noise to keep him awake.” Two large platforms have been erected; one holds a polystyrene temple, with a statue of Lord Shiva and a duck pond with real ducks, while the second is the stage where Dixit would appear at one in the morning. “Outdoor music is not allowed in Karnataka after 10.30pm,” he explains, ” but this is a religious festival… and these days, aspiring politicians pay for the event so they can be seen here.”
He comes on to screams from the crowd who seem to know all of his Kannada songs. He ignores his compositions with English lyrics, but does include his massively popular song ‘Mahadeshwara,’ which he originally performed in a locally-made Kannada-language film mysteriously titled Psycho. When he comes off stage at three in the morning, he heads home to pick up his bags before dashing to the airport with the band to fly to London and then on to the US where he starts yet another tour.
Now in his mid-30s, Raghu Dixit is on the verge of international success, but he has had a tough struggle. To explain his early life, he takes me to Mysore, where he grew up in a city famous for arts and culture, dominated by grand palaces. His father was an electrical engineer who refused to let him listen to Western music, wear jeans or play guitar “which was associated with Christianity,” but encouraged him to study Indian classical dance under a local teacher, Nandini Eswer. A grey-haired lady, who still teaches, she tells me that Dixit attended her classes from the age of seven to 22 “and he was talented – but he’d bunk the class when he was young.”
The young Dixit was also a talented scientist. At Mysore University, he studied for an MA in micro-biology, getting the highest marks in his year. Returning to his faculty for the first time in 16 years, to the obvious excitement of the students, he’s re-united with another of those who once taught him, professor KA Raveesha. ”I was disappointed when he went into music,” he tells me, “he was a very good research student.”
It was at university that Dixit learned to play guitar, after being teased by a guitar-playing student who told him it was “effeminate” to be a dancer. “So I said ‘give me two months and I’ll learn to play the guitar. But you’ve got to learn some classical dance steps.’” Dixit learned to play with help from Christian brothers at a seminary outside Mysore, and delighted his fellow students when he showed what he could do. Needless to say, the student who had made fun of him had learned no dance steps.
From then on, says Dixit “there was no looking back,” but it took him years to become a successful musician. He worked as a pharmaceutical researcher in Belgium, but quit after being invited to sing on a radio programme in Brussels – the response was so positive that he gave up science and headed back to India to become a singer. It wasn’t easy. He worked for a software company and then started writing jingles, “slowly recording my songs whenever I got a chunk of money from the jingles and could afford to hire some musicians. So my album was recorded over four or five years, with various musicians that I met.”
The album, with its emphasis on songs in Kannada, was released in India in 2007, and Dixit used the money he earned from sales or concerts to promote his career in the West “and it wasn’t easy. I could have lived a very luxurious life with the kind of money I’ve spent, that I earned from concerts here in India.” But his bravery is paying off. At the end of last year he was invited to play on the BBC’s Later With Jools programme alongside Robert Plant and Arcade Fire “who I didn’t have a clue about, but they were magnificent.” He admitted that he had never heard of Jools Holland either, and was worried whether he had been right to accept “because I wondered why I had spent so much money coming all the way from India just to play one song, four minutes long.”
Since then, his profile in the UK has completely changed. His album has spent months in the world music charts, and, according to Dixit, “it became the highest download album on iTunes.” He was invited to become an Artist in Residence at London’s Southbank Centre, and in April 2011 he opened the Southbank’s Alchemy festival with a remarkable show in which he was joined by the dancer Gauri Sharma Tripathi and four members of Bellowhead. According to Southbank’s artistic director Jude Kelly, there are plans for a “long-term relationship, lasting a couple of years at least,” while for his part Dixit is keen to explore multi-media projects, mixing his songs with dance, and including collaborations with his wife Mayuri Upadhya who runs a “very Indian contemporary” dance troupe. He has all the makings of a highly original Indian superstar.