Vasu Dixit: “Music for Social Transformation”Team YS
"In Chennai, we will sing some songs that will make you think”
When you call Vasu Dixit (brother of Raghu Dixit) on his mobile, you hear a pleasant voice singing “Eee bhoomi sorgha…” (this earth is paradise). That is none other than Vasu Dixit himself. Vasu is the brother of Raghu Dixit (who needs no introduction) and founder of Swarathama, a folk rock fusion band. Swarathma simply touches your soul. On the eve of their performance for Rang De in Chennai on May 1st, YourStory’s chief evangelist Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy talked to Vasu.
For details about the show, please visit http://bit.ly/cNAcKG
Swarathma is a Bangalore (India) based contemporary folkfusion
Swarathma is a Bangalore (India) based contemporary folk fusion band that represents the sound of today’s India: rooted in tradition, yet with sights set firmly on the world. The sound is Indian folk and Classical blended with
Reggae, Blues and Jazz.
With 2 albums on EMI, and international tours of the UK, Hong Kong and Singapore, they have managed to export a brand of contemporary Indian music that is exciting and fresh while being strong and beautiful, and not bound by Bollywood.
Their debut album was rated #14 on the list of Top 25 Indian Indie Albums of the last
decade by Indiecision magazine, while their second album was produced by the
legendary John Leckie (Muse, Radiohead). They were named Indie of the Year 2009
by Indiecision Magazine.They swept the Jack Daniels Indian Rock Awards 2009
winning Band of the Year (Critics and Popular Choice), Song of the Year and
Album of the Year (Popular choice).
The band is known for a visually electric stage act featuring faux-folk-horses, Bihari accents, and a Nehru Topis at various times. With music that is strong and beautiful, contemporary and relevant, hard-hitting and tongue-in-cheek, they're one of India's most sought after live acts.
The band wears their social conscience on their sleeve. They play one free show for every paid show, giving back their music to those who may not be able to watch them easily. They've played for leprosy centres, villages, orphanages and street kids at various times. They support the use of cloth shopping bags over plastic, giving them away at their concerts with their merch.
YourStory: Thank you Vasu for talking to YourStory.
Vasu Dixit: My pleasure.
YS: Let us begin by asking what is driving Vasu Dixit to music?
Vasu: I have been an art student and after that I studied design. I have learnt that art can be used more than just for entertainment or art for business. Art can be a great medium to emphasize messages or to convey social concerns. If art can be used for for social development, it would be much more meaningful for art itself. In that context, let me say I have a communication medium, that is, music and I am an artist. How can I use it for social development? You get a sense of self-satisfaction when you do something like that. I can’t deny that money is needed for survival. More than that you need to have purpose in whatever you do. While achieving that satisfaction, you get pride that you have done something. That’s what drives me to do what I am doing.
YS: Can you briefly tell us about Swarathma? How was it founded and who are your cofounders?
Vasu: Swarathma started in 2002 in Mysore with my friend Abinanth Kumar whom I used to meet in youth festivals and concerts. Through a common friend, I got to know him much better and two of us started coming together and making our own songs. And then when I joined college, I met Pavan Kumar who became the percussionist of the band. It started from there in 2002 and slowly we have grown to become full-time professional music band. In between there was a gap of two years when I went for studies and other members were busy figuring out their personal careers and jobs. So we had some change in the line ups. New members came in with their own influence of music. The band’s sound also gradually changed over a period of time. The way we make songs now has also changed. In that sense, our journey has seen lot of ups and downs.
YS: What was your first performance?
Vasu: Our first performance was at a college in Mysore. That’s when we officially launched the band in 2002.
YS: How many albums have you released and how many songs have you composed so far?
Vasu: We released our debut album in 2008. It is called Swarathma, the same title as our band. We have eight tracks in that and then we have a compilation album with British Council. That album is called Sound Pad. That has three other young bands from India. Sound Pad was marketed in UK and we got a chance to visit UK and travel around there. We have done two songs in that album. So far ten songs of Swarathma have been released. But on paper we have more than 24 songs that we play in our live shows. We are working on a few more songs to be the material for our next album.
YS: Which song is a hit with the audience and which song enjoys most popularity?
Vasu: Quite a few actually. But the most often asked song on live shows is a Kannada song surprisingly. It’s called Ee boomi. (That’s my caller tune on the mobile.) This song is very catchy. And the feel of the song is very up tempo and happy. So people connect with the song even though they don’t know the lyrics. They can’t understand the lyrics since it is in Kannada. Even then the song has become very popular. The song itself is about the earth becoming a paradise and celebrating love and friendship. People get to know the vibe of the song. That’s very popular.
There is another song called Yeshu, Allah, aur Krishna, which is about hypocrisy in religion and in the name of religion. It is also about how religion is misused. It is relevant to the society we live in and so people connect to the song.
There is another song called Pyar ke rang in which I wear a paper mesh horse, which is called poikkal kudirai in Tamil (horse with false legs). We use that in our performance. This song is also quite popular performance-wise. People wait to watch that act.
YS: How do you choose the themes? Are they contemporary, spiritual, religious issues that are on the top of the mind of the people? You are the lyricist for Swarathma.
Vasu: I write many of the songs. I take the help of my friends who are better in Hindi grammar and construction for some songs. But we all discuss the subject matter and fight over it. How it happens is we jam over a tune or a phrase and we all discuss what it feels for us. Someone says this tune feels like traffic and someone says the tune feels like river. We then come to a conclusion on one tune and agree on the subject matter. And then we write the lyrics. Since most of us are sensitive to the things that happen around us, it was intuitive in the beginning to write about issues happening around us. Later we reached a conscious decision. We have this power of music and so many things are happening around us. So what not reach to those issues? So we kind of pass on messages to people that helps people think better.
YS: You said at the beginning of this conversation that social transformation drives you to music. Have you been able to make any impact on that front?
Vasu: Of course. But this is not like infrastructure where you put in money and see the highway, which eases traffic. What happens is art has the power to go deep into the minds and thinking of people. So it will take a long time to create an impact on one’s mindset. We do not say it has already made an impact. But we have seen sparks of improvement or start of thinking. The song Yeshu, Allah aur Krishna was sung by one of our fans in his college corridor. The Principal called him into his room and his ID card was confiscated. He was suspended! Because he was singing the song. The song has made an impact on someone’s thinking whether positive or negative. For someone it is not something one can address to but for another person the song means freedom.
We have another song called pyasi about the river Cauvery, which flows from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu. We have seen how political the whole issue of water has become. But nobody thinks what will happen to the water itself! We made the song in the voice of the river Cauvery. She says pyasi hon mein tum ko pila ke, which means I am thirsty even after fulfilling your thirst! A lot of people have told me it is mind opening thing for me. We never thought what will happen and we have always thought it is just water but it also has life. Environment around us is life and we are part of it. We think we are superior to environment and try to take control over it. This song is not just in reference to water but more in terms of man and environment.
What I feel is slowly music can change the mindset. What has our film industry done to our society by influencing lot of people shows how one medium can work on one’s psyche. Why not use that medium for positive impact? That’s what we are trying to do.
YS: What are the languages in which the lyrics are written?
Vasu: We mostly write in Hindi. We have a few songs in Kannada also because my mother tongue is Kannada. Right now we are trying to see if we can do lyrics in other languages also. One of my band mate is a Bengali. His father has written a song in Bengali. But primarily our songs are in Hindi.
YS: Any single event that made you satisfied that made you feel great about starting this great band.
Vasu: Quite a few shows actually. We played at a SAARC festival in Delhi in Purana Kila last year. To be sharing stage with other great bands in India and other Asian countries was a great honour. The aam janatha of about 3000 to 5000 people was a new crowd and they accepted our music. It was quite satisfying.
When we won the Radio City live in Bangalore, that was a crowd of about 6000 to 8000. The whole crowd was cheering for us. That’s when we realized there is something in what we are doing.
We have something called Swarathma Action Replay shows. Here we go and play for organizations or people who cannot come and watch our show live. Maybe they are not privileged enough financially or physically. We go and play at leprosy centers, old age homes, and orphanges and such places. We played a show for the blind at Pune a couple of months back. Personally it was very touching and satisfying show for me. Though the infrastructure for the show was nothing, because we put in money and play these shows. We pool in money from other shows and host these events. The 65 kids all blind people thoroughly enjoyed the show. We could see how satisfied they are. For me it was an enriching experience. In one of the songs I came down the stage and singing and dancing with the kids. These kids wanted to touch me and see who is this singer. Literally our music is touching someone and not just heard.
YS: What kind of audience come to your shows generally?
Vasu: All kinds of audience. We play at places like Opus, a lounge cum bar. There is a lot of young crowd there and we also play at corporate events where there is a little older, sophisticated kind of crowd. We play for people who are literally at the grassroot level like orphanges. The college shows has only youth audience.
YS: What are your plans for the future? Are you going to release an album or what is cooking?
Vasu: We might be touring the UK again in July this year. We will be doing four to five renowned music festivals in the UK. Apart from that we are working on our new tracks, which we would release in our next album maybe year end or early next year.
YS: What can we expect from you on May 1st at Chennai?
Vasu: We will be playing at Chennai only for the second time. We played there two years back at Landmark as part of our Landmark door sales. You can expect entertainment and a genre of music that you may not have heard before – folk rock fusion. It is a different kind of music. We will be joined by Mr. Darbuka Shiva who is a percussionist in Chennai and Mr. Pradeep who is a slide guitarist. These are our guest artists who have agreed to come and play with us. It is an honour sharing stage with such good musicians. It will be a new kind of experience and learning for us also. Chennai can see their own homegrown musicians at work. We will sing some songs that will make you think also.
YS: Do you involve local musicians when you do shows in other places?
Vasu: Yeah. Right now we have started doing. We have to grow as musicians and that can happen when you play with good musicians. Another aim is to develop our friendship in the music circle. So we have started jamming with musicians in different cities wherever we go.
YS: Any final word…
Vasu: We know Chennai is not so accustomed to Hindi. So I would request the Chennai crowd to come with an open mind and enjoy the music. I am sure it will be something you will remember and go back home.
YS: Have a great show at Chennai and rock Chennai!