THE SIX MUSICIANS WHO WALKED onto stage at the India Habitat Centre (IHC) in Delhi on the evening of 1 June were a decidedly colourful bunch. They stood in a semicircle; in the centre was a short man in blue socks and red boots, one with green laces and the other with yellow laces. The others were costumed equally strikingly— a mélange of cotton, silk and satin in turquoise, orange, red, aquamarine and purple. Facing them sat a typically mixed IHC crowd— women straight out of office in sharp fitting skirts, friendly retired government officials in safari suits, creative professionals in ragtag ensembles, social workers in billowing cotton pants and khadi kurtas.
With a music calendar that has more cello recitals than rock shows, the average IHC audience can be much harder to please than one at a club. But if Swarathma were nervous, they weren’t showing it. Having arrived from Bangalore only a few hours ago, the band members had spent the waiting time unpacking, relaxing and rehearsing. The absence of anxiety perhaps had to do with experience—since they first formed 10 years ago, the folk-fusion band from Bangalore has played hundreds of shows across the country. But this show was different—Swarathma, whose music has always contained a strain of social activism, were here to play for a cause. The occasion was Delhi’s annual Yamunotsav concert, organised by Swechha, a youth-run NGO engaged in environmental and social development issues, to generate awareness about the dismal state of the river.
Next to the backdrop on the semicircular stage of the amphitheatre, there was a kind of bead curtain strung with all manner of plastic waste—bottles, CDs, soda cans, tetra packs. A stall in a corner of the landing distributed money plant saplings in cut-out plastic bottles. Another had accessories and utilities made from recycled material on sale. The setting was markedly different from the packed concert the band had played in the city only two weeks earlier at the swish club Blue Frog. With Yamunotsav, the band was fulfilling a resolution they had made in 2009, to do one free performance, for the underprivileged or for a cause, for every paid one. The decision had led to shows at unlikely venues—remote villages, schools and support centres for physically challenged children, orphanages and leprosy centers.
“It does get a bit tough getting a band which is good, and has popular appeal at the same time, to play for a cause like this,” said Swechha’s founder Vimlendu Jha as he supervised the preparations. “The choices are fairly limited. This year, Swarathma, who actively play for social causes, agreed to perform for us. What makes it better is that their songs also try to portray relevant social messages.” Jha had pulled off something of a coup this year, by pairing Swarathma with Rahul Ram and Amit Kilam of Indian Ocean; the latter were among the first to stir up folk and sufi with guitars and drums, an experiment that inspired several that came after them, including, almost two decades after Indian Ocean first performed, Swarathma.
SWARATHMA’S STORY BEGINS IN 2002, when Pavan Kumar KJ, a photography student in Mysore’s Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts, was hanging around campus and heard faint sounds of music coming from an empty classroom. Pavan, who had studied the tabla while in school, was intrigued. On following the sound to the classroom, he saw Vasu Dixit and Abhinanth Kumar working up an acoustic jam—the student duo was called Twin Daffodils, a name no doubt chosen in a Romantic literature-inspired moment. “Instinctively, I started providing percussion by playing the classroom table with my fingers,” said Pavan. Vasu and Abhinanth liked his improvisations and asked him if he wanted to join them as percussionist. Pavan accepted immediately, and bought a kanjira the same day, deciding that would be his main instrument in the band. After the addition of a violinist by the name of Arjun N a few days later, Twin Daffodils was renamed Swarathma.
The band, as Pavan admits, wasn’t born with the fiery dedication that characterises it today. “Forming a band was the cool thing to do in college, and that’s what we did,” said Pavan. “You get to go on stage, sing songs, impress the girls, are recognised by the college crowd. But it was only after a while that we started enjoying the process of playing music, when we realised that we were giving output to our inner self through this.” With this realisation came a more serious search for musical identity. Abhinanth used to play the guitar as part of his church choir, and as one of the key participants at Swarathma, lent a Western influence to their sound. Vasu and Pavan, who were rooted in the classical and folk traditions, were responsible for the Indian rhythms. What took shape was a raw form of their sound—Indian folk sensibilities filtered through a sharp rock style.
The band’s start was slow, but things picked up quickly. Their first show, at the all-girls Teresian College in Mysore, saw Swarathma confronting the demands that would be made on them as performers, and gave them a glimpse of the rockstar life. “We didn’t know anything about sound,” said Pavan, “had no clue how to go about sound check, didn’t know how to handle microphones. Handling a large crowd was an unknown area.” They started with a devotional song, but were booed by the audience. “Naturally it didn’t go down well with the college crowd, which was expecting us to play rock or metal songs. But we didn’t give up, and followed it up with ‘Haaye Tera Sharmana’, a peppy song that we haven’t been able to release yet. It was unbelievable how the same crowd started dancing.” Swarathma played a total of four songs that day, and when they went backstage, they were followed by a horde of girls and boys, their first encounter with fans.
Swarathma began playing wherever they could find a stage and an audience. But when Vasu, who had graduated in visual arts, left for Ahmedabad in 2003 to study filmmaking at the National Institute of Design, the band’s progress slowed down. The remaining members continued to meet up occasionally and jam, and sometimes do gigs for friends, but the realities of life after college, along with the expectations of parents, became hard to ignore.
Swarathma was more or less defunct when, in 2006, Vasu headed to Bangalore with his degree and joined ISKCON as a filmmaker. Pavan soon joined him in the city, to work as an assistant under a fashion photographer. Excited to be in the same city again, the two started making fresh plans to play music together. Though Abhinanth and Arjun were in Mysore, having moved on to jobs after college, they too returned to the fold, travelling to Bangalore whenever they could, to jam.
As part of the revival, they took in a new drummer—Montry Manuel, who had moved from Kochi to Bangalore to work in advertising. Montry was an unusual choice—having grown up listening to heavy metal bands, it took him time to adjust to Swarathma’s subtle folk grooves. “Even today, some people tell me that I hit the drums a bit too hard for the kind of music which Swarathma plays”, said Montry with the playful giggle that punctuates most of his sentences. But the combination was working, and the band continued practicing and improving their sound. Keeping up the music was far from easy, however—with new day jobs taking up most of their time, it was often impossible to meet to jam, especially with Abhinanth and Arjun living in Mysore. Pavan recounted how “the jam pad used to be just a lane away from the photography studio I was working at, but I still found it difficult to go there for months at a stretch”.
In 2006, Radio City, Bangalore, had begun airing a weekly show called Radio City Live that featured live performances in the studio by local bands. Rohit Jayakaran, the show’s host, had been finding it difficult getting a good mix of bands—Bangalore has long been a hub of heavy metal music, but the station wanted something different. “I was ready to give up when I received an email from Vasu Dixit,” said Jayakaran. “The email was polite and humble, quite unlike the emails and calls I had received in the past. I called this band called Swarathma in for an audition.”
The audition was a huge success—not only was Jayakaran won over by the band’s sound, a group of co-workers gathered outside the studio to listen, something that hadn’t happened before. In the days that followed, the station ran a listeners’ poll to select a band from amongst those featured on Radio City Live to perform at a concert alongside Parikrama. Swarathma won by a huge margin, and went on to play at Palace Grounds in Bangalore, for an audience of 5,000.
With increasing recognition, the band was faced with difficult decisions, chiefly over how much time to dedicate to their music, as opposed to what were then their primary careers. It was at this stage that Abhinanth and Arjun, still based in Mysore, opted out of the band. “There are times when I think what would I have done had I been in their position”, said Pavan, “but then every individual has his personal reasons which only he knows best.” The duo’s departure left the others with an uncertain future—the band had started to receive booking enquiries on a regular basis, and it was imperative that they keep up the momentum they were acquiring.
ONE DAY IN EARLY 2007, Sanjeev Nayak, then a manager at the IT firm MindTree received a call in the middle of a meeting. He told the caller that he was busy at the moment, and asked him to call back later. Sanjeev would have forgotten about the matter if the caller, Montry, hadn’t persisted—a friend of Sanjeev’s had recommended him to Swarathma and Montry wanted to ask if he would be interested in playing the violin for them. Sanjeev, who had grown up playing the instrument in the Carnatic style, had almost quit his passion by then, whipping it out only at occasions like the company’s Annual Day, to entertain his colleagues. But when Montry called back and invited him to jam, Sanjeev accepted. “It was only after he called later, and I checked their songs on the band’s website, did I get completely blown over by their compositions.” With corporate habits of preparation well instilled in him, Sanjeev spent hours before meeting the band, learning the violin parts in their compositions. The band was floored when he met them, and by March 2007, Sanjeev was a part of Swarathma. Jishnu Dasgupta, a marketing professional at ITC and a bass player, was the next on board—he had earned considerable musical cred while studying at XLRI Jamshedpur and playing with the college band Bodhi Tree, whose song ‘Gaand Mein Danda’ remains wildly popular with college students even today. Varun Murali, a college student and guitarist, signed on soon after, completing the lineup that exists today.
Swarathma’s rebirth was marked by a commitment and ambition unusual for an Indian band. Other than Sanjeev, everyone else in the band quit their day jobs. With increased focus, they began developing their sound further, layering their combination of Indian folk and rock with elements of reggae, blues and jazz.
The band also developed a distinct visual identity. Vasu was a striking frontman, with a thick Afro and constantly varying lengths of moustache and beard, and sideburns. He had also taken to wearing loud colours and prints, which he combined with socks and sneakers which sometimes matched, sometimes clashed. The other members developed their styles too. Pavan went with fashion from the 1970s, even though his snug shirts and bell-bottoms were met with some apprehension by the others, who were worried that they might restrict his movements on stage. “People don’t believe it, but I got this stitched at the tailor where my father used to get his clothes during his youth. I just told him to make the clothes in the same way he did for my father,” he said about his experimental choice. Jishnu, with his Bihari stage persona, chose the dhoti and kurta, in colourful silk prints; Sanjeev, a corporate worker, combined tailcoats with jodphuris; and Montry and Varun, with their backgrounds in rock culture, chose casual trousers with shirts in bright colours.
Swarathma were playing shows regularly now, but these were restricted to Bangalore and Mysore. Their first opportunity to travel north came in 2008, after Montry noticed a billboard announcing a contest by Radio City to choose bands from across India to perform in Delhi. The national winner, to be chosen by Subir Malik (keyboardist of Parikrama) and Palash Sen (singer of Euphoria), would sign a recording deal with EMI. “I got a call from Montry while at work, and immediately checked up the details online,” said Jishnu. “I wouldn’t say we were confident that we would win, but it was more the prospect of playing outside our home territory, performing alongside Indian Ocean, a band which we revered and held utmost respect for, and the allure of a record label deal.” Swarathma were shortlisted and soon caught a flight to Delhi for the show—the first time they were flying as a band.
Ahead of the competition, the band started thinking seriously about stagecraft. They realised that to win, they would need an edge, not just in their music, but in their showmanship. Vasu suggested borrowing the style of the nomadic folk tribes of Rajasthan—he incorporated the influence into ‘Pyar Ke Rang’, a song with desert folk rhythms, choreographing his act around a colourful paper mache horse. “Obviously, there were a lot of doubts floating around everyone’s minds about how well would we be able to pull it off without getting mocked. But I just went ahead with my belief,” Vasu said. When he trotted around the stage at Mehrauli’s Garden of Five Senses on his ‘kachchi ghodi’, the quiet audience erupted in applause. The spectacle also won them points with the jury. “There’s no doubting that there was a huge pool of talent from across the country which took part in Radio City Live. But Swarathma just stood out all through. They were unlike anything we had seen throughout the competition,” recalled Malik, who along with Palash Sen, was extremely impressed. Swarathma won the contest, and thus began another new chapter in its life.
The release of their self-titled album with EMI, accompanied by a nationwide tour, marked Swarathma out as a band to watch out for on the indie music scene. Critics hailed the band for their incorporation of diverse styles into an accessible pop sound. Palash Krishna Mehrotra, who was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone India at the time, had reviewed the album and remembers the band’s energy at their album release gig in Delhi in 2009, nearly a year after they won the Radio City contest. “It was at QBA in Connaught Place, and the audience was just transfixed watching the band. But more than just listening to the album, I realised they were meant to be experienced live because of the highly visual nature of their performances.” Swarathma songs like ‘Ee Bhoomi’, ‘Patte Saare’ and ‘Pyar Ke Rang’ were becoming popular among listeners, and winning them an audience that cut across regions and tastes.
The band started to make efforts to expand, seeking out new projects and opportunities. In 2010, they applied and were selected for the Soundpad project, an initiative by British Council to select four original bands from India to work with producer John Leckie, who has worked with Radiohead, Muse, Simple Minds and the recently reunited Stone Roses. The selection resulted in a hectic tour of the UK in 2009, put together by British Council, during which the band honed their theatrics further playing at a diverse set of venues—The Arc, and The Great Escape Festival in Brighton, the University of Westminster and other venues in Cardiff and London. “Unlike most bands, Swarathma makes an effort to tour extensively,” said Malik, when asked about the reasons for the band’s success. “This not only exposes them to a diverse audience each time, but subjects them to a rigour which tremendously helps evolve the chemistry within their music”.
For an Indian band, getting an album released is a difficult enough task; few can muster the logistics of more than a few shows outside their hometown. Swarathma manages this—their most recent tour, Restless, saw them travel to ten cities, among them Delhi, Lucknow, Bangalore, Mysore, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai and Kolkata. The band is also canny in the branding of their shows, unabashed about their efforts at promoting themselves. “Anything which involved three cities or more at a continuous stretch started getting branded as a tour,” said Jishnu. While this might sound like overreaching, Swarathma believes that in an unformed music market like India, making your own rules and definitions isn’t such a bad idea. Thus each tour was built up and given a name—Pyar Ke Rang, Coast to Coast, Uttar Bharat, Down Under and then, apt for the band’s hyperactive schedule, Restless.
Swarathma also began to make their presence felt online—band members blogged while on tours and interacted with fans on Facebook and Twitter. Vasu also created a series of comic strips for the blog under the title ‘Durathma’, inspired by backstage stories (he plans to publish a complete series some day). Jishnu, who has experience in corporate marketing, helped conceive social media campaigns and tie-ups with music companies like Gibson guitars. “In today’s environment, bands can’t say they don’t understand social media or understate its relevance,” said Jishnu. In perhaps their most innovative campaign yet, to promote their album Topiwalleh, the band introduced the ‘Digi Topi’ on Facebook. Fans could download a limited number of tracks for free if they allowed an application to attach a topi to a photo of their choice, and then used that photo as their profile picture. “The fact that they’ve become so prominent in such a short period of time definitely means that they are doing something right”, said Bobin James, ex-editor of Rolling Stone India. “And they have always come together as a tight package which has helped enhance their music”.
This professionalism helped Swarathma at the Jack Daniel’s Annual Indian Rock Awards in 2010, a nationwide competition where the judging process combines voting by both a jury and the public—the band won awards for Song, Album and Band of the Year. They had arrived on the live music circuit, playing between 70 and 80 shows a year around the country. What had started off as just a distraction for a group of students in Mysore had developed into a full-fledged career.
AT THE GIG AT IHC, people in the crowd were soon swaying to ‘Ee Bhoomi’ from Swarathma’s debut album. The Kannada lyrics were no barrier to the Delhi audience—it was clear that the song was about a love for the earth. Vasu, with the light-footed energy of an excited child, was hopping from one end of the stage to another, only stopping before his microphone to sing or speak. Jishnu played the perfect sidekick, caricaturing politicians in his faux Bihari accent. “Haan toh deviyon aur sajjanon, bacchon aur boodhon,” he said, pausing to let the crowd laugh uproariously. “Kripya haath oopar karein, kyunki ab bhajan ka samay aa gaya hai. (Ladies and gentlemen, young and old, please raise your hands, it’s time for a bhajan).” The audience obeyed—one by one, hands were raised, fists pumped with the beat.
Through the show, Pavan would occasionally dig into a cane basket out of which, like a magician, he produced accompanying instruments such as his kanjira, hand cymbals and a conch, which he blew on the outro of ‘Yeshu Allah aur Krishna’. Finally, as the band slipped into Topiwalleh’s title track, the topi appeared. The band members reached into their pockets and, with practiced ease, removed topis and flipped them over their heads. The song’s mid-tempo reggae beat kept up the energy, while the lyrics took aim at the political establishment. “Maala pe maala japna/Maal ko andar karna (Telling prayer beads while hoarding wealth)” and “Din main toh sab hain gyaani/Raat main chor ki naani (By day everyone’s a preacher, by night they’re the thief’s grandmother),” sang Vasu, and the audience lapped it up, delighted to hear their favourite targets ridiculed. And then the band approached the evening’s emotional crescendo with the ominous ‘Koorane’, which opens with Vasu howling like an animal, before a thudding guitar riff sets in. Inspired by Kannada folklore, the lyrics are a call to delve into oneself and let go of the metaphorical beast within. As the performance drew to a close, the audience seemed lost in a haze of dreamy smiles and gentle laughter.
“Swarathma has always been a very smart band,” said Amit Kilam of Indian Ocean, recalling the time he first saw them at the Radio City contest finals. “Most musicians fall into the trap of just making music alone. There are other things—marketing, design, PR, fan engagement—all of which are very important, though not equally important to making music. They have been active on these things right from an early age. Add to it the fact that any successful band has always had a great live act, which is something Swarathma has managed to nail really well.” Much has been said in the media and in the music community about the band’s costumes and their stage act, unusual in a scene where musicians are usually seen walking onstage in jeans and T-shirts. “There is a widespread mentality among bands, especially heavy metal bands, that anybody who starts dressing up or putting up an act on stage is a sellout,” said Bobin James.
This doesn’t perturb Swarathma in the least. Vasu believes that their stagecraft is “a natural extension of their personalities”. He grew up in a family devoted to creative expression, and later watched—and helped—his brother Raghu of The Raghu Dixit Project, develop an artistic persona that complemented his music. Both Vasu and Pavan have a background in theatre, and have dabbled in street theatre and mime. “For a theatre artist, getting on stage is a special occasion that calls for a preparation to make a visual impact as well,” said Pavan.
But while their visual style might ensure that they are noticed, not everyone’s sold on Swarathma’s music. “The important question that should concern any band is the strength of their music,” said Samrat Bee, a veteran of the independent music scene, who also plays under the stage name Audio Pervert. “Swarathma has been making good music, but they have still got to reach a stage where it can be said that they have come up with a genuinely original sound”.
An important part of any band’s journey is the evolution of a sound and style that become its signatures. While Swarathma’s amalgam of Indian folk rhythms and Western rock and pop grooves recall ventures like Indian Ocean and The Raghu Dixit Project, they have nevertheless drawn their own fan base with instantly infectious tunes that take on social issues, sharp marketing acumen and a peppy stage act.
“For me, what would be interesting to see is how well Swarathma manages to bring out the individual musical expression of each band member,” said Kilam, who produced the band’s debut album and has been a mentor and critic ever since. “The next step that Swarathma should now take is to bring out that expression to move to the next level, and they are capable of doing that.”