Avial (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Avial is a traditional Kerala dish. It is central to Malayali cuisine, has a recipe and at Malayali feasts, served on plantain leaves, occupies pride of place. In as much as it is recipe-based, avial is not a stickler for the same. It is seen as prepared from whatever vegetables you have in the kitchen. In colloquial Malayalam, something resembling avial also alludes to an element of disarray and absence of perfection. Arguably therefore, avial is life as it is. A night in Kolkata, sometime in 2009 or immediately thereafter, I realized that a rock band had transformed forever the link between music and my mother tongue. Almost a decade later, while visiting Kerala, I managed to meet the members of Avial. This article written from a fan’s point of view, attempts to explore the context which birthed Avial, the early years leading to their debut album, what their sound meant and what stands between them and a second album.

Avial / Phoenix Market City, Bengaluru (Photo: Pixel Monk / courtesy Avial)

With annual festivals dedicated to classical music, Thiruvananthapuram is unlikely home for rock. Cold shouldered locally and living as they did in a corner of India, removed from the musical scene of the metros – fans of alternative genres of music in Thiruvananthapuram had to stretch to access their fix. While many stayed content with rock acquired for the heck of being branded hip, some plunged into it seriously. A handful of rock’s followers thought of music as potential career. Bands mushroomed. High point was becoming regular, paid act at the five star-luxury hotel in Kovalam. Those not making it so settled for a hotel in town. Life wasn’t easy. “ I was lucky to come from a well to do family. Still my mother would sometimes jokingly say that while others worked and brought money home I was borrowing from her to keep my career alive,’’ Tony John said laughing.

Compared to this Kochi was more happening place for western music. In the days of Tony’s school and college education, Kochi even had a famous band that cut an album – 13AD (the city would follow that up with another talented act – Motherjane). In retrospect, what everyone may have underestimated was the value of stretch. Who would have thought for instance, that one day, there would be a recording studio at Tony’s house in Thiruvananthapuram? The band Tony initially played with was called Karizma. They sang in English and performed covers of songs originally sung by well-known bands overseas. By 1996, it was disbanded. Soon after Karizma wound up, John P. Varkey who was the band’s guitarist, moved to Bengaluru. He played classical guitar there as part of a trio. In 2000-2001 some of the band members reunited under different circumstances.

Avial / Tony John / live at Phoenix Market City, Bengaluru (Photo: Pixel Monk / courtesy Avial)

Now squeezed by the city and portions of it threatened by pollution, Vellayani, is a picturesque freshwater lake in Thiruvananthapuram. It is the sort of environment creative minds craving an element of solitude away from city, would drift to. Among those choosing the area around Vellayani for base, was the Daksha Sheth Dance Company. According to the group’s website, its mission is to create international quality performances by integrating contemporary dance with traditional movement art; theatrical design, innovative design, innovative sound and state of the art visuals. The dance company wanted a drum and guitar ensemble for one of its productions. In 2000-2001, this brought Tony and John to Vellayani. When John left for Sweden, Rex Vijayan stepped in. Sometime later, when John returned, Tony introduced Rex to him. Looking back, this coming together of the three musicians was the seed of Avial. Working with Daksha Sheth Dance Company, they got opportunity to travel abroad. “ The overseas trip was an eye opener. We realized that people were appreciative of original music, sung in one’s own language,’’ Tony said. It was reason to reflect on the tradition of rock bands from Kerala singing in English.

If you meditate on it, you will realize that a lot more goes into language than meets the eye. That’s why languages are different as are the styles in which they were originally shaped into song. “ Doing rock in Malayalam is not easy. You have to find the right word and sentence length,’’ Tony said. One of the bands John had been part of earlier was Jigsaw Puzzle. They brought out an album but it didn’t click. Among the songs Jigsaw Puzzle performed was Nada Nada. It was in Malayalam and felt like folk music. “ The use of local folk music in rock was John’s vision,’’ Rex said. Both Tony and Rex had heard Nada Nada before. They had been impressed by it. Pradeep Kallipurayath – according to Tony, he worked for SS Music (a TV channel) then – wished to feature the song on video. John tuned the song. As important as tune, is overall sound. For discerning bands, their sound is aural signature. “ Rex is an amazing music producer,’’ Tony said. Rex did the music arrangement for Nada Nada and Tony worked the turntable. The track was produced at the recording studio Tony had built at his house. The video accompanying the song was shot in Irinjalakkuda.  It was subsequently released on SS Music. “ The response was amazing. Nobody knew Malayalam could be sung this way,’’ Tony said. Pradeep suggested that the band have a name. Rex came up with Avial. The name stuck. At this point Avial had all of one song.

Avial / Rex Vijayan (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Rex was born and brought up in Kollam, 64 kilometers north of Thiruvananthapuram. His father Albert Vijayan worked as a music composer and arranger for the Malayalam film industry. His mother liked to sing. Born into a family given to music, Rex started off playing the piano. “ But I got bored,’’ he said an early evening at a cafe in Kochi. It was late September, less than ten days since I met Tony in Thiruvananthapuram. Bored of the piano, Rex taught himself how to play the guitar. He initially played in “ random hotel bands.’’ Then he joined Motherjane. Unknown to him, where he was heading for – the place that would spawn his best creativity yet – was a room in Tony’s house, that recording studio. Growing up in an environment filled with music, Rex was familiar with studios and recording technology. “ I started recording when I was in eighth standard,’’ he said. Rex is credited with creating the signature sound of Avial. It is a sound that is rich, wholesome and quirky. In times of bands choosing utterly polished aural signature and sometimes sounding flat as a result, Avial dared to go with a pulsating bass reminiscent of the psychedelia of the 1960s. “ We knew that as a generation born and alive in the period we belonged to, we had this ability to bridge a variety of aural signatures in music,’’ Tony said. While bass made the band’s music feel like a flow, the quirkiness was courtesy unconventional aural inputs providing a graffiti-like visual quality to Nada Nada. Once as band members and friends sat together, one of them – Reeba Paul – happened to make a phone call. Upon not getting through she spoke frustrated about the recorded message from the telephone exchange: you are in queue; please wait. It struck a chord. The sentence uttered by Reeba and textured to sound like the voice from the exchange, made it into Nada Nada; as did the call of a rooster. It is hard to intellectualize relevance for such audio inputs. The right word seems – quirky or as George Mallory is said to have quipped when asked why he wished to climb Everest: because it is there. Notwithstanding all these audio inputs, for Malayali listening to Nada Nada, the trigger to sit up and take notice was something else.

Avial / live in Kolkata (Photo: courtesy Avial)

For a year after the Nada Nada video appeared on SS Music and began making waves, Avial didn’t do much. Asked if there was any live performance of the song, Tony said, “ Maybe there was one. I recall a show in Kannur, where we sang one or two songs.’’ Then one of Tony’s friends gave money for the band to start work on an album. Encouraged, Rex who was then based in Kochi shifted to Thiruvananthapuram. For the next three and a half years, the band worked diligently on its album. Except for the final mastering, the rest of the recording work was done at Tony’s home. Rex had a room to stay there. “ When we stumbled on to something interesting, we went to the adjacent studio to record,’’ Rex said. The total number of songs worked upon across the three and a half years, was just eight. It betrays the amount of attention and work that went in as combination of music by band and further fiddling in the studio. “ I see the computer as another band member,’’ Rex said. They wished for sound signature capable of long shelf life. One of the interesting outcomes of this period was the creation of multiple versions of some of Avial’s songs. From them, the best versions were chosen. “ Throughout this work, our focus was not on the market. It was not on selling the music. It was to get the sound right,’’ Tony said. Among those who had provided music for the dance productions by Daksha Sheth Dance Company was Mumbai-based bass guitarist Naresh Kamath. When Avial needed a good bass guitarist to play for the album, the band contacted Naresh. “ We sent him samples of what we had created and he was immediately interested,’’ Rex said. Naresh introduced the band to Phat Phish Records, a music company operating from Mumbai. The final mastering of the eight songs was done in Mumbai. Phat Phish also brought out a video of Nada Nada; the song as featured in that video is probably its most popular version.

Avial / live at Blue Frog (Photo: courtesy Avial)

In 2009, music label EMI brought out a compilation of rock songs by Indian bands. The CD was called India Rocks. The first volume was released in 2009; the playlist included Nada Nada. Around this time, freelance journalist was at Music World in Kolkata, looking for CDs of Bengali rock, when the salesman recommended India Rocks as well. That night before sleeping I listened to the album on my portable CD player and was stunned by Nada Nada. For Malayalis fond of rock and other genres of western music like blues and folk (freelance journalist among them), there had always been a major gap in the local style of singing. Popular Malayalam music was trapped in compulsion to endorse social order. Melody was important and melody in turn, was usually based on Indian classical and devotional music. Either way, the songs got lauded for their structure, lyrics and delivery but stayed limited in their capacity to convey variety in human emotion especially when juxtaposed on vastly changed times. Visceral connection was absent. On the other hand in blues for instance, the rawness of human emotion – sorrow, anger – all these are captured in an idiom that is definitely the stuff of music but is content not to be classical or distanced from singer / listener. It links directly. In western music, blues has lent itself well to rock, as did folk. Both Tony and Rex said that discussion on what Avial’s idiom means is beyond them. They navigated their way through the band’s first album with music and sound signature as compass. They hadn’t imagined any of what people (freelance journalist included) read into their work. I could not find a clear response from them describing the band’s sound; it appeared the stuff of exploring and discovering using sounds already heard as reference points. Among external influences, both Tony and Rex said that band members had been fans of Linkin Park. Having mentioned Linkin Park, Rex thought some more and added Incubus and Pearl Jam. Back in time, motive if any appeared confined to finding a solution for the limited audience English rock music fetched in Kerala. As musicians loving the genre, they wanted to break out of such restricted appeal. Singing in Malayalam had seemed potential answer. What made Malayalam click in rock was folk.

Avial / live in Kuwait (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Resonant of bygone times and rich in its interplay with nature, Malayalam folk music can be soulful. Yet in hindsight, one would argue that even Malayalam folk songs – so capable of conveying sorrow, sense of loss and angst – fall short of the total bandwidth of emotions contemporary urban lifestyle, consumerism, globalization et al unleash. But what if, folk and rock joined hands? That was the brilliance in John P. Varkey’s vision. He was based in Thrissur, a little over 80 kilometers north of Kochi and some 280 kilometers north of Thiruvananthapuram. For folk song, John got in touch with an upcoming lyricist. Engandiyur is a village in the Chavakkad taluk of Thrissur. Engandiyoor Chandrasekharan is a writer and lyricist hailing from this place. According to a 2012 article on him in The Hindu newspaper, his studies discontinued after class 10, Chandrasekharan went into his family business of making furniture and wooden sculptures. What fascinated him however was literature and acting. In the article, he says of his writing style, “ I use ordinary language. I write what I understand. That’s why people like them.’’ John asked Chandrasekharan to write some songs in Malayalam, which Jigsaw Puzzle could sing. “ He told me to write as I wished. There was no brief in terms of subject,’’ Chandrasekharan told this blog, mid-October 2018. Nada Nada was one of the songs Chandrasekharan penned so. “ I imagined it as a journey; you walk seeing many things,’’ he said. Tuned by John and powered by Avial’s rock music the song exploded to being an anthem. “ I didn’t expect such popular affection for that song. What happened just amazed me,’’ Chandrasekharan said. Nada Nada and Avial changed his life. Once a writer of lyrics for small films, he is now an established lyricist in the Malayalam film industry. What we haven’t mentioned yet in Avial’s brew, is the significance of voice.

According to Rex, Anandraj Benjamin Paul grew up overseas. The two met when Rex joined a band called Overdrive. “ In real life I don’t think Anandraj can read and write Malayalam,’’ Rex said. It offers insight into not just Avial’s unique predicament in Malayalam rock but also what the idea of being Keralite means these days of globalization and diaspora. Anandraj’s raspy rendition of Chandrasekharan’s folksy lyrics was the blues connection long missed in Malayalam songs. It confidently, almost defiantly took on popular perceptions of vocalization in Malayalam music and inspired the imagery of anyone singing their heart out. It removed intermediary inhabiting space between feeling and singing. That night in Kolkata, I felt exactly what Tony would tell me almost a decade later: nobody knew Malayalam could be sung this way. Adding to overall impression was freight train of a band in the background. Interestingly, despite one of Avial’s strengths seeming the skilled craftsmanship of its musicians, Rex said, “ we are not a band of exceptional musicians.’’ Posted on YouTube, viewers from across the world have sometimes commented below their videos that they don’t understand a word of what is being sung but the music is excellent.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Like all genres of music, rock too is an interpretation. The late G Aravindan was one of Kerala’s most respected film makers. In 1979, he made a film for children called Kummatty. It won that year’s state award for best children’s film. The music for the film was composed by M.G. Radhakrishnan. Kavalam Narayana Panicker wrote the lyrics; he also sang them. A memorable song from the film was Karukare Kaarmukil. Aravindan wasn’t a maker of mainstream, commercial films. His films were realistic and belonged more to the parallel movement in Indian cinema. The song in question was meant to accompany scenes of dark monsoon clouds and approaching rain. According to Kavalam Sreekumar, Narayana Panicker’s son and a well-known singer in his own right, the song was based on Samantha Malahari raga, which in turn finds prominence in Kerala’s tradition of classical music called Sopana Sangeetham. This tradition which developed in the state’s temples has distinct ragas and also ragas commonly used in South Indian Carnatic music. Sopanam – Wikipedia describes it as “ a happy blending of Vedic, folk and tribal music’’ – shares a similarity with Hindustani classical music in that both traditions have ragas meant for singing at particular times of the day. Malahari is a Carnatic morning raga capable of providing a sense of calm. It is associated with the rainy season. Narayana Panicker wrote the lyrics of Karukare Karmukil with Samantha Malahari in mind; M G Radhakrishnan tuned it. Tony had a friend from Kottayam with whom he used to jam. The friend had a habit of singing Karukare Karmukil from Kummatty. Its haunting melody and folk flavor caught the band’s interest. Rex was hearing the song for the first time. “ I remember waking up next morning with that melody still in mind,’’ he said.

Avial / Benjamin (Binny) Isaac (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Intrigued, the band proceeded to work on a version. The friend who sang the song had sung it slow. The slow pace remained tempo for Avial’s interpretation of the work by Kavalam Narayana Panicker and M. G. Radhakrishnan, both acknowledged masters in their space. “ Played slow and with rock elements added, the song acquired the feel of grunge rock. Had it been played faster at its original pace, I suspect that within rock, it may have sounded clichéd. It may have ended up just another rock and roll song,’’ Rex said. Crucially, aside from slowing the tempo, the band maintained the song’s melody. “ I don’t think I have heard another melody like that,’’ Rex said. The resultant Karukare has stayed a fine example of Avial’s creativity. Even as the music arrangement is powerfully alternate rock and electronic, it retains the tenderness and mischievous tenor of the original. It broadly retains the original tune, uses rock music in a measured way (it is a song with moments of high decibel music and fade to quietness) and also manages to create the atmospherics of gathering rain, a vignette of existence that is typical Kerala. For purists, it probably remains debatable whether rock is apt format to showcase the devotion and melody associated with Sopanam. Sreekumar said that his father always welcomed creativity and considered Avial’s interpretation as another version. “ I think the underlying reality is that it is a simple, beautiful song. As long as you stay loyal to the melody, it remains beautiful no matter what the style you sing it in,’’ Sreekumar said. Indeed one of the significant aspects of Karukare is sense of unchanged melody – like a slice of timeless old – with rock building a brooding, contemporary envelope around it. Any which way you look at it, it is fantastic recipe. In 2008, Avial’s first album – named after the band – was released to critical acclaim. “ Even though we started off with Nada Nada, the main element was the album. Songs like Chekele, Aadu Pambe, Ettam Pattu – they played a huge role. We started performing because of the album,’’ Rex said. As with all bands, behind the scenes, there were losses. John left quite early in the production process. Then just ahead of the album’s launch, Anandraj moved to the US. Tony, who had until then sung back-up, took over the lead vocals for the band’s live performances that followed. But he knew Anandraj set the bar pretty high. The band’s first live performance post album-launch was at Eastwind music festival in Delhi. It was also drummer, Mithun Puthanveetil’s first show with the band.

Avial / Mithun Puthanveetil (Photo: courtesy Avial)

At Vazhuthacaud in Thiruvananthapuram are two bungalows long familiar to the public as official residence of ministers. In one of them, on the first floor, was an old, weather beaten bass drum, which had followed its owner around, a reminder of his early days in music. Rooms nearby represented the other end of the journey – they had fully kitted out drum sets, equipment for programming and old cymbals, cracked and broken, retained by artiste to add variety in sound. At the time of writing, Mithun’s father, Kadannappalli Ramachandran, was a minister in Kerala’s government. Mithun’s mother liked to sing; the family loved music. The old drum had been acquired years ago, when a young Mithun became obsessed with a drum set he saw at a shop in Kottayam. At his father’s request, the shopkeeper sold Mithun a cheap drum he had in stock. It had no pedals, hi-hat or cymbals; Mithun had to improvise all that.  “ I like seeing an array of drums before me,’’ he said. Mostly self-taught, he however had one teacher he met at Kochi and owes much to – Mathew Joy. By around the time Avial was readying their first album, Mithun had become drummer for the Thiruvananthapuram based-metal band, Rage. Although drumming for a metal band, Mithun’s natural inclination was towards genres like funk and jazz.  Nithin Vijayanath – then guitarist for Rage – was Rex’s friend; Rex used to help the band with music arrangement and mixing. Rage kept a practice room near Keshavadasapuram in the city. Mithun fondly remembered a jam session with Rex (he was on bass) there as first hint of potential chemistry. Among those leaving Avial after work on the first album concluded, was their drummer – C.I. Joffy. Mithun stepped in to fill the gap. The jam session in the practice room was arguably the second turning point in Mithun’s journey in music. The first had been his introduction to western pop music as a kid; he recalls touching the speakers of his National Panasonic audio player and feeling the pulsating rhythm. During his childhood at Iringal near Vatakara and later years in Kannur (including his earliest bands), Mithun’s intake of music had been eclectic – there was Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and English. Avial’s rock – sung in Malayalam – resembled best of both worlds. There was the rhythm from those speakers and the language he was born to.

Avial / live in Kozhikode (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Naresh also left Avial; he has since been replaced by Benjamin (Binny) Isaac. An accomplished bass player who has played with several bands and musicians / singers from the film industry, Binny is Avial’s oldest band member in terms of age. He spent his early years in Thiruvananthapuram, where working with his church choir introduced him to classical guitar and piano. His two brothers were award winning classical guitarists in their college days. Guitar and keyboard available at home, meant ability to train diligently. For lay music listeners like this writer, bass would seem challenging because its trajectory runs distinctly apart from progression of melody. “ For me transition to bass was relatively easy because classical guitar entails playing melody and bass at once. I was already used to the technique required,’’ Binny said. In 1986, around the same time he started playing bass, Binny’s family shifted to Kochi. Ten years later – in 1997 – he joined his first rock band called Nine Hours. They sang at a hotel in Thiruvananthapuram. According to Binny, these years saw quite a few musicians and singers from Thrissur play with bands elsewhere in Kerala, including in Thiruvananthapuram. There were also youngsters who had picked up western music in the Middle East, shifting to Kerala. It was a period of churn. From Nine Hours, Binny moved to Overdrive, a classic rock band which had in its fold Anandraj and Joffi (as mentioned earlier, Rex too had a stint with them). They played at the luxury resort in Kovalam. Binny was thus known pretty early to the talent that would converge as Avial. When Nada Nada made its debut as a single, Binny was still with Overdrive. Having known John, Tony, Rex, Anandraj and others, he had an inkling of what musical idiom lay in store. He liked what he heard. “ It was an experiment. I don’t think anyone did it as well as Avial did. The song was distinctly rock. It was also distinctly Malayalam. Anandraj’s style of singing played a role in ensuring that,” Binny said.  When Naresh got busy with his own work in Mumbai, the band asked if Binny would step in as replacement. His first live performance with Avial was in 2008-2009 in Mauritius and Reunion Island.

Although critically acclaimed, Avial enjoyed a mixed bag of commercial success. The band’s debut album produced by Phat Phish was to be distributed by Sony BMG. According to Tony, the album sold some 50,000 copies. But following disagreement between Phat Phish and Song BMG, distribution too was done by Phat Phish; that may have limited the album’s reach. Aside from initial signing amount received, the band got no royalties. “ Phat Phish folded up later,’’ he said. The main source of revenue for the band has been live performances. In that market, they remain among the better paid acts. But given to singing original songs, their repertoire of work is limited – about 14 songs. It is enough to perform on stage but probably not enough when imagined as band’s lifetime work. What is remarkable is how some of these songs continue to be heard by fans. By 2018, Nada Nada for instance, was almost 15 years old. The song remains Malayalam rock’s ambassador to the world. About three years ago, Avial was featured on BBC. Ettam Pattu and Aadu Pambe were played on BBC Radio, Tony said.

Avial / live in Thiruvananthapuram (Photo: courtesy Avial)

In Kerala there are still those who refer to Avial’s music as `fusion.’ That is cavalier. The best approach is to call them a rock band and their work as rock or plain, music. One reason I pitch description so is that from vocals to their sound in rock, the Avial package has been more wholesome and committed to genre than later entrants into the same space. There isn’t any pleasing the market, in Avial’s work. The studio may have played a big role in shaping Avial’s sound but the band made no effort to sound sweet. Neither Tony nor Rex could describe accurately how the band’s sound or that creative drive behind the first album evolved. The indescribability of those times is one of the concerns playing in their minds as they contemplate a second album. They may have succeeded in recreating the atmospherics of rain for Karukare but can they recreate the madness which made them a band in the first place and fueled them to one hell of a debut album? The period preceding Nada Nada and their debut album had been a very unsure stage in the careers of band members. Avial was a cathartic release born from that. “ What keeps us going is our passion. You can’t force creativity,’’ Tony said thoughtfully. Both lead vocalist and guitarist concurred that the band’s preferred idiom would continue to be rock and folk. “ Going ahead, the only thing to worry about our music is whether we like it or not. We are that sort of people who get bored of our own music,’’ Rex said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was written in October 2018, long after Avial became an established rock band.)      


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

If you are middle aged and grew up liking rock music, then you would be a worried person.

Not only have quite a few talented artistes departed in the last couple of years but it is also a fact that replenishment of talent of that caliber has been slow, if at all there is. You could argue technical aspects can be taught and replicated. What is irreplaceable is heart. That plays a big role in creativity for if creativity was all about technical excellence and little else then it would be as dry as owning the latest gadget and claiming to be cool just by that. Firmly lodged in the grasp of business models, fewer artistes are convincingly sensitive these days. We are left with songs that are like the aural version of packaged goodies with nothing for depth or hook to chew on. To compensate for the coldness in contemporary music, we then have well-orchestrated posts and photos on social media to make artistes seem sensitive. In contrast, many of the departed living in era without exploded media, responded to their times. They noticed a non-digital entity called people, held concerts, sang about prevailing social conditions; they touched a chord. When an artiste notices the times and responds to it, you are left with something to reflect on. And sometimes, although the response may be to artiste’s specific environment, the song bears a metaphorical value that exceeds immediate audience. Lyrics and tunes, they linger.

The recent demise of Irish singer Dolores O’Riordan was a loss at several levels. At 46, she was too young to die. She was the singer behind a clutch of memorable numbers, the best known of the lot being Zombie. That song performed by Dolores and her band, The Cranberries, was a protest song based on the 1993 Warrington bombings carried out by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). However, the way the song worked on me, was different. I live in crowded, competitive environment capable of injecting the battles of the outside into the mind. What hit home were those three words in the lyrics: in your head. Led on, I found the name for my predicament: Zombie. To me, that song is an anthem for life hijacked; when it isn’t your voice that you hear within but the war cries of an aggressive, competitive world outside, colonizing the inner self. In your head they are fighting, in your head they are dying – that’s a MRI scan of brain besieged. Richly metaphorical and sung as effectively as Dolores did, her voice angry and cracking at the utterance of zombie, those simple lines easily cross borders and immediate context. Contemporary Indian music gave me no such balm for the soul. It neither casts deep for inspiration nor does it articulate our state. From a thousand miles away, in an oblique, metaphorical manner, Dolores and her song about an altogether different subject provided words and voice for what I felt.

The beauty of middle age is that it liberates you to embrace what you really like with no need to pretend for belonging to this group or that. The vault of accumulated music in your head receives a churn and you are pleasantly surprised seeing what endured life’s passing phases. From Zombie to Linger and more, Dolores was among those who endured in my head.

Rest in peace.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Remembering Freddie Mercury

July 1985.

News of the concert had been brewing for a while.

In that time, the newspapers had made Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats names to know. I knew nothing more of them. All-knowing by instant search wasn’t yet in. Google’s birth was another thirteen years away; easily accessed Internet even more. Being curious about universe and welcoming of world, I memorized the names for conversation with musically inclined friends. Geldof was the main organizer of the upcoming Live Aid, a massive rock concert to help victims of the famine in Ethiopia. It was to be held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. The event was to be broadcast live across 150 countries; India was one of them. Some of the world’s biggest bands were heading straight to our living room. Television in India was young those days; colour TV younger still. There was only one broadcaster. Single broadcaster catering to the tastes of 780 million people (India’s population in 1985) meant that something fitting your taste on screen was both fleeting and a household event. Rock concert on TV was very rare. That year – 1985 – had seen the release of Brothers in Arms, the album that made Dire Straits a phenomenon. Thanks to Thiruvananthapuram’s music collectors and the network of the interested, we used to make up for Google’s absence and somehow access the music. I liked Dire Straits; they were expected to play at Live Aid as was Led Zeppelin in a much awaited reunion. D-Day was July 13. We watched the telecast together, as a family.

What I remember best from that telecast is what has since become famous as the greatest live performance in the history of rock music. We gazed in amazement at the TV screen as the people gathered at London’s Wembley Stadium (over 70,000 were present that day) raised their hands in the air and clapped in unison to Queen’s Radio Ga Ga. Then Freddie Mercury put them through a few vocal improvisations and they sang as he did, note for note. By the time the band was concluding its set with We Are the Champions, the Wembley crowd was swaying like a forest in the wind. On stage, Freddie Mercury was brilliant. It would be revealed later that Queen’s sound engineer may have tampered with the volume limit assigned to speakers, making the band the loudest act of the day at Wembley. If so, the band was unrepentant about it. Unlike many of the other bands at Live Aid who reportedly took their performance casually, Queen had come prepared and rehearsed. They intended to leave an impression. They did just that. Journalists writing on rock music have since compared it to one of those defining moments a lifetime of existence gravitates to. Freddie on stage at Live Aid was in such a moment.

Live Aid is supposed to have reached over a billion people. The world’s human population in 1985 was 4.8 billion. That would put the event’s TV viewership at close to a quarter of humanity, in days preceding Internet, Facebook, Twitter and human swarms trolling to enforce `like.’  Twenty minutes of Queen was Live Aid’s undisputed high point. As many would conclude later, Queen at Live Aid is rock music’s greatest live performance yet. Rock bands connect to audience through the technical proficiency of their musicians and through their front man. Queen was well balanced in this regard. Those writing on Queen have noted that none of its four members – Freddie, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon – could dominate individually, a trend capable of destabilizing bands. Further, each of them has contributed to writing one or the other of Queen’s many hits. Yet as often happens in rock music, the charisma of the front man influences a band’s perception by the public and Queen was no exception. Freddie Mercury was an electrifying act. Born Furrokh Bulsara on September 5, 1946 in Zanzibar, his father hailed from Bulsar, also known as Valsad, a town 150 km north of Mumbai. His mother was from Mumbai. Freddie spent most of his childhood in India (he attended school in Panchgani, 240 km away from Mumbai) before moving back to Zanzibar and then in the wake of the Zanzibar Revolution, onward to England. On November 24, 1991, a little over five years since that day at Wembley for Live Aid, Freddie Mercury passed away due to complications arising from AIDS. He was 45 years old. In 1996, at the opening of a photo exhibition on the life of Queen’s lead singer, the band’s lead guitarist, Brian May, would say (video of quote available on YouTube),“ to be truthful I am against recreating Queen in any other form as I think without Freddie it would always be something less than what it was.’’

Live Aid was also an opportunity to see U2, two years before they became a smash hit (and one of my favorite bands) with the album, `Joshua Tree.’ Queen and U2 warmed up to me differently. U2 peaked with my own advent to rock music-loving age, my craving in ever lonelier world for music as companion. I fell in love with Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For the first time I heard it. It remains a favorite even now. Which seeker in the head can resist such a song? Queen on the other hand, took time to connect. Notwithstanding their popularity, I found the architecture of Queen’s music stiff and set in an ecosystem that was very European and British.  They felt like a group hang-out. You bonded over their songs. For example, it isn’t music you seek in We Will Rock You, a song so evocative of tribe; you seek belonging. Long after Live Aid, I had friends who swore by Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock You. I found Bohemian Rhapsody an engaging mix; it was baroque, operatic and rock. But a sucker for the traveling spirit, I wanted something less rooted. Perhaps something less grand and more portable? As a young journalist in Mumbai enjoying life’s early flush of hard earned income, I also remember sitting in pubs and singing along to I Want To Break Free. I outgrew that. More to my taste were songs like Breakthru and The Invisible Man. But over time, it was another Queen number, A Kind Of Magic, which remained in head enduring life’s ageing process. I love its barreling sense of momentum, soaring vocals and surface-skimming lead guitar; it gives me a feeling of hurtling along to somewhere and nowhere in particular, all at once. Above all I love the unbridled energy that characterizes Freddie’s rendition of this song at the July 12, 1986 concert in Wembley, a year after Live Aid. It is an image of absolute confidence. The video of the performance (available on YouTube) reminds you of Live Aid. It smacks of sensing opportunity. Just past the 45th second as Freddie launches into the song, he looks towards the audience, through the haze caused by the fog machine, tad uncertain of what to expect. A minute and couple of faint smiles later, he looks to the camera and you see that glint of acknowledgement; he knows the audience is in the mood for magic.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Twenty five years after Freddie Mercury’s demise, at a book fair near Navi Mumbai’s Vashi railway station I picked up Lesley Ann-Jones’s 2012 biography of the singer. My curiosity for it was the same as for a book on running, climbing, cycling, swimming or any such activity. Why should rock music be seen differently? Its all life; its all universe. Among other details, the book noted that Freddie’s first band was the `Hectics,’ formed at school in Panchgani by a 12 year-old Freddie and his schoolmates. An artistically inclined person given to sketching, he later took a diploma in art and graphic design, in London. His idol in rock music was Jimi Hendrix. According to the book, as successful rock star, Freddie rarely elaborated on his early years in Africa and India. On the other hand, it suggests that prolonged separation from his parents at so early and sensitive a stage in life, thanks to his schooling in distant India, may have impacted Freddie and contributed to the performer and person he became later in life. For long, Queen was a favorite with rock fans in Mumbai. Now a new generation and their music have taken over. Not to mention, Bollywood. The last big act in town was Justin Bieber (he was born three years after Freddie Mercury died). Movies have been made on artistes like Jim Morrison, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. In 2010 a film was announced on Freddie Mercury’s life. In the years since, the cast and producers underwent change. When last reported in the international media, Egyptian-American actor, Rami Malek, was set to play the role of Freddie.

Live Aid happened 32 years ago.

Had Freddie Mercury been alive, he would turn 71 years old, this September 5, 2017.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)     


Rhythm House at Kala Ghoda, Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Rhythm House at Kala Ghoda, Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

For many years, I worked in South Mumbai, close to Churchgate.

Sometimes too much typing on the computer got to me and I would step out of the newspaper office for diversion.

If I cut across the nearby Oval Maidan and its myriad cricket matches, then fifteen minutes walk away, was Rhythm House. It was a shop in an old building at Kala Ghoda, now the city’s art district thanks to the adjacent Jehangir Art Gallery, the pavement artists, the surrounding heritage architecture and an annual festival in the area with roads closed to traffic and open to arts and crafts. Compared to other shops selling music that arrived and closed during its time, Rhythm House was small. But it was packed with music and movie titles in the physical format. What you couldn’t find on the shelves, you ordered at the desk. I would spend some time here browsing through the collection, clear my head and return to work.

One day, I wrote about Rhythm House. The new century had arrived. Businesses overseas had witnessed massive change through Internet and digitization. The world of book shops for instance, was besieged by question marks. As book shops struggled, I wondered what was happening at Rhythm House. Hence that old story written and published in the newspaper I worked for. It failed to capture well the shop and its predicament. Maybe I hadn’t known Rhythm House long enough to tell a story. I acted in haste. But I remember the owners being concerned of what lay ahead in the fast changing market. Still, if there was anything challenging Rhythm House, it wasn’t visibly alarming for the shop was well stocked and it had customers. During festive season, the traffic built up. Besides, sales or no sales, everyone knew Rhythm House. It was a Mumbai institution.

At Rhythm House you met connoisseurs of music. Once in a while as I hung around the racks hosting music relevant to me, I would hear a customer or two ask the salesmen about specific albums or concert recordings. The salesmen would in turn indulge them in talk about the elusive recently sourced or, which can be sourced. The minor details bringing joy to collectors of music are fascinating. It is portrait by passion. You don’t sense these folks as palpably in cyberspace even though the digital side of everything is marketed as bigger meeting place. In the real world and its shops, you meet people in full and a person in full is person believable. I wrote that article on Rhythm House well over ten years ago. I subsequently became freelance journalist and in my less moneyed avatar, continued to visit Rhythm House but rarely purchased. I found relief just being there amid the music and films although I must admit, not being able to afford was progressively becoming a dampener.

Rhythm House; red board announcing Goodbye Sale (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Rhythm House; red board announcing Goodbye Sale (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

January 1, 2016. Having decided that a multiplex ticket costing Rs 400-500 to see the latest Star Wars movie wasn’t worth the strain on one’s purse, my friend Latha and I decided to go for a walk instead. Decades ago, I had watched the first Star Wars movie at a theatre in Thiruvananthapuram and returned home a fan of Han Solo. I watched the first trilogy. Then I watched Harrison Ford in all those Indiana Jones movies. Those days you could afford visiting the theatre. Now the question isn’t whether you are interested in cinema but whether you can afford multiplexes. I was a fan of Star Wars quitting at a choke point in the system called costly multiplexes. Our evening walk brought us to Kala Ghoda and the Jehangir Art Gallery, which we wished to visit. I think when you age you realize you are a traveller in the universe and therefore entitled to perspective. You find it in art, that’s why the occasional visit to the art gallery engages. As we left the art gallery, we noticed Rhythm House, distinctly less celebratory in appearance despite the festive season. When we drew closer, we saw the red board on its door: Goodbye Sale. I was shocked. Powered by discounts, the innards of the shop had been cleared out in parts. Latha picked up a rare recording of a Hindustani classical vocalist. Bill paid we got out but couldn’t leave. An institution was shutting down. We had no proper camera. So in the dim light, Latha took a photograph of the shop on her cell phone.

Unknown to me, Rhythm House’s closure had been in the media since November 2015. The articles featured musicians, music lovers, music critics, authors and other residents of the city who shared their memories of the iconic establishment. A visit to the shop’s website showed a message. Excerpts: We are the last of our city’s large format music & video stores to yield to the challenges posed by new technologies and piracy. We are set to close for business end of February 2016. We have been in the music business since 1948 and in the video business over the past 30 years or so and closing down is therefore going to be an emotional wrench for us. Many of you have echoed similar sentiments and we thank you for being with us at this difficult time.

I returned the next day to click the photos accompanying this story.

Mumbai’s art district and its music scene won’t be the same without Rhythm House.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

When I was young, the media engaged as access to wider world.

Now it sticks crowded world into everything. No quiet moments of solitude anymore. It is an epidemic of others in your head. My old phone has no Internet; I only text and answer calls. No apps, no Facebook, no anything else I don’t yet know of. Not having a smartphone, my friends assure me, condemns me to oblivion. The world’s business, they warn, is being swept into smartphones by a tsunami of money. Being one with the swarm is the smartest option in life reduced to beehive. It puzzles. `Smart’ owes much to apartness. By which yardstick, thinking independently should be smart. Perhaps there isn’t anything called independence in consumerist world. You go where business goes.

Every time I step into a Mumbai commuter train, I feel disappeared. Everyone has a smartphone. I used a cassette player when train commuters shifted to CD player; a CD player when they moved to MP3 player and now, a MP3 player as they do finger tip-magic on their all-in-one smartphone – it takes calls, types, plays music, screens movies, makes payments, plays games. What doesn’t it do? I hang on to my old phone for the relief of what it doesn’t do. “ What matters is the music and how well you listen to it. Smartphone, MP3, CD or cassette – that’s irrelevant,’’ I argued. My friend was unimpressed. “ How long will you be like this?’’ he asked. Working in a bank, he knows the tsunami has started. They are jamming whole banks into the smart phone. When he speaks so, I picture myself in deep space, waving good bye to planet Earth. You have seen that scene many times in movies – the actor reaches out to you like a drowning individual and then slowly recedes, becoming smaller and smaller (all the while reaching out) till he disappears into inky blackness. I am hurled towards Pluto. Cut! Actually, I should be grateful for having a friend who is concerned. What he told me was for my own good. I was thinking of all this when I boarded the train for my daily rendezvous with fading.

Early evening-trains usually bring a rush of college students. This was a Saturday. The youngsters were there but not many. I took my seat and pulled out my MP3 player from the bag. The young man next to me moved closer to the window; he kept his bag between us. Another of the tech-savvy, keeping distance from the obsolescent, I thought. Relax man, I don’t infect and even if I do it is just this harmless disease called hyposmartivity, entirely curable with a prick to the ego – I wanted to tell him. Then he returned his phone to the bag and pulled out a book. That was when I noticed his phone, very similar to mine. Unable to contain myself, I told him, “ you know I thought I am the only one still walking around with a phone like that.’’  He laughed. “ Yeah, I carry an old one,’’ he said tad sheepishly as nerds do when confronted with their lack of mainstream cool. As he spoke, he glanced around nervously at some of the other seats, where smartphone-totting youngsters sat, glued to their screens.

“ I don’t want a smartphone. I am happy with what I have. But they say I will have to upgrade because our money is going to be managed using smartphones,’’ I said. Despite my guard, my cynicism showed through. It always does, for I feel angry that life is increasingly about swimming with one tide or the other. Those who won’t, should seek exile – that’s the emergent logic. Makes me wonder – what happened to interesting people? You know the sort who felt life by exploring the universe alone. Stay positive, stay positive – I pinched myself. The college student smiled – a sorry you lost but don’t tell me you weren’t warned-smile. “ In my case, I know what smartphones can do. But if I carry one, I won’t study. It is a distraction. So I don’t keep one,’’ the youngster said. What? – I was stunned. For a second, I must have looked like Utpal Dutt’s Bhawani Shankar beholding Amol Palekar’s Ramprasad Dashrathprasad Sharma in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s wonderful film, Gol Maal. I looked at the young man, eyes open wide in admiration. “ Appreciate that, your ability to know what you want and choose accordingly,’’ I said. It was as much encouragement to the other as it was discreet pat on the back for my own eccentricities. That evening on the train, I didn’t hide my MP3 player. I let myself be.

I think that young man will find his way abroad to a fine university. He seemed studious, hard working and committed enough to do that. Having dodged the smartphone to study well, go overseas and make his mark, what will he do next? Side with the swarm and sell me a smarter smartphone? To uncle with love – free ticket to Pluto. Who knows? A few days after this train journey, a good friend, concerned about my obsolescence, put her foot down and said I am getting her old smartphone as she is upgrading. God bless her. But the eccentric devil in me can’t help feeling amused – a device with so many functions to manage freelance writer’s paltry income? It is overkill. Still, I will go with it; be smart for a change.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

The other day I woke up unable to recall the one song I have loved all these years.

It was a frantic moment; almost as if I had lost myself.

The first time I heard that song, I had immediately fallen in love with it for the journeying groove in which it couched its truth. Everything about it moved except for its core; what’s more, everything moved because its core recognized the futility of staying put.

So I thought. So I choose to continue believing for I don’t usually latch on to songs by their lyrics. I don’t read music. The times I memorized lyrics and sang, I felt surrendered to a purpose. Music, for me, has no purpose. It just, is; much like life. You can snuff out life just as you turn off the music. But when you are alive, can you question consciousness? It is what it is. Similarly, you like music. Don’t try explaining why your atoms and molecules rearranged to happiness, hearing the sounds. Don’t try explaining why you swayed to music. Let it be. And from that, some songs stay. Those that stay long, you may opt to work your way back from musical impression to the lyrics. It is a bit like finding a good friend. You know each other with time. You think you explained the other having unravelled the lyrics. Then, just when you thought you had it all explained, a whole new mystery starts! The cosmos is restless.

“ I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ – the line meant little to me when I first heard U2’s song, way back when their album ` The Joshua Tree’ was nominated for the Grammy Awards. The nominated songs and the award presentation used to be telecast as a half-hour capsule on national television those days in India. I fell for the song’s structure and progression right away. For me, its seminal line was merely a name to remember it by. What attracted was the whole thing.

Years passed. Now working away from home and my room with a music system, music transformed to small portable audio player and headphones. Eventually when I failed to keep pace with technology, it transformed to tunes in the head. I even liked returning from a month of self imposed ban on the media, to my music – hearing it with renewed freshness. My affection for the song was perhaps a sign of things to come, for my sense of life as adult has always been out-of-body, as though peering at passing sights from the confines of a self limiting-shape. Every time that procession of passing sights took hold, the song would fill my head. Indeed U2 was especially talented in creating such imagery through their music; many of their songs possess the feeling of travel. Wind in your hair, self on a comet streaking through the cosmos, the clarity in un-belonging. I could go on.  Larry Mullen Jr, Adam Clayton and The Edge – that’s a trio of talented rock musicians. They build the musical ambiance, the journeying spirit that bears forth the band’s lyrics and Bono’s vocals.

As the years passed, my affection for their music outgrew the one song I loved, to the many embodying that journeying spirit which the band captured in its work beautifully. But it was when one’s failures in life multiplied amid world inspired by media to worship perfection and success that I really understood (in my own way) why the words ` I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,’ mattered. My daily life had become a clash of two trends – the comet-rider wanted to move on; earthly life, gripped by money, wanted to stagnate so that life’s explained ways can be milked for income.

What is life if it gets explained?

What if we found what we are looking for; what next?

Are we wired to find and settle down or are we wired for the journey?

I remember the first proper length of time I spent camped on a glacier surrounded by snow clad peaks. The remoteness of Zanskar, the whiteness of the peaks in the dark of the night – all stayed in mind. I am a very average climber. Rest assured, if I can do something, anybody can. I hiked, climbed rock, ran and cycled – in everything I did, I was very average. But I came off understanding why I liked doing those things or being in remote places away from people. Life is a quest; I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Equally, if I found what I am looking for, what happens to the quest? It ends? Even the idea that there is no quest and only this life to endure as the wise love to tell you – how would you like it delivered; as a truism at start that denies the journey or as discovery in life lived as a quest?

A lot of people these days emphasize the importance of looking inward.

They have a point. It is augmented by the fact that the ancients advised so, which suggestion I am not a fan of for I like being alive to my times. I am not a yogi to feel rested and peaceful within the walls of my being, universe internalized.

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

Photo & imaging: Shyam G Menon

I like my journey.

I felt alarmed when I couldn’t remember U2’s song.

My comet seemed stalled.

I spent the next couple of hours listening to U2’s songs and concerts; and in that, my old song.

I shed tears of joy.

Middle aged engine restarted.

I felt a gentle breeze kiss my face as journey recommenced.

So we traveled, till one day something else happened.

Out of the blue, a tune surfaced in my head and kept going on and on.

It wasn’t a song that latched on to my mind the first time I heard it years ago.

But the way it resurfaced, I could sense urgency.

As with U2, I got on to the Internet and spent much time listening to Sting, possibly the most gifted singer-musician out there. The song in question was ` If I Ever Lose My Faith in You’ from his 1993 album ` Ten Summoner’s Tales.’ The funny thing about suddenly having this song in my head is that it wasn’t as imprinted in my brain as some of Sting’s other compositions. But that day, the song about losing faith wouldn’t leave the head. It wasn’t totally surprising for I had been experiencing a sense of loss, something slowly vanishing. I don’t know exactly what I am losing faith in. Like I said before the precise cause for a song’s lyrics don’t engage me. Over analyzed and over articulated, world by technical mind has become boring. Often a song strikes a chord for no better reason than that it did. It is like finding curves in world made monotonous by grids and pixels. I know I am losing faith in something. Don’t ask me to describe it as if my saying so will help you fix it. How can the problem find the solution? In bits and pieces, the song offered imperfect words for the predicament. Above all, it swept me with its swaying music, hinting in its moments of wordless fluidity a refuge for the un-belonging I know is mine.

Un-belonging and universe are the same.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is the expanded version of a piece that appeared in The Economic & Political Weekly.)




Landscape: fields of North Karnataka (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Landscape: fields of North Karnataka (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

End October 2013.

At a concert organized by the Mumbai-based Khayal Trust, Pandit Venkateshkumar took the stage. A Hindustani classical vocalist, he was assertive, subtle, strong and delicate, the discerning use of these abilities making his interpretation of compositions, engaging. I can’t identify raagas; I simply like or dislike music – any music – as aural experience. In the outdoors, I have tracked rivers – from relatively calm flow in the foothills to turbulent upstream and almost inaudible trickle at source – noticing how their character changes. Venkateshkumar’s singing had something of that. He seemed to be singing from a bigger understanding of subject and not merely indulgence in the specific; it wasn’t a section of the river amplified ignoring the whole, it was the whole. On stage, neither was his support crew behaving like sycophants unto him nor was he synthetic in his encouragement of them. A singular chemistry prevailed – chemistry by music. No drama, no playing to the galleries – the proof of the pudding was my brain, soothed to peace; a connection to its home – the universe – made.

This was the second time I heard Venkateshkumar and the first time I was inside the auditorium when he sang.  The previous occasion had been a well attended modest sized gathering in the Mumbai suburb of Chembur. The venue, mere hall and no sophisticated auditorium, was filled to capacity. Chairs outside had also been taken. People stood patiently; listening as attentively as they would, had they been on a seat within. I joined them. Why should anything else matter if the music is good?

The first time I met Venkateshkumar was before I heard him sing.

It was 2011.

Along with good friend Latha Venkatraman, a journalist who has learnt classical music for many years, I was exploring a story in northern Karnataka, way south of Mumbai.    

On January 24, 2011, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi passed away.

With that India lost its most famous voice.

His was a mad, rough edged-reaching out; different from other contenders to be India’s voice and certainly quite apart from that other tradition of Indian classical music – Carnatic. I like to let go (it is also what I find most challenging and what I do the least). In contrast, Carnatic seemed perfect and deliberate, a sort of antidote to madness. Bhimsen Joshi hailed from Gadag, next door to Hubli-Dharwad in North Karnataka. Born there, he was bitten by the music bug, travelled through India in search of a guru and was finally directed to Sawai Gandharva in nearby Kundgol itself. The rest is legend amply conveyed by the great man’s music. What intrigued me was Hubli-Dharwad. Music lovers there sometimes called the place a LOC (Line of Actual Control) between Hindustani music and Carnatic. Yet within Hindustani classical, it is unique for not only being the southern outpost of the tradition but also, a reclusive, defiant, academically inclined ambience that cares more for dedication and purity than the market.

Rajendra Radio House, Dharwad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Rajendra Radio House, Dharwad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Geographically the region bridges that portion of Karnataka which is home to the wet, green hills of the Western Ghats and the start of the Deccan plateau with its imposing flatness. To one side, in the rainy season, the lush vegetation is so pronounced that it contrasts crops like cotton and chilli, typically associated with frugal water intake, grown on the other side. The Hubli-Dharwad region, once part of the Vijayanagar Empire, was subsequently in the possession of rulers from both Karnataka and   Maharashtra. Until 1955, it was part of Bombay Presidency. Hubli, the commercial hub of North Karnataka, is a major cotton market and centre for a variety of agricultural produce. At the vegetarian restaurant of Ananth Residency hotel, I asked for North Karnataka food. It wasn’t available; recommended instead was “ Veg Rajasthani,’ something possibly evocative of the region’s place in trade. The leading brands of Dharwad pedha were Thakur and Mishra, neither of them surnames indigenous to the area yet now synonymous with pedha. Hubli was also where the typical motifs of Indian urban life were taking hold. There were shopping malls, stores with walls of flashing TV screens, ATMs and hotels. Then another LOC of sorts divided it from Dharwad, 20 kilometres away. The local transport bus took you through a busy road with 40 kilometre-speed limit. Approximately three quarters of this travel done, at Navalur as people would later tell me, the atmosphere changed to charming old world flavour. You entered Dharwad.

Ramakant Joshi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Ramakant Joshi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As pronounced as Hubli’s commercialism, was Dharwad’s conservative, academic tenor. Its prominence in history was as an educational hub, the place where people from North Karnataka, Goa and Southern Maharashtra came to study. According to Ramakant Joshi, Editor-Publisher, Manohara Granth Mala, it was Dharwad’s educational backdrop along with an existing culture of theatre and literature that provided a fertile substratum for Hindustani classical music to flourish. The office of this publishing house founded on August 15, 1933 (those days August 15 signified the birthday of Sri Aurobindo) was lined with Kannada books and located in an old room above Subhas Road. Ramakant Joshi is Bhimsen Joshi’s cousin. Unlike in Hubli, in Dharwad, you found shops that hadn’t changed for decades. You bought classical music CDs at Rajendra Radio House, run by Basavaraj V. Kotur, who informed that the shop started in 1964 had been one of the first four music stores in Karnataka. Only two shops from that four remain. There was also relevant change – the Srujana auditorium, where many concerts are held, had been refurbished with help from Nandan Nilekani, former CEO of Infosys and currently chairman, Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Dharwad looked peaceful, there was plenty of greenery and the people you spoke to had a conservative demeanour but amazed by their quiet erudition on chosen subjects. Here a musician or music lover might confidently tell you that he or she is known in the neighbourhood. As we discovered, that wasn’t always true but it was a measure of how comfortable you could be, pursuing the classical arts in this town. Neela Kodli was easy to talk to. In between she went to the kitchen to make tea. Like many of us she hummed a tune, except it was a classical composition. Neela Kodli is the daughter of Mallikarjun Mansur. A singer in the shadow of a famous father, she was modest about her abilities.

Neela Kodli (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Neela Kodli (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

There were few concerts in Dharwad that June. It was the rainy season. Otherwise, we were told, you found one or two every week. The vast majority of these concerts were free. “ There is no problem doing an early morning practice session here. In fact, if they don’t hear me practise, my neighbours ask – didn’t you practise today?’’ Vijaykumar Patil, an upcoming Hindustani vocalist said. With so many singers and musicians around, it was possible for a music lover to strike a rapport and sit in on their evening training sessions even if all he had was a love for music. `Kansens’ (those with good ear for music) have always been as important as `Tansens’ in Dharwad. This coupled with resident music gurus and new music schools helped create an audience for Hindustani classical music. In turn, that made performing in Hubli-Dharwad, a prized opportunity for visiting artistes. You knew you were singing to those who knew the subject. Applause here became highly valued. Raghavendra Ayi, Secretary, Sitar Ratna Samiti, provided an example of how Dharwad responded to music. Following Bhimsen Joshi’s demise, it was decided to organize an eight day music programme from February 27 to March 6 that year, in his memory. Many of the performers were young artistes. With expenditure projected to touch two lakh rupees (Rs 200,000), the organizers made an appeal for contributions. The amount thus collected exceeded a lakh, most of it donated by individual music lovers. “ To survive, any art requires janaashraya. The days of rajaashraya are over,’’ he said. (Jana in Indian languages refers to people; Raja refers to king and Aashraya means dependence or in the context of art, patronage.)

The Vijayanagar Empire had a strong role in the evolution of South India’s Carnatic music. The famous composer Purandara Dasa was born in modern Shivamoga district and spent his final years at Hampi, next door to the Hubli-Dharwad region. His compositions are sung by Hindustani classical vocalists. One version has it that Swami Haridas, teacher of Tansen, was a disciple of Purandara Dasa. Thus music was always around in these parts. Hubli-Dharwad’s ascent in Hindustani classical music happened with the decline of the Mughal Empire up north. As the empire weakened, the singing tradition of its court moved first to princely states in North India. Then as British influence gained in those princely states, the drift to the south started. Abdul Karim Khan was a famous singer of the Kirana Gharana, one of the schools of singing within Hindustani classical music. He was court singer in Baroda state. On his way to the court of the Mysore kings, who were patrons of classical music, he regularly halted in Hubli-Dharwad. In his book `Karnataka’s Hindustani Musicians,’ author Sadanand Kanavalli has particularly noted the role of the Mysore king, Krishnaraj Wodeyar IV. Mysore continues to this day as a major centre for Carnatic music. It was that less known intermediate halt en route, Hubli-Dharwad, which developed into the southern outpost of Hindustani classical music. Through the years music researchers have wondered what worked to Hubli-Dharwad’s favour. In a November 2009 issue of `Sangeet Natak,’ a newsletter from the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Tejaswini Niranjana, outlining her proposed research into these questions noted that some of  “ the common and (uncommonsensical) answers’’ included Abdul Karim Khan’s visits, the pleasant weather in Dharwad, the large number of Maharashtrians there who were music patrons, the influence of  Marathi culture in the form of Marathi plays having Hindustani music with Kannada plays subsequently derived from them and even the chillies and spicy food of North Karnataka that cleared the throat. “ The answers are inadequate even on their own terms. If Abdul Karim Khan’s final destination was Mysore and he went there frequently, why did he not teach disciples there?’’ she asked.

Nadgir family house, Kundgol (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Nadgir family house, Kundgol (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Among the most important institutions that patronised Hindustani classical music was an old house at Kundgol, once part of the princely state of Jamkhandi. Not far from Hubli, Kundgol and several other surrounding villages used to be under the control of the land-owning Nadgir family, who were patrons of music. Abdul Karim Khan visited here. More importantly for North Karnataka’s music, Abdul Karim Khan’s most famous student Ramachandra aka Rambhau Kundgolkar was born in Kundgol. Later called Sawai Gandharva, he had a pivotal role in the history of North Karnataka’s Hindustani music. His life was entwined with the Nadgir family. He taught music at the old house; this was where Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal learnt. We met Babasaheb Nadgir and his son, Arjun Nadgir, who live there. Every year since 1952, the family has been organizing a music festival currently

Babasaheb Nadgir and Arjun Nadgir (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Babasaheb Nadgir and Arjun Nadgir (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

called the Nanasaheb Nadgir Smrithi Sangeeth Utsav. Hundreds of people turn up to hear this 24 hour-performance, which lasts through the night. The house is as it used to be, so much so that an entire audience crammed onto its many floors to hear the concert has triggered worries of the 400 year-old building collapsing. The architecture is typically old fashioned featuring a courtyard within. The musicians practise in an inner chamber and then perform on stage inside the house, adjacent to the courtyard and below a bust of Sawai Gandharva. It is tradition kept alive purely through family initiative and at considerable cost. The Nadgir family and a few close friends spent up to one and a half lakh rupees (that was the figure when I visited); they didn’t seek donations. Arjun was working on proper institutional shape for the funding so that it self-sustained. The family had dreams of starting a music school. Kundgol also had another music festival in Sawai Gandharva’s memory.  Several noted Hindustani classical artistes – Bhimsen Joshi, Basavaraja Rajguru, Gangubai Hangal, Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur, Pandit Jasraj, Prabha Atre, Feroz Dastur, Puttaraj Gawai – they have all performed at Nadgir Wada. For many who go to sing there, the very act of performing in a house where legends lived is overwhelming. The artistes are paid for travel cost; they get nothing else. “ The ambience is special,’’ Jayateerth Mevundi, a prominent vocalist from the younger generation, said.  

Jayateerth Mevundi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Jayateerth Mevundi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Given Abdul Karim Khan as the historical prompter for Hindustani music’s arrival in Hubli-Dharwad, the region became the southern home of the Kirana Gharana, a style with origins in Uttar Pradesh. But you also find in Hubli-Dharwad other styles like the Jaipur Gharana and the Gwalior Gharana. They co-exist. From Abdul Karim Khan down, we hear of several important names. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two categories – the legendary performers from Hubli-Dharwad and the great teachers like Sawai Gandharva. For a tradition of music to grow you need both these categories. As you ask around, you realize that great performers were not necessarily great teachers just as great teachers were not necessarily great performers. The great performers were five – Gangubai Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi, Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva (he was born near Belgaum and later moved to Madhya Pradesh) and Basavaraj Rajguru. Of them, one – Gangubai Hangal – was a phenomenon. Her influence exceeded the world of music. In Hubli, we just had to ask for the late singer’s house and the autorickshaw driver knew where to go. Her house had become part museum. Gangubai Hangal had to overcome many social challenges to become the renowned singer she was. In later years, she did not hesitate to be a social activist for causes she believed in. It was exceptional in that, it took a classical vocalist out from the conventional image of exclusivity and singing for patrons, to being one with the masses. Consequently if anyone from the legendary five has become close to an institution in Hubli-Dharwad, it ought to be Gangubai Hangal. There was however one problem. With Bhimsen Joshi’s demise, the last of those five greats passed away. Further, except for Basavaraj Rajguru, none of the others were credited with robust teaching.  They left behind few disciples. That’s why Hubli-Dharwad was suddenly important for anyone interested in Hindustani classical music, like me. The phase of the legends was over. Will the region continue to maintain its strong position in musical tradition?

Veereshwar Punyashram, Gadag (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Veereshwar Punyashram, Gadag (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The Veereshwar Punyashram in Gadag appeared a blend of religion, community and music; an official brochure informed that the presiding pontiff was seen by devotees as “ a walking God on the Earth.’’ Looking past its prime when I was there in 2011, this institution was founded by Panchaxari Gawai, a blind prodigy in classical music. Over the years, the ashram accepted many poor, often visually and physically challenged children and trained them in classical music. Basavaraj Rajguru was Panchaxari Gawai’s student. Following Panchaxari Gawai’s death in 1944, Puttaraj Gawai took charge. He became blind through treatment for an eye problem in his childhood but later amazed as vocalist and musician.

Venkateshkumar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Venkateshkumar (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Venkateshkumar – he teaches at a music college in Dharwad and is acknowledged to be among the finest Hindustani vocalists today – was Putturaj Gawai’s student. Born in Lakshmipur village near Bellary, Venkateshkumar was thirteen years old when he was brought to the ashram in 1968. He studied there for eleven years, maintaining a rigorous training schedule and learning 25-30 raagas from his guru. Even after Venkateshkumar left the ashram his interaction with his guru continued till Puttaraj Gawai was ninety years old. Puttaraj Gawai died in 2010. In 2011, across the school and the college on its premises, there were nearly 800 students.       

Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Following their studies, some students of the ashram had become teachers at the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya. Begun by Agathe and Mathieu Fortier, a Canadian couple who liked India and its tradition of Hindustani classical music, the school was located almost an hour away from Dharwad in geography that was the exact opposite of the Gadag-Kundgol belt. Here the land was hilly with red earth muddied by heavy rains and densely vegetated to the point of seeming forest. The school was in the woods, a collection of eco-friendly structures with 185 students and 43 full time staff. According to Adam Woodward, Director, the admission process tried to ensure that only the neediest students got through. The students paid no fees. They did a mix of music, dance and formal studies. Many of the children we met spoke Hindi and English (at any given time the school has about a dozen

Students singing at the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Students singing at the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

volunteers from overseas), something useful to link training in classical art forms to the outside world. Its present location was second stop for the school. Previously it was at a leased farm in Kalkeri. The owner wanted to sell the property. Seeing its good work, the local village authorities granted it the current land. With time and growth, this had become inadequate and the school was looking for bigger, more permanent premises in the region. The Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya is part of a unique organizational structure authored by its founders. Mathieu and his brother Blaise set up Young Musicians of the World (YMW) in Canada. Every year, as of 2011, it managed two fund raising concerts abroad to collect funds for the school in Kalkeri. This aside, the objective was to open similar schools elsewhere in the world; there were ongoing talks in France to start a music school for the Romany gypsies. Another location interesting YMW was, Mali in Africa. The eventual idea was to have music exchange programmes and concerts. To enable this, YMW required the Kalkeri school, indeed any school it started, to slowly become self reliant in funding. Moves were afoot to make this happen.

The third institution we saw was expected to formally start work from July 1, 2011. Named after Gangubai Hangal it was a modern gurukul set up by the Karnataka government on the outskirts of Hubli. It could accommodate 36 students and their teachers. The gurukul pattern finds considerable respect among musicians in Hubli-Dharwad as one of the ingredients separating the performing artiste from the merely trained artiste. As many people pointed out, the music schools and colleges were important to create a learned audience for Hindustani classical. The performing artiste however needed a guru who knew him or her well; understood the student’s abilities, role modelled and confronted them with challenges. It was one-on-one education, an apprenticeship. According to Manoj Hangal, Gangubai Hangal’s grandson, the government announced five crore rupees (Rs 50 million) and five acres of land for the project in 2005. “ All approvals came within three days,’’ he said. Six gurus of different gharanas were each planned to teach six students for 3-4 years. The teachers expected at the gurukul included Prabha Atre and N. Rajam. There would be visiting faculty from other universities. The emphasis was on creating performing artistes; that meant a student cannot enrol for any other academic programme. Total government expense for the impressive campus had touched eight crore rupees (Rs 80 million) and there would be recurrent expenditure of Rs 15 lakhs (Rs 1.5 million) to maintain it. “ We want public access to the gurukul,’’ Manoj Hangal said pointing out how that only fit in with the reputation and legacy of Gangubai Hangal in Hubli-Dharwad. 

Manoj Hangal (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Manoj Hangal (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

So would these training schools, music colleges and the large number of students, ensure that Hubli-Dharwad continued to generate fantastic performing artistes?

Between talent and recognition lay the market.

Hubli-Dharwad is an intriguing symbiosis of dedicated training away from market forces and giants born from that discipline who became icons in the far away markets of Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. With Bhimsen Joshi’s demise, the days of those legends had seemingly ended. There was a robust new generation in Hubli-Dharwad. “ I am confident we will be able to fill the vacuum,’’ Kaivalya Kumar Gurav, an established vocalist and teacher, said. But for many others, with so much of change authored by not just music, the market loomed in the distance like an inorganic entity speaking a different language. If you looked back to the previous three generations or so of Hindustani classical performers, each generation had found the proverbial wind beneath the wings in factors ranging from royal patronage to the ascent of radio and recorded music. The first now belongs to a bygone era; the latter two are now past their prime. What survives is the impact of all this on the market – better awareness of classical music with the masses and support of music by the `classes.’ Opportunities are available. Question is – who gets them in these years of survival through smartness? Does smartness constitute music and how smart should Hubli-Dharwad be when its beauty, perhaps uniqueness, is that it has been distant from the market?

One problem you hear is how major public performances have got dominated by the same, few names. Sponsors rule the big concerts in the metros (although Hubli-Dharwad has a tradition of concerts organized by aficionados willing to contribute for the purpose, sponsorship has arrived here too). Big ticket sponsors, seek the maximum bang for their buck and it often means, correspondingly less concern for upcoming talent within the music world. Result – they plonk for the established names, setting in motion a vicious cycle of promoting the same names, even their children. Travelling through Hubli-Dharwad, this new age networking and success by successful networking saddened me because North Karnataka not only produced great musicians in the past but some of them – like Gangubai Hangal –  questioned tradition and confronted the social networks and privileges of their era. The citation for the 1989 Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Award, given to Gangubai Hangal, began with this sentence, “ you are among the legendary group of women who braved social scorn and ridicule in establishing classical music as a noble profession for women in modern India.’’ Now as we celebrate the age of the social network and as the social network becomes the new tradition, talent has become secondary again. We haven’t changed; we seem to simply reinvent the old. At Gadag, we ran into young Ayyappaiah Halagalimath who learnt classical music at the Veereshwar Punyashram and went on to complete his MA in Music with top honours. A student of Venkateshkumar, he was guest lecturer at the same college where the maestro worked. Like many who studied at the ashram, Ayyappiah hailed from a poor family. He has performed in big cities. But lacking good Hindi and English, he was hemmed in by his inability to tap the social network. That worry was writ large on his face. Between talent and recognition, there is the market; there is that network. It plagues every field and as the network grows in importance, I wonder – are the best in every field necessarily what the commercial network showcases as the best, the most successful? 

The gurukul named after Gangubai Hangal, in Hubli (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The gurukul named after Gangubai Hangal, in Hubli (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A common way of introducing upcoming music talent to the market is by clubbing their performance with that of a big brand musician. So you have that half hour or one hour at start by a mid-level artiste and then a performance by the big brand who the sponsor thinks is the real talent. According to musicians, although intended to help, this practice simply institutionalises upcoming talent as secondary to established names. Because it is presented as upcoming talent requiring a walking stick (the established big musician), it reinforces the paradigm of sponsor deciding talent as opposed to the audience doing the same. Differently put, in the name of the market we may be belittling the intelligence of the audience in the age of janaashraya. Why not let the audience choose? But then how perfect are choices by audience? At stake amidst sponsors and the market compulsions of media formats (like reality TV shows) claiming to represent popular tastes, are entire crafts. “ One of my students topped a reality show. Now all his singing is for the channel. Reality programmes make you a success prematurely,’’ a senior artiste and teacher, said. Arguably, all media – including this blog – is imperfect, to the extent that an article or a photograph or a TV programme is usually a slice of something, never the evolving whole or the whole in the context of everything else. And if, for alternative, you choose to merely stream real life as media, you miss intellect – which is a serious drawback in today’s media filled-world. Reduced by media to voyeurism, abject competition and consumerism, we succeed more and more with lesser and lesser dimensions in the head. We become dumb? I suspect so.

Prof Vasant Karnad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Prof Vasant Karnad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A point that frequently surfaced in discussions on what shaped the performing artiste was how the legends became what they were despite few raagas taught by their gurus. The rest was dedicated, hard work. Over eight years, Abdul Karim Khan taught Sawai Gandharva just three raagas. His rationale was – if the student understood those three well, he would pick up the rest. Sawai Gandharva taught Bhimsen Joshi three raagas. Nothing happens without personal drive. “ There can be many students but there is only one disciple,’’ Professor Vasant Karnad, well known musician, music critic and teacher, and elder brother of Jnanpith Award winner-Girish Karnad, said. Legends are not born from a market state of anything. How long will it be before the next Gangubai Hangal or Bhimsen Joshi?

Between the two, the next Gangubai Hangal would be a litmus test for Hubli-Dharwad. It was a question nobody could offer convincing explanation for – why haven’t there been great women singers from Hubli-Dharwad other than the legendary Gangubai Hangal? Some cited marriage, family responsibilities et al. At least one school official that we spoke to confirmed that convincing families in villages of the practical use of an education in music was difficult and within that, getting the girl child enrolled was more so. It seemed the other side of conservative society, which by virtue of its conservatism steels an individual’s resolve to pursue his or her talent but also leaves many in the dust. Finally, there was the concern over where the general drift in the world was headed and what that meant for Hubli-Dharwad. “ With the growth of industry, the cultural milieu will fade. Formerly we used to say that food and knowledge should never be bargained or sold. Today, they have become the most important items of business,’’ Ramakant Joshi said.  

I got back to Mumbai. Freelance journalist’s article was published. In August 2011, Professor Vasant Karnad passed away. He had been a delight to talk to during the brief while we met him. We remain grateful for that conversation, the opportunity to meet him. End-October 2013; backstage in Mumbai, Pandit Venkateshkumar recognized us from the old visit (in 2011, we had gone to his house in Dharwad). We exchanged greetings. Established singers, aspiring ones and students of music had already flocked to him after the concert. I am none of that. I identify with his music thanks to what is at once a restlessness and peace, found in the outdoors. It inhabits many fields and I suspect that the word in English which comes closest to describing the condition is – seeking. A mind cast so finds peace in sense of universe.

Music, the outdoors – it is all One.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to acknowledge the help provided by Latha Venkatraman, journalist and student of Hindustani classical music, towards writing this article. A portion of this article pertaining to the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya was published as an independent piece in The Hindu Business Line newspaper. A slightly abridged version of the entire story was published in Man’s World magazine.)