John P Varkey: Musician who made Malayalam rock global

The 52-year-old guitarist and composer, who died on August 29, is also known for his work in films such as ‘Kammattipadam’ and ‘Eeda’.
Old photo of John P Varkey
Old photo of John P Varkey
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‘Nada Nada’, one of the most popular Malayalam rock songs ever made, originally came out of a track made by John P Varkey for Jigsaw Puzzle, a music band that had a short life before it evolved into another one called Avial. The version of the song brought out by Avial, looked up to as one of the veteran bands from Kerala, is more popular now. John, who passed away on Monday, August 29, after a cardiac arrest, was a founding member of both the bands. He has also composed some unique tracks for Malayalam films like ‘Para Para’ in Kammattipadam and ‘Mizhi Niranju’ in Eeda. He was 52.

John had split ways with Avial in the mid-2000s before the first album was out. He went on to form the band Slowpedalers in his hometown Thrissur, with two mates from Jigsaw Puzzle days – Rajesh Das on the bass and Jophy Chirayath on the drums. John's weapon was his guitar. He had proved to be an ace guitarist before going on to produce, programme and compose music.

Rex Vijayan, noted guitarist and composer and a key member of Avial, says Jigsaw Puzzle and John’s music played a key role in shaping Kerala’s independent rock scene. “I met him for the first time at the Daksha Sheth Dance Company in Thiruvananthapuram, where he used to play the guitar. We immediately found a connection and began jamming together. I found his music to be unique and we began reworking some of his old tracks. I’d stay for days at his house in Thrissur and we’d create music,” Rex says.

Watch: Jigsaw Puzzle's Nada Nada

What floored him was the work John did in ‘Nada Nada’ for Jigsaw Puzzle. ‘Nada Nada’ and ‘Njan Aara’ (another song Avial is known for) came out of the English tracks ‘Flow’ and ‘Farmer’s Song’ featured in Jigsaw Puzzle’s first English album, John once told Rolling Stone India.

“In those days, I called another musician – late John Anthony – who’d play old keerthanams on his guitar, and all three of us began jamming together in Thrissur. We formed the band Karnatriix (which later became John Anthony’s independent venture). Later John and I formed Avial. Other members Anand, Tony, Jophy, all joined soon after,” Rex says.

Like most bands across the world, the team split ways multiple times. Neither Anand, nor Jophy is there in Avial anymore. John left too, but kept in touch with Rex. They didn’t work together afterwards.

Watch: John in Theekkanal by Jigsaw Puzzle

In the years that passed, John made his way into film music, without compromising on his style. His first film composition was for Neythukaran directed by Priyanandanan in 2002. In 2007 he won an award for composing music for the feature film Frozen, directed by Shivaji Chandrabushan. Other films include Sibi Malayil’s Unnam, KM Kamal’s ID and AV Sasidharan’s Olipporu. Rajeev Ravi’s Kammattippadam and B Ajithkumar’s Eeda are perhaps his most known works in films.

“I only had a brief experience, working with him for the songs ‘Chingamasathile’ and ‘Para Para’ in Kammattippadam,” says singer Anoop Mohandas, vocalist with Kerala rock band Vidwan.

“The same evening that we met, he began singing his old songs for me after we finished the recording at the Collective Phase studio. It felt almost spiritual,” Anoop says.

B Ajithkumar, who edited the music video of ‘Nada Nada’ brought out by Jigsaw Puzzle, remembers John as a man with exposure to all kinds of music, and someone with multiple talents. Dawn Vincent, who did the background score of Eeda, says John could sing, compose and even write songs.

Watch: Para Para from Kammattipadam

“We would work together to create music, first for Kammattipadam, then for Adventures of Omanakuttan and later Eeda. When I began working for a commercial film, his guidance became a huge help. We ended up producing each other’s music, not caring who did what. Though he came from an independent music scene, he was open to film music,” Dawn says.

One of the last works they did together was for a song called ‘Chavunadapattu’, written by Anwar Ali during the COVID-19 lockdown.

John, despite his contributions to the independent music scene of Kerala, kept a low profile. But the role he had in taking music from Kerala to an international audience would be remembered. 

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