Raghu Dixit: From playing bugri on Bengaluru's streets to taking forgotten folk music world wide

In an interview to TNM, Raghu Dixit talks about his life and his passion for music
Raghu Dixit: From playing bugri on Bengaluru's streets to taking forgotten folk music world wide
Raghu Dixit: From playing bugri on Bengaluru's streets to taking forgotten folk music world wide
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By Sumanto Mondal

“I have decided never to play sad songs on stage. People come with enough of that and they have nowhere to go. I hope they are able leave our shows in better shape, to be able to deal with their problems.”

Nothing describes the experience of Raghu Dixit's music better, as any listener would tell you.

“I have never been the quiet type. I have always been a gallous person bulldozing my way through life," he adds.

Born in Nasik in 1974 and moving to Mysuru at the age of eight, Raghu Dixit confesses to being hyper boisterous for as long as he can remember - a bad boy with a good academic record.

Raghu’s fondest memories of Bengaluru are of visits to cousins, playing cricket, lagori and bugri (spinning top) in the by-lanes of Jayanagar 9th block and reading at the Children’s Book Circle near Vanitha Sadana.

Classical singing was his mother’s hobby but never appealed to him enough.

"Classical music was like a background score for my family’s activities” he recounts with a grin. He even gave Bharatnatyam a try. This started with him aping a cousin who was learning the dance form.

"I was the only boy in a class full of girls, but I enjoyed the attention”. Eventually, he went on to secure a Gold medal at his university with a Master’s degree in Microbiology.

Raghu’s eyes light up as the conversation steers towards music “The first live act I saw was Rock Machine (now Indus Creed) at Mysore University. I couldn’t believe that an Indian group could be so good." 

Subsequently, a series of fortuitous events saw him become a professional musician. A bet with a friend made him pick up the guitar and write his first lyric. An eavesdropping landlord in Brussels (where he worked for a pharmaceutical company) got him his first radio telecast and its success prompted him to return to India. But destiny tested his resolve at this point. 

He waited eight years, working on his music doing random jobs before getting a break. A show at a dingy bar that started with a handful of people and grew to a crowd of 200 in Mumbai saw him land his first record deal with music directors Vishal and Shekhar who happened to be in the crowd.

To give you a sense of Raghu Dixit’s appeal on the music scene today, even my mother has heard some of his music and finds it quite enjoyable. This came to me as a surprise, as her playlist hasn’t been updated beyond the 1980’s and she is very picky about new music.

"I use my music as a tool for spreading positive messages. I want to make people believe in the goodness of all people," he says.

Raghu Dixit’s live performances have been described using as a long list of adjectives, ranging from electric to infectious.

Raghu’s songs are infused with lively music and his trademark fortissimo voice transport listeners to a timeless happy space. There is a sort of organic coherence in his voice that has both a touch of novelty and antiquity, leaving listeners feeling refreshed and nostalgic at the same time.

“I want to show people that miracles happen and they are not made by god. They are made by people coming together.”

Songs like ‘lokada kalaji’ (a poem by Santh Shishunal Sharifa, recognized as the first ever Muslim poet in Kannada) talk of being carefree and not worrying about the trivialities of everyday life, encouraging people to look at the brighter side through songs and tales.

Raghu suggests that young listeners are not aware of the many folk styles in Karnataka and India. "I'm talking about actual rural folk music in its truest unadulterated form that has never been exposed,” he says.

Raghu plans to facilitate expeditions to the hinterlands in order to find folk artists who continue to scrape a living through music. His project aptly named ‘Wandering Minstrels’ hopes to be able to record and archive their songs before they are forgotten.

Acts, like Raghu’s, have managed to change the conventional perception of what is accepted as contemporary music. They have brought century old folk verse back, to be chanted by young listeners, thus breathing new life into the orality of these verses.  

The Raghu Dixit Project includes contributions from contemporaries and younger musicians who are able to bring sounds from an array of genres and stir them together with folk verse and Raghu’s own lyrics alike. Incidentally, most of these musicians are self-taught and according to Raghu, this allows for greater flexibility and exploration. 

However, the project has seen many musicians come and go. “Every musician is precious,” Raghu reflects "It is difficult to see them leave” but maintains that all the musicians he has collaborated with have brought a new dimension to his music and given it longevity.

Besides shows at popular local and international music festivals, this showman believes in creating socio-cultural change. He has played for terminal cancer patients at Karunashraya cancer home, at a fisherfolk settlement in Chennai and for inmates at Bengaluru’s central jail.

"The Chennai gig for fisherfolk was the most soul-satisfying show till date," he says while adding "Classical music is restricted to a limited elite circle of people. Our music needs to be different and this is part of an effort to take good music beyond the ‘sabhas’ to anyone who wants to listen." 

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