By Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri
Sitting in a corner cubicle, Baiju Dharmajan waited patiently for his slot as his band members started the sound check. A rather quiet person, perhaps even a tad conscious, he observed everything around him, including the rather awkward guy nodding sideways to the beat of the drum and sneaking furtive looks at him, i.e. me. At 4:30 in the evening, Someplace Else was empty except for two bartenders, two sound guys, the band and me.
The Baiju Dharmajan Syndicate was in Kolkata for a gig at the venue before heading off to Shillong for the NH7 Weekender. Taking some time off in between the sound check, the extremely humble ‘God of Small Strings’ spoke to me about his life and music.
“I cannot differentiate between me and music. It’s in my blood and breath. Can’t live without it – without playing the guitar. Can’t think of it!” he said, “Everything relates to my life and society. You cannot completely separate each thing. You cannot differentiate music from society or anything. It’s part of it.”
Photograph by Matchbox
Dharmajan’s introduction to music was through the Carnatic violin, but his interest was towards the guitar, which his father played. He used to play his father’s instrument in secret. When his father discovered him playing a few chords on it, he gave permission for him to take formal training, and from there on started his musical journey. Even though the family was musically inclined, there was a lot of negativity from them initially, when he chose to take it up professionally.
“At that time (the early ’80s) in Kerala, there were very few Western bands. I used to play for recording sessions and film scores,” he said. With a drummer friend, he formed a hard rock cover band called Instinct around 1984-85, which continued for 5-6 years. However, after this stint, he stopped playing with bands. He also stopped public performances, devoting his time to practice in his home for a period of two years. This was the time when the doors of experimentation and progressive sounds opened up for him.
Wrentz, the band with which he played in the mid ’90s and released a couple of albums, did not allow him to play the experimental crossover music that he wanted to do and is known for today. “If you work in a band and want to experiment, you need support from the band,” he said. This opportunity arose during his days with Motherjane, with whom he played from 1999 to 2010 and released two albums – Insane Biography and Maktub.
“During the composition of Maktub, we recorded ‘Broken’ first. I had played the lead very differently (than what is heard on the album), like an English ballad. Later when I listened to it, I wanted to change it. So I told John Thomas (drummer of Motherjane) that I wanted to redo it. The result amazed everybody as it was a new approach, and the whole album was done that way,” said Dharmajan.
Photograph by Anirban Oni
His unique sound and style of playing, which technically is described as a crossover of Carnatic and rock styles, developed rather organically. “My style is not Carnatic in the way people think. To be honest, I know nothing about Carnatic music,” he said, “What happened with my playing was that I used to play for Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil films. That is what lies behind me. The Carnatic thing is in my family. I grew up with it. There is no learning as such. It came to my ear.”
To transmit that into a completely different genre and on an instrument not designed to play such music, is nothing short of genius. From Maktub onwards, his work, including his solo album Crossover, stands as testimony. The way he utilizes the guitar to tweak and wring out Carnatic laced riffs, solos and overtones on hard hitting, ominous tunes over-driven with distortion, is mind blowing! Observing his technique is an education in itself on what possibilities an instrument can give to a true musician.
But all of this – style, technique, genre, skill – comes together to deliver what the artist wants to convey to whoever is listening. “The thing about a solo instrumentalist is that it is difficult to express feelings and emotions, but I am desperately trying to do that. For me, music is like expressing yourself, some feeling or emotion,” he said, “Music is open to interpretation. I composed ‘Philia’ (from Crossover) as a lullaby in my head. But when I played it to my friends, they found it to be romantic.”
Married with two daughters, none of whom are into music (which he finds both funny and sad), he leads a peaceful existence in Vypin Islands, Kochi. He finds inspiration in everything, including incidents and experiences. His musical psyche has been shaped by rock and pop legends like Steve Vai, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson, Abba, Boney M as well as ghazal pundits like Ghulam Ali and Pankaj Udhas and even film music. “You can come across superb melodies in film songs!” exclaimed Dharmajan.
Photograph by Athul Suresh
To the younger generation, his advice is to be open and listen to all kinds of music, and not restrict to one type. “Music is like nourishment. If you don’t like something, drop it. But listen to different music,” he said, “Especially if you want to be a professional musician, you have to know what is happening in the industry, rock music, indie music and even film music.”
Being a 50-year-old veteran who has seen the winds of change take place in the music industry on the wings of technology, he has rather balanced views on the current state of affairs in contrast to the old days when he started out. “Right now, everything is digital. The only good thing is you can record sitting in your room. You need a laptop and can create anything. But back in the day, you needed a brilliant idea and then went to do the record,” he said, “Now you can make loops and effects and make good music. Production wise, it has become very easy. It’s sad as well.”
He is rather disappointed by the fact that nothing new has come up in India after 2008. “This is just my opinion. I was watching MTV Roots. Lots of bands are playing. Musically, they are not very good, but the videos are so beautiful! It’s for marketing which is needed as well. But industry wise, the problem is that there is no product. There are lots of venues and festivals over the country now, but we need more and new stuff musically – experimental, boundary breaking!” He believes that being a musician in today’s world is like any other job. “It’s like a business. You need to have good management, good product and market properly. All of that,” said Dharmajan.
Photos courtesy: Artist
Watch ‘Philia’ from the album Crossover :