With as many as nine members, Bombay Bairag is truly a big band playing music that is rooted in Sufi and Indian classical traditions. The term Bairag in their unusual name has its origin in the Sanskrit word `Vairagya’ meaning the act of renouncing the world and materialism in search of the divine or higher truth. “Bairag reflects the essence of our music, which is creating music for its own sake with complete devotion; to seek it as a curious child and unconditionally. For us, it means allowing music to evolve just the way it will,” is how the band describes the link between the Sanskrit term and their music.
On the eve of their much awaited concert at Mumbai’s Hard Rock Café, LIS spoke to two of the leading members of the band: vocalists Ashish Ranjan Thakur and Apurav Pendharkar. Here are a few excerpts from the interview.
Tell us about yourselves and the band?
Ashish Ranjan Thakur: Bombay Bairag is a collection of singer-songwriters where we compose our own originals. Sometime around 2016, I quit my job after 14 years of service and started doing this full time. I have previously sung for BBC in their choir in London. I have learnt classical music from Pt Ajay Pohankar and classical piano from Trinity School and I continue to be a student of music.
Apurva Pendharkar: I have studied Indian classical music and have completed my Masters from the University of Bombay. And I’m still learning Indian classical music. I graduated in Literature from Jai Hind College and I’m with Bombay Bairag now.
When was the band formed?
Ashish: We formed our band in May 2016. We started with our first gig at Bandra Base which was a sold-out show. From there we moved on to G5A, then continued with another property of Whistling Woods and eventually performed at the Kala Ghoda Festival. I think all of this happened because our sound is unique, we write our own compositions and the lyrics. And we usually shy away from adhering to a particular genre. If you listen to our compositions, we are very contemporary, drawing influences from Indian classical music, western classical music, Sufi traditions, and the like.
What is the set that you will be playing at HRC?
Ashish: If you check the catalogue, (the epilogue section) songs like Karam Farma are original compositions in Sufi or Indian classical traditions or qawwali traditions. Whereas, there is a song called Karobaar, the business of love, that’s 12/8 blues, almost bordering on rock. Our opening song, Meherbaan, is a blues song. So what I mean to say here is that our sound travels to whichever genre it has to, as long as it is musically sound for us to take it to the stage.
What's the story behind the name?
Ashish: We call ourselves Bombay Bairag because the band originated in Bombay. Why Bairag? It is because, as a band, our credo is to un-belong, that is, we don’t tie our artists to a particular genre. And the reason we un-belong is because music is for the sake of music, the love of music, not necessarily to please somebody. Music, if it is done for itself, will eventually become pleasing for the audience as well as the artist. We usually detach ourselves from the outcome of music and so the sense of bairag is a very important element here. Most of our songs have been written with a sense of detachment. You’ll also see that most of the times people stick to a particular genre, and for us the sense of detachment is what took us to multiple genres.
How often do you perform live, and which are your favourite venues?
Ashish: I would say at least fortnightly. In Mumbai, one of the venues that we have particularly liked is G5A because of the sound they provide us with. It is the same with Hard Rock Café, in terms of technical requirements.
Is music a full time affair? If not, what else do you do?
Ashish: Music is full-time for all of us. Even our manager, Meera, quit her job to manage us full-time.
Who are your musical inspirations?
Apurva: My musical inspiration is Lata Mangeshkar. Similarly I think since we do live shows, being a performer is very important and for that I look up to Michael Jackson.
Ashish: I write music, including the lyrics in the band. I look up to people such as R D Burman, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, among others. When we are on stage, we are less of singers, more of performers, and love engaging with audience. So a performer who comes to my mine is Michael Jackson.
Is there a ritual before you guys start performing on stage?
Ashish: Usually a day before the gig, we do not do any rehearsals. Our last jamming session or rehearsals happen exactly two days before our actual gig. We give ourselves the last day to think, and reflect on our last jamming and what it is that we need to fix before we go on stage.
The second ritual is something the band found a little amusing initially. Before we walk onto the stage, we see ourselves in the mirror and take turns to say to ourselves, “I want to go on the stage, have I done all that I needed to do? Do I deserve to be in front of this audience? Do I deserve to be on this stage? Have I earned the stage?” So these are the questions we ask ourselves before we take to the stage.
Sometimes it is a little intimidating to be asking yourself this question ahead of a gig, but this is exactly what we did at the Kala Ghoda festival. We were slightly nervous because we did not have enough sound-check time. Now we are a 9-member band and just imagine our plight. We asked ourselves these questions which pepped us up: “Are you ready for the sound? Have you earned this venue? You have an audience in front of you. Do you deserve to be singing live in front of this audience?”
How difficult is it to survive as full time musicians?
Ashish: If you look at independent artists, it is quite a difficult scene for them for multiple reasons. One, nobody will buy my song irrespective of how good it is. People expect it for free. People would like to go to an MP3 download site, where they can download it for free. If I put it up on YouTube, they will figure out a technical shortcut to download that video or convert it into audio.
People usually refrain from promoting sound which is not a part of Bollywood. For commercial reasons, the indie scene is not where it should be. And what we are doing takes a lot of courage. Like when we sang Ik Kudi, it became a hit because it was already a product of Bollywood. The scene is difficult but I take heart in the fact that there are still some folks, like HRC, who are very keen to invest in us. Like G5A, they heard us out.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Ashish: As a band, we feel our sound goes well with easy listeners as well as the discerning ones. We see ourselves collaborating on independent projects, and also on Bollywood projects so that we can latch on to the biggest music platform in the country.
If you could perform your songs for a Bollywood film, which director would you like to work for?
Ashish: I would love to work for Vishal Bhardwaj and Imtiaz Ali. Bharadwaj is a great musician himself, and we have deep respect for his music. We believe that he will give us the space that we need. And Imtiaz is one guy who will really stretch your creativity. All the songs in Tamasha that he got Rahman Sahab to do, or the ones in Rockstar, were really stretching the creativity of an artiste. I believe that is the space we want to be in.
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