The wildly popular singer and band leader worked as a scientist in Belgium before pursuing his passion for music
Everyone knows musician Raghu Dixit, India’s most popular folk-rock export. When the lungi-clad, gungroo-strapped frontman for The Raghu Dixit Project isn’t playing his unique brand of multilingual folk music to audiences in all corners of the world, he can be found performing for his Indian fans who lap up his music no less. But few know that he was once a scientist. After all, his immense popularity in the music scene is enough to make one believe that he had been received a formal training in his childhood and that he might have been groomed to become the adept musician that he is. That wasn’t the case, for Raghu worked as a scientist in a pharmaceuticals company in Belgium before he entered the world of music.
He had even got a masters degree in microbiology from the University of Mysore and was awarded a gold medal for his outstanding academic record. Even though much of his formative years were spent concentrating on academics, he was always exposed to the arts, including Carnatic music and classical Indian dance. “I grew up in a traditional “Tam-Bram” family with a lot of classical music and dance. In fact, I ended up learning the classical dance form Bharatanatyam over a long period in my childhood,” says Raghu, who was born and brought up in Karnataka.
Raghu’s journey into the world of music began when he held a guitar for the first time during his college days. “I picked up the guitar on a bet that I eventually won. But more than that, the first time I picked up the guitar, I experienced a feeling of complete freedom and the ability to just breathe in thin air and create a song!” Raghu, who grew up in an environment where there was little access to popular music, says, “I never attempted to sing or cover any pop song but, instead, I started writing songs of my own each time.” At the time, his music was predominantly in English with a simple structure and melody, explains the self-taught singer and guitarist.
It was only during his college years that he was exposed to western music. Raghu formed Antaragni in 1996 — a band well received for its easy mix of Indian classical, folk and western music. Although the band went on to win several competitions and was even invited to open for the Bryan Adams show in Bengaluru, it didn’t last longer than a few years. Music took a back seat as the pressure to get a ‘real’ job took over. This wasn’t the case just for Raghu, who moved to Bengaluru in 1998 in search of better job prospects, but for the rest of the band too. Raghu was eventually sent to Belgium to work as a microbiologist by a pharmaceuticals company. And, although it was a natural progression of his education, he was just as ardently passionate about it. “I have always been passionate about the things I did — right from my studying microbiology, to my job as a scientist.” Even as we worked as a scientist, his passion for music continued to fuel his life.
Raghu remembers that there were a couple of turning points in his life that made him consider switching careers to become a fulltime musician. The first was over the course of his initial introduction to the guitar in his younger days, of course. The second definitive moment of realization arrived in Belgium, when his landlord sent some of his early recordings to a local radio station. The response Raghu received was so overwhelming that it pushed him to pursue music on a serious note. “That definitely made me think that I had a future in music,” says Raghu. And yet, he adds, it wasn’t exactly some sort of a “careful process of edging one job out and picking up a another”.
He eventually quit his job as a scientist, moved back to India and jumped into the world of music head-on. “I was very confident that it would work out and I was expecting nothing short of a meteoric rise to fame and success. But then reality struck and it struck hard!” says the Kannadiga musician. These were the post-glory days of MTV, when one of the biggest platforms for indie music since 1991 had switched to a reality TV format. Even mainstream radio had stopped playing indie music by then. “This was also before the time when the Internet was so widespread and social media had become so big. So we had no other choice but to grow organically,” Raghu adds.
Raghu, who believes in the power of musical collaborations, then formed The Raghu Dixit Project, a collective of musicians with varied musical backgrounds. Backed by a folksy approach to music, and lyrics that appealed to the common man, the band played hundreds of shows across India and gained a huge following. Yet, he faced several hurdles along the way. For one, not a single record label in Mumbai wanted to launch his first album. But then, in 2007, things started to look up when music director duo Vishal-Shekhar launched the musician’s self-titled debut album on their independent record label. Two years later, the album was picked up by British record label Wrasse Records and the band was even invited to perform at the UK music festival Lovebox. By this time, The Raghu Dixit Project’s popularity had reached far beyond Indian shores.
Although the band played several shows in London and continued to make waves across India’s biggest campuses, its biggest milestones were yet to arrive. For instance, Raghu appeared on the popular BBC TV show Jools Holland in 2010; the band won the prestigious Songlines 2011 – Best Newcomer Award, and was a hit at the London South Bank’s Alchemy festival and at the Glastonbury festival in 2011; and the following year saw Raghu perform for the Queen of England. “I think we are among the very few bands in the country that intentionally invested in building a worldwide touring career and who has sustained the effort to go out of India and take our music around the world,” explains Raghu.
Today, The Raghu Dixit Project remains a wildly popular act not just on home ground but also across the world. Most recently, the band performed at Madrid’s MULAFEST in association with the IIFA Awards, before they flew off to Canada for another set of shows. Come August 2016, they will play in New York and London, and later this year, they’re slated to perform in Australia and the Middle East. In between hectic tour schedules, Raghu composes for films and writes new music; he’s working on the music for two Kannada films along with a Tamil film at the moment, and the band is also readying to release a lot of new music this year. It all sounds rather taxing, but, says Raghu, there is nothing else he would rather do today. “I love the fact that I get to wake up everyday and do something I absolutely love. The fact that the music I make has such a lasting impact on so many people’s lives is a feeling I can’t express in words.”
In retrospect, he still thinks that leaving a well-paying and much sought-after job was a huge risk. “The career path I imagined and what I eventually ended up following were so far apart from each other that it’s really amusing now.” While he admits to facing a good number of challenges during his career switch, he says that he also learned from them. “I didn’t know how to record music, so I had to buy a computer and teach myself how to do it. I didn’t know how the entire industry worked, so I had to figure that out by myself with many false steps. But each of those challenges has taught me well, and today I am a lot clearer with the direction I need to take and what I need to do to get where I want to go.”
He’s quick to add that his life changed for the better once he managed to make his career change work. “But it’s still a lot of hard work, and at times, it’s more work that what I had to do previously. But music affords me the chance to travel the world and positively impact people’s lives for which I am eternally grateful.” Raghu might be one of India’s most successful acts to have made it big in the international circuit, but he hasn’t forgotten that he still has a point to prove. “I still have a career to pursue and I still have a lot of ambition left in me,” he says, adding that he is still far away from achieving all that he wants in his life and with regards to his music. “I’m constantly working towards that end,” Raghu says.
As for some advice on following one’s passion, Raghu says, “Jump right into it and do everything it takes. I know this will sound like a cliché, but life is too short to be doing something you don’t like. So if you are passionate about something, be smart about it as well and figure out a way to make it something that will sustain. It is going to be a lot of hard work and there are no short cuts, but if you’re really passionate about it, you will love the hard work enough to make things work!”
Facebook: The Raghu Dixit Project
Photo credits: Shashank Ramesh, Daisy Costello, Gomtesh Upadhye, Vinod Bangera and Nikhil Madgavkar
This article is written by Beverly Pereira