Raghu Dixit’s remarkable rise has been nothing short of spectacular. The former Bharatnatyam dancer’s rousing folk rock is not only the symbol of metropolitan India’s blossoming alternative music scene, but is also making waves internationally. As Raghu recounts, the music that The Raghu Dixit Project makes, is a true representation of today’s India. Ethnic and rooted at the core, but at the same time, global in its outlook. Its not a surprise that Raghu has been referred to as India’s biggest cultural export of recent times.
Yet it could have turned out so differently for Raghu. Raghu didn’t touch a guitar until he was 19: ‘I was in college and a classmate, who had long hair, baggy jeans, and impressed girls by carrying a guitar and singing English songs’. As a bet, Raghu learnt to play a rock song on the guitar in two months. Considering Raghu came from a traditional South Indian family where Western music was not the norm (he would sneak listens of Phil Collins and Wham), this was a Herculean feat. ‘In the first few days of picking up a guitar, I knew I would do this for a living,’ recalls Raghu.Raghu continued to pursue his ‘traditional career’ with a move from Mysore to the metropolis of Bangalore, which was then becoming home to India’s alternative music scene and, by night, Raghu began to develop his finger picking, songwriting and singing skills.
Raghu’s method, like his music, is unique: ‘I didn’t have a tape recorder so I couldn’t listen to the songs but that limiting factor became my advantage – I would strum my guitar, hum and make melodies. Then I would read the newspaper and put stories to the melody.’
A second twist of fate happened when he moved to Belgium to work and his landlord discovered his music. ‘He took my CD to a radio station, who invited me on the radio – that was my 15 minutes of fame. They received a huge number of emails, from people saying they loved it – that filled me with confidence and within a week, I was back in India thinking, ‘How can I make music my life?’’ he says. On his return to Bangalore, Raghu formed cult Indian rock band Antaragni (The Fire Within) and joined a software company to pay the bills. When commercial radio expanded at the turn of the millennium, Raghu found a niche in writing radio jingles, a couple of which became huge hits, enabling him to pursue his dream – ‘I woke up, slept and lived with music,’ he explains.
However the Bollywood-focused music industry failed to grasp his potent mix of folk, blues, rock, Sufi, funk, reggae, bhangra and Latin. ‘My sound wasn’t Bollywood and labels would try to lead me down that route. That was until I played in Zenzi in Bombay in 2007 and Bollywood composers Vishal and Shekhar spotted me.’
It was the break Raghu needed: three years on and Raghu’s self-titled album became the biggest selling non-Bollywood record in India (2009). He has also written scores for two Kannada-language (his native tongue) movies: ‘Both were cult hits, that’s what’s made me so popular in my home state. Only the eclectic crowd knew me until the song Mahadeshwara from Psycho but now a farmer in the most remote village knows that song and my name, and I can’t walk alone in Karnatka,’ he says grinning.