Everyone can sing in Hindi if Raghu Dixit is on stage
It was a blustery afternoon in a remote, mountainous region of the Scottish highlands, and on a rustic stage the size of a garden shed, decorated with garden forks and flowerpots, one of India's biggest rock stars was about to launch into passionate song.
The unbilled shed show was at a festival called Belladrum, and while really just a preview of his proper performance later on, it remained an incongruous setting. Back home Raghu Dixit has played to hundreds of thousands of people.
"Any gig, you never know who will be there; it can be the person who changes your life," says the singer, happily sitting on a scrub of grass minutes later. "It's funny how a small moment can change everything."
Several such moments have helped propel Dixit to his current status as a rare international envoy for Indian guitar bands. Fusing melodic folk-rock with lyrics in English and traditional Hindi, his Raghu Dixit Project has been a popular fixture at European festivals this summer. That voice - majestic even on such a tiny stage - is proving particularly compelling.
As is his story.
Dixit had seemed destined for a different vocation. Brought up in a family that frowned on western culture, he "grudgingly" studied classical dance as an eight-year-old, first at the behest of his father, but then several years on found himself forced to quell his enthusiasm. "I started loving the attention," he admits. "I wanted to be a classical dancer but my dad was like 'No! You go to college'."
The journey to rock stardom began when he was teased about dancing by a guitar-playing classmate. Dixit resolved to learn the instrument too, cycling to his Christian friends' houses in the hope that they might have one he could borrow. "Finally, a friend took me to a seminary and the brothers had a guitar they used for Sunday mass," he recalls.
Returning for lessons every day, he mastered an old folk song called 500 Miles, played it at school and never looked back. "That was where I realised I have a voice. I loved the whole experience, it was very liberating. It was something about playing loudly and letting your voice out. It was like freedom."
A good student, he continued to follow his father's advice, and did so well at his graduate job with a pharmaceutical giant that "after six months in Bangalore they thought I was a little bit too brilliant to be wasted and they sent me to join the main team in Belgium". While there, he was overheard singing by his landlord, who somehow secured Dixit a guest slot on a big Belgian radio show. Cue a flood of positive emails. "That got me thinking: if I could turn on an audience who doesn't know what I'm singing, I could probably do a little better back home. So I quit my job and returned to India to be a rock star."
The fateful encounters had begun in earnest. At his first free gig back in Bangalore an enthused audience member, surprised that he did not have a record deal, asked Dixit to sing at a family dinner. After that set he was given a thank-you card, containing a cheque for 50,000 rupees (Dh4,022). "They said: 'Go and record your demo!'"
He went on to form a progressive rock band called Antaragni, but when they disbanded in 2004 Dixit's solo songs failed to interest an Indian music industry dominated by Bollywood soundtracks. Dixit was about to "give up and go back to science, or teaching" when a final gig resulted in some higher-profile benefactors. The Bollywood music producers Vishal and Shekhar were so impressed, they formed a record company just to release Dixit's songs.
That Bollywood link boosted the singer's profile enormously, but selling records proved more difficult, chiefly because the major label entrusted to distribute the album failed to do so. Hugely frustrated, Dixit gambled, bought back the CDs and resolved to sell them after shows. It paid off handsomely: in one year the band sold 35,000 albums.
The Indian public have taken to The Raghu Dixit Project, then, but while his profile in Europe is growing steadily, with appearances on big TV shows and major events such as Glastonbury, he wouldn't call it a success yet. "I'm still funding my entire trip; I'm still losing a lot of money," Dixit says.
The Belladrum gig was a particular test, with Dixit something of an anomaly on a bill full of British folk and rock acts sparking the spectre of him performing to his own empty tent. Despite numerous attractions elsewhere, though, the venue was packed, and Dixit had the crowd jumping, dancing and even singing along in Hindi. Or trying to. As the audience attempted an enthusiastic approximation of his chorus, Dixit says, laughing: "Next concert, come prepared!"
Published: August 23, 2011 04:00 AM