On a dark November evening in 2010 when the kids had gone to bed and I wasn’t quite ready for it myself, I flicked through the television channels and settled on Later…with Jools Holland, just as he was introducing a bunch of musicians from India. As the Raghu Dixit Project played the divinely beautiful opening chords to No Man Will Ever Love You Like I Do, I (and countless others) sat up and let the purity and strength of Raghu’s voice wash over me, like a cooling swim after a hot day’s trek.
I wangled a cup of tea with Raghu himself at the TEDGlobal in Edinburgh in 2012 and the conversation was such that I berated myself for not recording it. More music followed and I caught up with him again, receiving one of his famous sweaty hugs after one of the band’s 2014 Celtic Connections gigs. Both meetings were like reconnecting with an old friend. Dixit remembers little details about the people he meets; this is qualified by some Tolbooth audience members I chat to, it tickles them that he listens. He is the opposite of an aloof rock star.
So we sit in a quiet dressing room at the Tolbooth and mull over the years since that appearance on Jools Holland, for which, he admits, he questioned the validity of the trip from India to London just for one song on some TV show. It paid off. Dixit expands, “It’s been a great life and journey so far. Actually it’s not just the music alone… in every city we now just end up knowing so many more people. There’s not just a repeat audience, they’re bringing friends along and saying, watch this guy!” This is typical of his positivity. His personality, like his unique blend of folk-pop music, radiates warmth and optimism.
Through the benefits of social media like Facebook and Twitter, and through each of their performances, the band have grown a strong and devoted following. “It’s been beautiful, we haven’t had a single bad gig at all in the UK so far…” They got lucky at Glastonbury this year, due to another band’s cancellation, and opened on the West Holts Stage, “At 11.30 in the morning, we thought that people would still be arriving into the festival, but we had a good 4-5,000 people and that was a great photograph at the end where we took a selfie with the band and the crowd behind us. That’s going to stay in my memory for a very long time.”
It reminds him of one of their first UK gigs, at the Lovebox festival in Victoria Park, London which started with a handful of people and as the band continued to play, so people came running from other parts of the site to share in this music. Small or large venues, Dixit feels the crowds are always lovely. This is apparent in the tweets that always follow a gig; people simply love him. It’s not hard to see why. On the last leg of this tour, the band visited a terminally ill fan who couldn’t make the gig and gave them a private, unplugged session. A beautiful moment indeed.
But how does Dixit cope with the demands of not only life on the road but the long-haul travelling too? In between legs of the UK tour, the band had nipped back to India to do a couple of gigs. “It was actually the economics that dictated how our travel was scheduled. I’m involved in a couple of movie projects back home that needed attention and then there were two gigs that just popped out of nowhere, so it financially worked out for us.” Otherwise, he explains, it is very expensive to keep a band on standby in the UK. “In fact this is the first tour in all of seven years that we are breaking even.” They have managed that by cutting out all non-essentials, driving themselves everywhere and staying at AirBnB places instead of hotels. “Our tour manager Gaurav [Vaz] has been incredible playing the bass, driving and also managing the tour. He is really the backbone of the band.” They have upgraded the van over the years for a little more comfort; previous trips have seen them crammed into a five-seater with frequent return trips to London to pick up clean clothes etc. from storage at a friend’s. “That experience taught me I should not carry a suitcase.” He points to his current baggage; it’s a backpack smaller than the one my son uses for school.
Dixit is married to the dancer and choreographer Mayuri Upadhya. Success for both of them means time apart but the couple collaborated on the performance at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and launch production in 2013 for the latest album, Jag Changa. It would be amazing if this production would hit the road one day, but an entourage of 40 people is not cheap to tour (note to Mr Peter Gabriel…). There is a definite feel that Dixit’s music hails a burgeoning movement in India that embraces home-grown talent. “More and more Indian bands are refraining from imitating western bands, wearing India on their sleeves and truly expressing themselves and where they come from. Before it was like listening to a rock band play a lesser version of Metallica. Now things have changed.” Dixit himself sings in three languages – Kannada, Hindi and one song in his mother’s language, Tamil – though he is still learning. Maybe this is not so hard for a man with two degrees in microbiology, but I wonder where he finds the time.
For one of the busiest bands on the international circuit, with a habit of picking up awards and accidentally hosting marriage proposals along to No Man Will Ever Love You Like I Do, they still manage to find time to promote social awareness projects, the latest of which is an Indian charity working on banning of animal circuses. The life of this band is never dull. Later, in the audience at Stirling’s Tolbooth, I am enraptured once again by that song’s ability to take me somewhere else. The essential newness and the truth of the passion with which Raghu Dixit delivers never fades, no matter how many times it is performed.