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Swarathma: What’s the colour?

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Swarathma

The lead vocalist made his way onto the stage wearing his blue socks and red sneakers- green laces on the left boot and yellow on the right, a green satin dhoti to go with a red top. The bassist was donning one of his many frilly Rajasthani Kurtas and the violinist his glittery suit and white Jodhpuri trousers. Clad in a flowery shirt with shiny purple bellbottoms, the percussionist cum vocalist seemed to have made his way straight out of the sets of a 70’s Bollywood movie. The guitarist though, was making a statement with his long locks rather than with his motley robe he usually wears. A diminutive figure with a huge gleaming smile on his face took his place behind the drums and music was all set to roll.  Welcome, Swarathma!

Yamunotsav’12- an initiative by a NGO Sweccha, saw the band performing in Delhi on their recent ‘Restless Tour’ promoting their latest album Topiwalleh. This time it was for the English-speaking-white-collared bourgeois munching on Blackberries and Apples at the India Habitat Centre. Commemorating the World Environment Day celebrations, Swarathma, with its kaleidoscopic brand of music was the perfect choice to preach some socially important, yet often ignored lessons with some fun, humour and wit.

The troubadours from Bangalore started off with ‘Aaj ki Taaza Fikar’; the band’s take on yellow journalism and the sensationalist-TRP-hungry media. The crowd was still shuffling inside the IHC amphitheatre and gradually picking up on the frenzy with Montry’s adept drumming and Varun’s fluency on his Gibson Les Paul. Meanwhile, Jishnu Dasgupta, the bassist halted to give a sneak peek into their next song, “Since we are at Yamunotsav, this song too has been written for the plight of a river and it strikes a chord….” To which Vasu, the frontman of the band and an eccentric oddball with curly hair jeered jocularly, “Which Chord is it by the way?” The audience exploded into a fit of laughter and Jishnu remarked, “D major”. ‘Pyaasi’– the song that saw the band rise into fame is the voice of River Cauvery, as it reacts to the violence that broke out during the water sharing issue between the two states down south.

Swarathma’s lyrics have always been the trailblazers of social change. Their latest sophomore album ‘Topiwalleh’ is their smirk at the topi-wearing corrupt politicians. Jishnu, who perfected his PR skills and the vernacular Bihari accent at XLRI Jamshedpur claimed, “Ab vaqt hai political debate ka” (Now, it’s the time for a political debate). They churned out many of their songs from the recent album, each one distinctly different from the other, be it the composition or the social message it imparts. ‘Topiwalleh’ is a cheesy number while ‘Koorane’ with its typically heavy metal riff unleashes the ‘animalistic’ instincts within. ‘Naane Daari’ is powerful and the latest heavy artillery in Swarathma’s arsenal these days.

Vasu, then suddenly with his Kacchi Ghodi (steed) that’s long been associated to the band’s brand image; ran through the stage amidst the huge cheers in the crowd and Jishnu who does most of the talking for the band declared, ‘It is story-telling time’. They shelled out their hit from the first album ‘Pyaar ke rang’ a song of love that has been on their set-list since the ‘Soundpad’ days. Another song that hardly ever gives a miss in their live shows is ‘Yeshu Allah aur Krishna’ which is all about communal harmony, Kabir’s teachings and ‘Devotional Atyachaar’And the latest addition ‘Duur Kinara’ -a sensational collaboration with Shubha Mudgal reverberates loud in one’s head long after the last note has been played.

Varun’s strumming on the guitar has heavy western influences and Sanjeev’s mellifluous violin lines complement the music to form an impeccable fusion of rock and folk. Montry and Pavan’s percussions are tight, Jishnu’s bass and melodies perfect.  Vasu’s powerful vocals and the raw acoustic guitar guarantee unadulterated fun. But, Swarathma isn’t just about their music. They have their marketing skills sharpened and they know how to sell their brand. The myriad colours they flaunt on the stage can be seen on their cover art or their promotional posters. Be it the ‘Action Replay’ concerts for the underprivileged and disabled kids or the concerts for social causes such as Yamunotsav, ever since they took the Indian folk-rock genre by storm, they have won many friends and earned accolades all along their way.

In the end, Swarathma’s colourful music does more than putting a smile on your face. It makes you think, it inspires you.

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Shubhodeep Datta

Shubhodeep is home to a lunatic in his head, who is on his own with no direction home. Tell him about his grammatical errors! Follow him on Twitter @datta_shubho

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Topiwalleh by Swarathma

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Topiwalleh

Swarathma is a talented group of musicians, just thinking about whom brings an explosion of colors in one’s head – not just because of the colourful dresses they don, not even because of the showmanship, the on-stage gimmickry or the props. These colours are of traditional art assimilated in an arrangement of largely western instruments, and the flamboyance with which the band rebukes the dishonest, mocks the ludicrous, and alleviates suffering through their honest rendition of songs that describe the world as they see it.

Their second album, Topiwalleh, is an experience where every word – spoken or sung, every pulse, beat, and measure, is a rush of colours of contrasting human emotions. Your senses are exposed to the entire spectrum in less than 55 minutes, if you listen closely. The melody is almost never melancholic, although when it’s dark, it’s ominous.

This album brought with it not just great music, but a lot of creativity in the album promotions too! Right from the colourful topis, the vibrant album cover, to running interesting contests on Facebook, and the launch followed by a ‘Restless Tour’ that took them to many cities over a period of one month, the band has done a fabulous job of promoting their new album.

Swarathma has six members: Vasu Dixit (vocals, rhythm guitar), Pavan Kumar KJ (percussion, backing vocals), Montry Manuel (drums), Varun Murali (lead guitar), Sanjeev Nayak (violin) and Jishnu Dasgupta (bass guitar, backing vocals), and for the sound that is more refined, all six members unequivocally acknowledge Loy Mendonsa (from the Shankar-Ehsan-Loy trio) who has co-produced this album.

One might as well call the band Swarathma 2.0, because of two noticeable things– one, a paradigm shift in the ‘sound’ of a recorded album, and two, a concept album with many societal messages being delivered within a span of 10 tracks. For the message to be heard and the outreach to be as vast as the problems addressed and solutions needed, their language of choice is Hindi, although they have sung in Kannada on two of the tracks.

Topiwalleh’ has an effervescent, Rastafarian reggae rhythm, a violin that can admiringly be called the second vocalist for the track, a laid-back 40-second guitar solo and the superb backing vocals. The lyrics take a dig at everything that’s wrong in the current political circles. There are many tongue-in-cheek references and no-holds-barred statements that the artists have taken the liberty to make on this track.

‘Koorane’, my favorite track from the album, starts with the sounds that we relate to crying of wolves on a full-moon night. Varun Murali finds a fit to display the rock in his guitar, which is alarmingly close to ‘Roadhouse Blues’ by The Doors. The song seems to draw a metaphor – the mention of a rare animal Koorane being hunted by the hunters (human or otherwise). Think capitalism, consumerism, how the society is fascinated by television and advertisements, while disrobing itself of tradition and a sense of judgment, hypnotized by the domineering supremacy of advertising duplicity.

‘Rishton Ka Raasta’ is pleasing, and contemplative, with an intention that’s driven straight to the heart by the expressive violin (the tone sounding almost like it’s a Saarangi) that opens this song which is about broken relations and the willingness to mend fences. For me, it delivers the most powerful message in the entire album.

‘Ghum’ is characterized by a sense of despair, urgency, and hopelessness, made apparent within the first 90 seconds of the song. The mood remains largely that, only you’d have to find an interview where the band mentions what this song is about. This is their voice against child sexual abuse, and is the gloomiest of all tracks on the album.

‘Naane Dari’ starts with a superb guitar solo but everything else plays second fiddle to the violin and to the terrific lyrics. ‘Naane Daari’ (I am my own way) talks about hope and leaving the past behind.

‘Aaj Ki Taaza Fikar’ may confuse you with the way it begins, if you ever used to trip on ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ OST (think ‘Jaane Kyun’) – and perhaps thank Loy Mendonsa? The highlight of this track is the juicy potpourri of all the overused or hyped snippets on the television (‘Sannate ko cheerti hui sansani’ and the like). It lands a sucker-punch on the sensationalism as created by the media.

‘Mukhote’ has got a fragrant, violin-drenched overture. This is a song about the two-facedness in human relations, the drumming stands out and is most imaginative among all tracks on the album.

‘Duur Kinara’, featuring Shubha Mudgal, has everything that is being and has been talked about already. Shubha’s vivacious vocals work perfectly with Vasu’s high-pitched recital of the Kannada lines on this track about separation from loved ones and the desire to unite, and about tales of a far-away land.

‘Yeshu Allah aur Krishna’ is where the arrangement goes back to reggae for most part, the violin speaks as if reinforcing the spoken words, and the vocals are dramatic and appealing. The song speaks about religious evangelists and communalism, but unless you are a in a mood to complain about the issue really, you might just end up dancing along with this one as well.

On a splendid album, where nine songs talk about one powerful subject each, ‘Khul Ja Re’ is one song that apathetically speaks of optimism with adolescent lyrics and ordinary singing. For being a keepsake from the band’s past, ‘Khul Ja Re’ is forgivable.

All said and done, social issues and worldly worries notwithstanding, Topiwalleh is a fun album. The sheer energy that makes the audience sway during their live shows is not missing on this record. Though the lyrics may seem juvenile here and there, the maturity that’s apparent for most part of the album compensates for it. The lead guitar has got to find a voice by bringing in more tones and risk-taking. As far as the percussion and violin are concerned, I would not want to change a thing. For the vocals though, my only sour point remains the habit of throwing the last note (for instance – at 1:29 mark in ‘Koorane’).

Swarathma has already started working on their third album and until that is out, buying a digital copy of Topiwalleh and listening to it is only the second best choice. The best choice is to land up at a Swarathma gig, and treat your senses to the musical mixture of colors, sights and sounds.

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Gaurrav Tiwari

Drummer at DIARCHY, and HR Manager at Genpact

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