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Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

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The Mad Festival sprinted into its first few hours, admitting a respectable amount of people into the sprawling venue on a beautiful Thursday morning; at this point, there was only a hint of rain on the horizon with people (rather than the sky) rumbling warnings of possible rains.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Post the invocation, things kicked off at the smaller Callaloo stage with Vayali, a bamboo orchestra. Comprising a number of bamboo drums and flutes, one expected some good energy from these musicians from Kerala. However, their choice of songs wasn’t the most inspiring, and having the sparse crowd right at the beginning of the festival didn’t help matters either. We would’ve loved to see some more traditional stuff from these guys instead of picking up common, run of the mill material, as well as some more energy with the bamboo.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Across the venue, past the Mad Bazaar, old-school metallers Kryptos had the misfortune of opening the festival at the Blubaloo stage to a very limited audience. The sparse crowd, which had certain members from Indian Ocean in their midst, were treated to an unsurprising setlist consisting of concert favourites such as ‘Heretic Supreme’, ‘Revenant’, ‘Mask of Anubis’ and a few other tracks from their latest album Coils of Apollyon. Kryptos are no doubt accustomed to playing to packed crowds at Kyra but they did a fairly good job of trying to keep the energy levels high. Nolan was mostly tongue-in-cheek on stage as they launched into their closing number – ‘Descension’. Unfortunately, they slightly messed up their signature number – though you couldn’t really blame them for exhibiting some lethargy on stage.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Over at the Callaloo stage, Groove No. 3 took the stage right after Vayali, and showcased a brand of funk that one has come to associate exclusively with Chennai. Featuring some stellar vocals courtesy Benny Dayal, these guys pulled off some nice grooves, with some tight drum and bass playing. The crowd, sparse at the beginning, built up through the show. Save for Benny though, the stage presence was lacking. A funk band should not have their bassist sitting down for the duration of their set, especially with bass lines and music with as much groove as these guys. ‘Nowhere to Run’ was a clear stand-out, although their set was a tad disappointing on account of the number of covers in it. Among the covers though, the funky rendition of ‘Summertime’ stood out. The next time round, an all original set would be a welcome change.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

While Groove No. 3 occupied the smaller stage, Yodhakaa – a 7 piece-band that blend contemporary rock with Carnatic classical music – were initially scheduled to open the festival but their late arrival bumped Kryptos to the top of the schedule. They played after Kryptos instead and their set included the ‘Jnyaanam’, a song with a really groovy bassline that is arguably the band’s best. What really makes the song is the male-female vocal harmony throughout the track. They also performed ‘Shwetambaram’, which is another track from their eponymous debut album. The song moves from a sombre piece featuring slide guitar to a more upbeat one dominated by a classical guitar solo. Yodhakaa were extremely tight during their entire performance even on their new song- ‘Adhrijhadam’ – which featured a Cajon solo. Their music perfectly complimented the signature 2 p.m. Ooty weather. They closed out their set with ‘Jataa Kataa’, a song from the Ramayana that was sung by Ravana. Bandleader Darbuka Siva is a multi-instrumentalist and musical genius when it comes to songwriting. Their music (on the album and live) is crisp, catchy and rich and they deserve to be heard more. A hurried walk to the Callaloo stage takes us just in time to catch the much-touted Motherjane.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Motherjane has never really been the same since longtime vocalist Suraj Mani and guitarist Baiju departed the band. They’ve soldiered on nevertheless, with new vocalist Vivek who manages to sound exactly like Suraj. Their setlist played out like a greatest hits record but with the fizz taken out. Their performance was quite flat and it got monotonous very soon. New guitarist Santosh can really shred and his classical piece on the ‘Maktub’ intro was fantastic but his solos seemed little rushed. It also didn’t help that almost every Motherjane song follows a similar verse-chorus-verse-guitar-solo-chorus format. ‘Broken’ and ‘Mindstreet’ got some sort of response from the crowd more due to familiarity than any sort of energy from the band on stage. ‘Soul Corporation’, ‘Maya’, ‘Fields of Sound’, ‘Walk On’ etc. were few of the songs they mechanically played before finishing off their set with ‘Karmic Steps’ and ‘Shhh..Listen’. Ironically, not too many people did.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Swarathma played at what must be an unusual time slot for them, bang in the middle of the afternoon. Kicking off with what has become a crowd favourite, ‘Ee Bhoomi’, the energy one is so used to seeing at a Swarathma gig was missing somewhat, Vasu Dixit’s vocals not at their exuberant best. The first couple of songs had something off on the mix on the PA, with the bass drum too high, the guitar levels too low. ‘Ghum’ was executed well and ‘Topiwalleh’ brought some of the energy back, the levels seemed much better than before, and despite a major glitch with the PA, including a couple of seconds of shutdown, the band began to draw some more energy out of the still sparse crowd. ‘Koorane’, featured some Huli Kunitha (Tiger Dance), costumed actors, who seemed to take away from Swarathma’s already impressive stage act rather than add to it. Swarathma did bring some of their awesome energy back for the end, with ‘Pyaar ke Rang’. The little tete-a-tete between Amit Kilam of Indian Ocean and Vasu Dixit also provided some comic entertainment. The ghodi, so much a part of the Swarathma act, was missed though. All in all, Swarathma didn’t disappoint but didn’t exactly blow people away either.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

What followed was a close to two hour delay thanks to an incessant pitter patter of the rain. While organizers rushed around, mainly trying to keep things dry and, well, organized, people huddled near the food stalls and other forms of shelter; several even braved a stall with a magician in it! The stall kept the small crowd thoroughly entertained (and dry) and the magician watched with unabashed amusement as they tried to make sense of his various magical paraphernalia and failed repeatedly to the steady stream of self-conscious giggling.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Two hours seemed to pass quickly though, and World Music aficionados Moon Arra were finally taking to the Blubaloo stage. As the cameras hovered around importantly like lumbering giants in the twilight haze, members of the audience who’d run for cover to dignified (the Fern Hills palace) and undignified (Mad signboards serving as makeshift umbrellas) places returned to the eaves of the stage to the ever-welcoming MoonArra (“We don’t mind the rain if you don’t!” said a hardly phased Madhuri). While it strikes us as unfortunate every time we see them live that Moon Arra’s stage presence leaves something to be desired, they never disappoint by way of their music. Madhuri’s vocals are the perfect juxtaposition to the clean, smooth lines that Prakash and Jagadeesh carve with their respective instruments. After a few songs from their album Indian Accent, we realize that this is the perfect segue back into full-fledged performances at the festival after the rains. As a fan for life of Mr. Sontakke’s pitch perfect genius, we bristled when a passerby casually opined – “This Skinney Arra is not bad, man”. Persevering against the urge to strike said passerby, we focused instead on the meager compliment in that statement and re-immersed myself in the dulcet tones of the vocalist. The band didn’t have much of an audience to play to, with pockets of people watching from various angles – but it was borderline acceptable what with the rain pouring a damper on events.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Skinny Alley, over on the Calaloo stage, was quite the interesting act, clearly intent on keeping with the times. Fans of their earlier releases, such as 2003’s ‘˜Escape the Roar’, were treated to a wholly different rendition of some of their signature tunes. Gyan Singh’s basslines, a heavy dose of electronic embellishment, combined with Jayashree Singh’s vocals, layered at times with a harmonizer, figured prominently throughout their set. A big draw for several Skinny Alley fans is Amyt Datta’s guitar playing, and the audience at the Mad festival weren’t left too disappointed with some great albeit very different sounds coming out of his guitar. We would’ve liked to see some actual harmonies though. Highlights from their set including their opening track, were ‘Woman Who Is Me’ and ‘Used to Be Mine’. Skinny Alley managed to surprise a good portion of the audience, pleasantly and otherwise with their current sound. The visuals in the backdrop, however, at times seemed out of place with the music being played.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

The Raghu Dixit Project trundled onto stage and was one of the few bands who had a sizeable audience already gathered during sound check, pushing and shoving for prime place near the barricade. During any of his shows, it’s mandatory to show some love or Raghu makes sure he points you out and jocularly shames you into having some fun. His shouts of “Puma! Too cool to dance?” or “Madam! You can send sms to your boyfriend later” into the crowd did just that. Turns out that heckling the crowd makes them, (even people further back from the stage, far from the singer’s eagle eye) begin bouncing in real or faked enjoyment. Such is this band’s infectious enthusiasm and Raghu’s powers of persuasion. ‘Masti ki Basti’ (particularly loved the flautist’s section on this song) and a brand new Kannada song – the melody to which sounded suspiciously familiar – warmed the crowd up for their last couple of songs ‘Lokada Kalaji’ and ‘Mysore Se Aayi’. Raghu made sure to mention that the band was playing in front of the queen (you know which one!) later this month, which was met with the appropriate amount of cheering and smiles of national pride.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

It has to be mentioned that the crew from Cobalt were thorough professionals and utterly immovable when it came to the timing allotted to bands, big or small, after the downpour that affected the scheduling for the day. It’s a testament to their will that they persevered and said no to crazed TRDP fans screaming “One more” repeatedly. Once again, we tip our hats to the people behind the scenes!

And so we move on – with Raghu Dixit’s surprisingly nullified by the distance between the stages, Soulmate came on at the Callaloo stage in their usual sedate, unfussy manner, with Tipriti looking spiffy in a vested shirt ensemble. The air was now carrying a slight nip that made the atmosphere crackle with electricity – mostly static, thanks to the woolens being whipped out. The weather and the general mood would have turned been elevated into a higher experience if the band had decided to play ‘Sier Lapalang’, their usual opening number. But the audience was more than happy to settle for ‘Smile at Me’. Barring the slight over register of guitars that was fixed post haste, the band had a flawless run. Rudy’s slide on the intro to ‘Sunshine’ and his solo later gave the song amazing punch, outdone only by his laidback, easygoing vocals. What was an absolute shocker (that really shouldn’t have really been a shocker considering the talent this band has) was the fact that Tipriti’s voice sounded shot to hell when she spoke into the microphone between songs. But, we’d have betted unrealistic amounts of money that no one could tell from her singing voice that she had any trouble at all. She made it through the entire set like a trooper, hitting those high, loud notes and even maintaining that dreamy guttural quality that is so typically hers now. Soulmate’s lyrics aren’t a complicated battlefield of metaphors and hidden meaning but then that begs the question, why do they seem so gosh darned perfect? Our song pick of the set was definitely ‘Set Me Free’. They’ve got the performance of this song right down to an art form.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

At the Blubaloo stage, the lull in the wake of the boisterous Raghu Dixit welcomed The Electric Konark Band, which was quite frankly an unknown quantity for this reviewer. While the band as a whole didn’t strike a bell, the individual members were illustrious enough to generate the right amount of interest in the right amount of people. Their tagline – “Going Electric with integrity” served to remind us of reading about the genuine feeling of regret from fans and some in the musical community of the 60s at the tumultuous switch from acoustic to electric, this while the latter genre was still in its infancy. The band inaugurated the set with a meaty guitar-driven melody (thanks to the immensely talented Konarak Reddy) – notes bent to Indian classical that were merged into a Western scale backdrop. When the tabla and the bass (Rzhude David) came in and sparred through the mid-section of the song, we knew what we were about to experience was one of a kind. The first song ‘Mango Ripples’ was a masterpiece in timing, precision and technicality. Unfortunately, due to the rain-related delays, a visibly (and audibly) peeved Konarak Reddy groused that the band had only five more minutes to play and didn’t waste any more time on talking.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

On a side note, while it was apparent that we were in the presence of some seriously talented artists, one wonders how long the attention span of an (and stress on this) average listener would have to be for him to be able to be completely immersed for the duration of a ten-minute, non-vocal song. Some members of the audience were soaking in the music at the very front while others allowed themselves to be distracted by conversation, clearly taking a breather, in the wake of an energetic Raghu Dixit performance. Either way, it was a true pleasure to watch the maestros play off each other and genuinely enjoy their time on stage.

The Kabir Project, an eclectic bunch of musicians that take inspiration from the works of Kabir, was a breath of fresh air. While the crowd watching wasn’t particularly significant in number, those who did stay back to catch this eclectic act who performed after Soulmate were treated to some delightful interpretations of the 15th century poet they take their name and inspiration from. There were some nice harmonies incorporated as well, mixing nicely into the set up they had. Thanks to the rain earlier that day and the subsequent scheduling constraints their set was curtailed into a short, albeit, refreshing one.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

The last act of the evening was Indian Ocean on the Blubaloo stage. Despite a reduced set time and a plethora of sound issues including the rain earlier in the day ruining the mixer settings and their sound check, Indian Ocean sounded brilliant on the PA. Their setlist was short, crisp and rather energetic. ‘Bondhu’, from 16/330 Khajoor Road, their last album with late singer, tabla player and percussionist Asheem Chakravarty, a poignant track, drenched with emotion was probably the pick of the night for this writer. Evocative, the track showcased Indian Ocean at their melodic best. ‘Maa Rewa’, ‘Bandhe’ and especially ‘Kandisa’ got the crowd singing along and completely involved with the act, and displayed exactly why Indian Ocean are so revered in the independent music scene in the country. If we had to pick a crib, it would be that the band tends to stick to the staple crowd pleasers at the festivals. All in all, a thoroughly engrossing performance, that highlighted Indian Ocean’s professionalism despite the major glitches with the sound, and one that brought the first day’s action to a rousing close.

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Day 1 at The Mad Festival at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

The chilly Ooty air did nothing to deter large groups of people from lingering at the lawns near the Blubaloo stage as they soaked in the after-effects of a smashing day filled with too many good acts to pick from. After all manner of cat calls and one liners being screamed into the night (from “We want more!” to “Free smokes!”) in vain, the remnants of the audience began their journey home, leaving the warm glow of Fern Hill Palace to stand guard over a venue that had in its first day been branded indelibly into our memory.

Sharanya Nair

Sharanya is a 'writer' and an 'editor'. You know the type. She loves her music too much to share.

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The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

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The first edition of The Mad Festival was greatly anticipated mainly because it held the promise of bringing Music, Arts and Dance together – each one being a form of expression where the difference lies only in the medium through which ideas, thoughts and feelings are conveyed. A closer look at the festival details revealed that they had an amazing line-up with some of the most accomplished musicians and dancers. The location seemed to be the cherry on top of the cake – Ooty was the perfect destination to head to, to enjoy three days of unadulterated bliss. There was no way we would miss this one.

The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

The journey began with high expectations, mixed with a lot of apprehension because it is a known fact that organizing events of this magnitude with performances by 48 artistes over a span of 3 days is no ordinary task and since this was the first edition of The Mad Festival, we hoped that everything would run smoothly without any glitches. Strategically placed signboards on the streets leading to Fern Hills ensured that no one had trouble finding the venue. A massive doorway at the entrance announced the name of the festival in bold letters. The setting for the festival was provided by sky-high trees, lovely hills outlining the venue and step farms, lush green with tea plantations. The sheer beauty of the place, and the lovely weather made the venue seem like any art lover’s paradise!

The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

The security at the entrance stripped people off all their eatables, unsealed cigarette packs, lighters and water bottles after a thorough inspection of bags and sent the articles collected straight to the dustbin, with no provisions for collecting them after the festival. However, this was forgiven and forgotten as soon as one got past the gates and beheld the massive stage setup. The two stages at the venue called ‘Blubaloo’ and ‘Callaloo’ (which apparently don’t mean anything, in case you were wondering if they had any tribal significance) were set up at different locations and were well-separated from each other by the Mad Bazaar, such that walking over from one stage to another wasn’t much of a chore and the music from the two stages hardly interfered with each other. Two massive boards at each stage announced the line-up for the festival, which was a delectable mixture of different genres featuring artistes spanning various countries and origins.

The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

The turnout at the festival was surprisingly low, especially on the first day. Two food stalls and the limited number of tents at the sparsely populated venue made it seem like a large crowd wasn’t expected. However, more people turned up on the second day and the third, making the place a lot livelier. Each day’s proceedings began with an invocation on both stages by the local tribes – Todas, Kotas, Irula, Kattunayakans, Paniyars and Kurumba. On day one, the first few bands played to a sparse audience. However, towards the latter part of the day, a satisfactory number had gathered around both stages to relish the variety of tunes being belted out, scuttling from one stage to another from time to time, not wanting to miss out on too much of anything. The performances on the two stages were well-spaced, giving the audience the opportunity of catching a bit of everything!

The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

The pathway from the ‘Blubaloo’ stage to the ‘Callaloo’ stage was lined by the Mad Bazaar with lovely little stalls that sold everything from soft toys, flamboyant cowboy hats, shimmering bows, feathered stoles, fancy hairbands and tiaras, books with original 3D comic art, hats with oversized bows, unconventional musical instruments to a variety of other trinkets. Cupcakes of different varieties were hugely popular and consumed in large numbers. Curiously, there was very little variety across the food stalls at both stages, which got boring towards the end of three days and also quite heavy on the pocket! The ‘Blubaloo’ stage was also lined by the Paintball Zone that had a foosball table, darts and other fun games to indulge in!

The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Not surprisingly, The Bar always seemed to have a sizeable crowd with people gathered around, beers in hand, making their own music by beating on cartons that doubled up as percussion instruments and belting out their own tribal calls at the top of their voices. Mild flirting, animated conversations, socializing and bonding over alcohol and shared cigarettes contributed to most of the buzz while the rest of the buzz came in from the stalls comprising the Mad Bazaar.

The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Sadly, the stalls were the only things that contributed to the “Art” in the festival. The space available around both stages could have been put to better use to display art more extensively. Three days into the festival, we realized that it was more about Music than Arts and Dance, with the latter two thrown in seemingly just to fit the bill to qualify as a festival that promotes all art forms. Hopefully, the second edition of The Mad Festival will have more to offer on that front!

The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

In addition to listening and watching the bands and artistes perform on stage, the attendees could also interact with them at the various workshops conducted at the festival such as the ‘Depth of Expression’ workshop by Susmit Sen and the ‘Chaos Theory’ workshop by State of Bengal. There were also several theatre, photography and Yoga workshops that people could enroll for.

The camping place with over 160 tents was quite a walk from the stage (for those who weren’t smart enough to figure out a shortcut!) and was probably the best place to hang out after the day’s proceedings. Bonfires were lit, guitars were wielded and popular tunes were played that everyone sang to. The chilly breeze and drunken conversations over the crackling of a fire with the soft strumming of a guitar or two in the background brought each eventful day to a close. However, when it was time to retire to the cramped tents, the hard floor and the not-so-warm sleeping bags, one would think enviously of all the people in the palace with a soft bed for comfort. A couple of foreigners were spotted complaining that the ticket said “basic power supply” but there was none provided at the camping site. People had to run to the Dell stall next to the ‘Blubaloo’ stage or the palace to charge their phones, which was quite an inconvenience. The portable toilets were many in number although a few of them were quite unclean. This left people with the only option – of running to the palace located 1 km away from the camping site (unless they knew the shortcut!)

The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Days two and three definitely seemed to gain a lot of momentum with a lot more people joining in and enjoying the music, sprawled on the lawns, hanging on to the barricades or just dancing to the tunes at a distance. Some even found a vantage point overlooking the hills and step farms, relishing the music while enjoying the sights and sounds. One thing a lot of artistes complimented the organizers on was the sound. There were almost no problems with respect to sound save for some feedback and volume issues here and there. The sound was pristine, with the sound engineers doing an impeccable job, except for the low volume levels for the Concordia Choir and some feedback during Slain’s performance.

The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

The bands and artistes at The Mad Festival covered the whole gamut of genres and sounds. It is rare to come by a festival where you get to see a heavy metal band like Kryptos play alongside a folk rock fusion act like Swarathma or a World music band like Moon Arra. There was clearly an effort made to showcase ethnic music from all over the country. Artistes like The Kabir Project (Sufi, Folk) singing the mysticism of the poet Kabir, Manganiars playing Rajasthani folk music and Vayali folklore group from Kerala portrayed the musical roots of India, while international bands like The Krar Collective from Ethiopia and Kutumba from Nepal had the audience spellbound with their local ethnic music. Fusion acts like Yodhakaa (Sanskrit-based contemporary Indian music), Agam (Carnatic Rock), The Raghu Dixit Project, Indian Ocean and Papon & The East India Company bridged the musical gap between the traditional and the modern sounds, whereas, contemporary rock bands like Motherjane, Slain, Live Banned, Thermal and a Quarter and Avial had the young crowd rocking out. The Shillong bands Soulmate (Blues) and Afflatus (Rock) were particularly impressive with their onstage intensity and sheer incredible musicianship. The Electronic Music fans had something to groove to with bands like State of Bengal, Schizophonic and God’s Robots providing pulsating beats. With such a diversity of music on display at The Mad Festival, there was hardly a soul around who wasn’t caught up with the music of their liking.

The Mad Experience at Fern Hills Palace, Ooty

Overall, The Mad Festival proved to be a wonderfully executed event that brought together several artistes and fans from different parts of the world and gave them a chance to interact closely and become acquainted with each other. There were incessant compliments for the organizers by artistes and fans alike for having arranged something like this in the first place, in such a beautiful location, and pulling it off in such a short time frame and the vote in this regard, was unanimous. One of the endearing, and overlooked, details of The Mad Festival was that no band was billed as the headlining act with other bands opening for it. All bands, local and international, were given equal opportunity and a level platform to showcase their art. With the festival featuring 48 bands, stretching over three days, on-site accommodation in tents and camps, the air sizzling with carnival atmosphere, The Mad Festival surely has the potential to be India’s equivalent of international festivals like the Glastonbury Festival.

Priyanka Shetty

Priyanka Shetty is the founder of What's The Scene? Follow Priyanka on Twitter @priyanka_shetty

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Vibha Dhwani at St. John’s Auditorium, Bangalore

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I did not know much about Vibha.org, a charitable organization founded in 1991, when I entered the St. John’s Auditorium on Saturday. By the end of the evening, however, I developed great respect and admiration for the work they do. The event was called Vibha Dhwani where bands that strongly personify Indian culture – The Raghu Dixit Project (TRDP), Agam and La Pongal were invited to perform.

Until Saturday afternoon, I was to watch TRDP, Agam and Yodhakaa play; however, due to slight confusion, as it was put, La Pongal, a Tamil folk rock band, replaced Yodhakaa in the line-up. The band which contained two key members from Yodhakaa was in the middle of their sound check when I entered the disinfectant-smelling auditorium. The stage setting had a nice rustic touch to it, with kites and hay, certain to remind you about the fun times that you had as a kid back in your village. Considering how the whole evening eventually panned out, the stage design intent was spot-on. About an hour to go before the start of the event and Agam, except one member, was nowhere to be seen. Not really a bad thing, as I’ve known Agam to do their sound checks a day before the event, something they did at the Big Junction Jam back in June.

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

I had met Darbuka Siva backstage for a short interview. He talked about taking Tamil culture wherever he went, the importance of attire to a performance and musicians as entertainers. A while later, I was in the middle of my interview with the man who symbolizes the beginning of folk rock in modern India, Raghu Dixit backstage when La Pongal started their act. BANG on time! I took a seat in the front row as La Pongal dived into their second song ‘Killiamma‘. Pradeep on the vox and acoustic guitar and Darbuka Siva on the bass co-fronted the band. Pradeep who has a background in Carnatic is a real joy to listen to and was easily La Pongal’s stand-out performer that evening. In my book, he’s got the right voice timbre to become indispensable to La Pongal’s overall sound. The first few songs had a similar structure about them – an acoustic guitar start, bass-drums-tavil joining in and the lead guitarist Vikram providing the fills, a mellow interlude and a crescendo finish. I must also credit Pankajan on the tavil because the folksy touch of La Pongal would have been non-existent if it weren’t for him. David on the drums was having an absolute ball if the sound on the PA was similar to what he heard on his monitors. I assumed that it was, considering he executed a crisp drum solo (and by the looks of it, enjoyed it too) before La Pongal went onto their next song, ‘Vandiyilla Nella Varum’.

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

Later, La Pongal broke their song pattern to play a song derived from a Tamil folk standard known as ‘Kuravan Kurathi Aatam‘ which was relatively less hard-hitting and mellower. Thumbs up to this one! Pradeep improvised with a guitar solo of his own. At this point of time, I had noticed that the lighting of the stage was also neatly done as it reflected the soft nature of the song. One of their last songs which Siva said was borrowed from a kid’s game, had a nice reggae feel to it. The little inputs to the song were so apt that it did seem like children playing in the background!

Overall, La Pongal still showed signs of starting off as they suffered issues in tightness in some songs. However, of the three bands they had the most rustic sound and I daresay that, with songs like the aforementioned, they were the closest to the theme of the whole event.

After La Pongal made their exit from the stage, Vibha showcased their work through a short movie. I was impressed with some of their innovative concepts like School on Wheels. There were actual clips from how teachers teach the students, a few short classes in Marathi and interviews with the children’s parents. Having their children educated and display the confidence that it brings in their daily life activities put a genuine smile on their faces. Ten minutes after the movie, Agam were ready with their act.

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

Before you notice any likely bias from this point on, I must warn you that I’m a huge fan of Harish, the frontman of Agam. Trained in Carnatic, he was on that day, confident and charismatic. He does give the impression of being in a hurry though. But coming to the whole band, Agam were really tight, demonstrating great communication, sync and not to mention, loads of practice! They started off with ‘Brahma’s Dance’, a song in the raga Revathi and which incorporated the well-known ‘Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu‘ shloka. Harish’s voice modulations and Vignesh’s slap bass were memorable from that song. They followed it up with a thillana in Raga Dhanashri. This is the same thillana, composed by Sri Swathi Thirunal and made popular by the evergreen voice of M.S Subbulakshmi. Pity not many realize how dry our culture would be if it weren’t for them, but I’m glad that the people took note of Agam’s extraordinary rendition.

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

Agam then launched into song they were performing live for the first time, a song in Malayalam called ‘The Boat Song’. Praveen, the lead guitarist, was at the center of this piece with some real good work on the guitar. The song was catchy and you should be able to hear more of it in the future. Agam went on to perform a song in the raga Nattai before launching onto an Urdu number called ‘Muqammal’. It seemed to bear a stark resemblance to the kind of songs A.R Rahman would compose. The song had a jazzy opening, with Agam breaking free from their hard-hitting openings and Harish alaaped in raga Ahirr Bhairav. Strangely though, following a dholak interlude the song threatened to end as ‘Lagan Lagi’ from the movie Tere Naam, but thankfully, the band ended it as the original piece should. I noticed a slight echo in Harish’s vocals, hopefully intentional, in their next song, ‘Bandurithi Kolu‘, a Thyagaraja Swamigal composition in the raga Hamsanadham. The song was interspersed with complicated proggy stuff and a good show of tightness and Harish’s vocals backed up by Vignesh’s were brilliant along with some accidentals in the overall song! Here, I could be a cynic and disregard the progressive stuff that a non-elite crowd seldom relates to, but I’m as happy as a frog in the rain that a rock band played Thyagaraja! More of that please!

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

And how can an Agam gig be complete without their ace song, ‘Rudra‘? Their second Revathi song of the evening, ‘Rudra‘ was a mind-blowing hit and it won over the crowd. At a point, it seemed that Harish overdid his vocal roller coaster, but it was a definitive display of skill, energy and stamina. To be at the end of a 90-minute show and still be able to stretch your voice better than minute one deserves applause. Their last song, ‘Malhar Jam‘, was where the crowd was able to recognize the prowess of Ganesh on the drums and Shiva on the percussions who indulged in a jugalbandi with various sounds that people instantly related to and enjoyed. Swami on the keys and Suraj on the rhythm guitar did not appear to take a central role, but I’m certain that without them, Agam’s sound wouldn’t be what it was that evening. Overall, I am overjoyed that a carnatic rock band exists, but a greedy person like me wants more. I would love it if they render more Carnatic compositions in a less hard-hitting style and experiment with other styles of rock. And before I forget to mention, they received a 20-second standing ovation as the curtains closed on an exhilarating performance!

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

If La Pongal received a huge applause and Agam received a standing ovation, then The Raghu Dixit Project went one level further. I’m not sure if people sat at all during his act! I especially loved the lighting during his opening song ‘Hey Bhagwaan’ wherein, we could only see silhouettes! When the song started, there was a deafening roar of approval from the crowd. Maybe it was the moment, but I did feel TRDP were the tightest of the lot. There was a surprise addition to the line-up as Slain’s lead guitarist Bryden Stephen Lewis joined the crew in his debut lungi attire. Sandeep on the flute was mesmerizing, his sound complemented the band perfectly and his solos were out of this world! He would occasionally step up to the podium where Wilfred played the drums and engage in a sort of a telepathic conversation while playing. TRDP kicked on with the Kannada number ‘Gudugudiya‘. Occasionally, Raghu would march with his ghungroos giving the songs an extra dimension. Then finally, TRDP became the first band of the evening, to engage the crowd in their song as everyone yelled out the lyrics to ‘Lokat Kalaji‘, Raghu adding his humourous touch to the explanation of the song’s meaning. Just off the stage, a crowd had gathered and they jumped and danced with gay abandon, while the crowd from the balcony seats gathered and stood in the tier below.

As happy I was when Agam played Swathi Thirunal and Thyagaraja, I was happy when TRDP played songs by Sant Shishunala Sharif, whose poems are widely compared to those of Kabir. Kids in Karnataka learn his poems in school and it was a trip down memory lane for the arguably not-so-many in the cosmopolitan crowd. Coming back to the band, Gaurav Vaz on the bass was impressive with some licks to keep the crowd grooving while Bryden’s solos were jazzy and he made it look absolutely effortless. As a frontman, you really have to admire Raghu. There’s a lot upcoming musicians can learn about carrying themselves confidently on stage.

Vibha Dhwani at St. John's Auditorium, Bangalore

TRDP went on to their next song, ‘Sajna‘, a softer number composed by Neeraj Singh in the 7/4 time signature (or Mishra Chapu for carnatic enthusiasts). This song was arguably TRDP’s standout piece of the whole act. People who came to dance near the front of the stage did not mind one bit to camp on the floor, soaking in the soft tunes of ‘Sajna‘. The crowd didn’t have to wait long to start dancing again and singing along to ‘Har Saans mein, Har Dhadkan mein ho Tum’ a song from Raghu Dixit’s work for a movie that is based on Facebook. Raghu cleverly started off with a hilarious jig of Sting’s stalker anthem ‘Every Breath you take’ before beginning the song. I thought it was impossible to accommodate more people near the now-crowded stage front, but I was proved wrong when more people joined in to dance to ‘Mysore se aayi Woh’ where Gaurav Vaz taught the crowd the never-before-heard dance steps of ‘put your hands together’ and ‘jump’. The band then did their trademark group bow before the crowd yelled out for more. And TRDP duly obliged with a last Kannada number before departing the stage. Overall, TRDP demonstrated great skill, sync along with trashing my baseless assumption that folk rock bands are a one-time watch. It would be fair to say that TRDP’s music is the music of the people and it brings out the child in you.

As an event, Vibha Dhwani did not disappoint, not one bit! In fact, those at the show were treated to a great display of music and entertainment! More importantly, the bands that performed, accentuated the message Vibha intended to spread. The event was a good thing to happen to society for more reasons than ten!

Ganesh Viswanathan

Ganesh Viswanathan is a musician, a designer and sometimes both at the same time. Caffeine is known to derive its energising properties from him. Nobody knows the exact moment when he dismantles an idle mobile phone or steals food from another plate.

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