An Afternoon With Advaita

It wasn’t anything serious and formal. I met up with Chayan Adhikari at a nice little café and we talked over a nice cup of coffee. It didn’t feel like I was sitting with the western vocalist for one of Delhi’s most famous bands.

I’m sure you’ve all heard of Advaita, seen them live and on TV, maybe even been influenced by their music. What I wanted to know was what goes on behind the scenes. Here’s what he had to say…

It’s been eight years since Advaita first broke through the music scene but let’s go back to the beginning. How did you guys know each other?

Chayan Adhikari – I joined the band about seven years ago, so Advaita was already one year into it. I believe the story was that some of these guys were already into bands before Advaita and I think they were all sort of breaking up their bands at the same time. So some of these guys like Abhishek (Mathur), Anindo (Bose), Aditya (Malani), Tarun and Suhail (Yusuf Khan) formed it, and at the time the band was small; I mean smaller than it is now. So, everybody knew each other and they just decided to jam together and sort of just came up with this band. I only joined the band a year later, when we had our first outdoor performance; I think it was at the Dhanaulti Festival.

During practice sessions, does it take you guys a while before you tune in and start making some music?

Chayan Adhikari – The only thing that takes time is set up. I mean, we have a really complicated set up. We love complicating things for ourselves. Buying new equipment or trying out something which has just hit the market. Especially Anindo, he’s very obsessed with technology in general, so he always makes sure to complicate the set up even more every time we meet. Yeah, set up takes really long. So if we have practice at four, effectively it means that we’ll start by five.

How do you guys manage to synchronize your music into one harmony? Especially in terms of your transitions, from the Hindustani vocals to Western.

Chayan Adhikari – I guess the answer to that is in what you’ve said yourself.  In the sense that, the day we start concentrating on how much weightage to give to what part is when we’ll screw up. We never try to force fit something. There’s no real formula for us. Generally a song begins with a riff, or somebody comes with an idea to practice, so there’s nothing that is forcefully fit into any part of the song. We’ve also been accused of having a formula-based song writing process, but to be very honest, it’s never been a conscious effort to do something like that. When a song is written, each of the eight members generally finds their own place in the song. We do have interactions about placing, but usually they find their own place, it’s not dude you sing here, this isn’t working here, etc. We just try and keep it as honest as possible.

Considering it’s an eight member band, and you’re all so different in terms of your musical style, are there any ego clashes that ever happen? Or does your music flow so well because you guys don’t have any ego issues?

Chayan Adhikari – Till date I don’t think an ego issue has come up as such. I think one thing I can say blindly is that everybody respects everybody else’s art. I guess one big reason why Advaita has survived for so long is because it’s a band where everybody plays to each other’s strengths. Individually we may not be pioneers or the greatest instrumentalists or singers, but it’s because we complement each other and bring each other’s positive side out I think that’s why we’ve survived for so long.

The kind of music Advaita is known for, a Hindustani mixed with psychedelic, Indian fusion sound, was it always something you wanted? Or did you guys start off with something completely different and adapt to this?

Chayan Adhikari – I mean as an individual musician, I don’t think I had any such thing in mind because I was only doing what I could do you know, play the acoustic (guitar) and sing. And I mostly sang in English, except for when I was in school. But in a different perspective, think of it as eight musicians; it could have been anywhere in the world. Eight people who have eight instruments, it could have been anything, not just a sarangi or a tabla, it could have been a violin a horn; it could have been anything else. I think it just started off as a medium of expression for eight musicians to sort of jam together and see what comes out of whatever instrument they have. I don’t think it was ever intentional because it would be profitable.

In today’s time, the music scene seems to have come full circle. From Indian classical we switched to western bands, and now with shows like Coke Studio and The Dewarists, we’re back to strong Indian influences in instruments and vocals. And there is a clear divide now between the two. What is your take on this new music scene?

Chayan Adhikari –I think all over, in general, the perception about music as changed, even in the industry. The concept of writing your own music I think that started coming about in the last ten years and that’s increased very rapidly. Count the number of bands doing covers, hardly any more, I mean now you have cover bands which are doing tributes, which is another thing altogether. But other than that, every new artist that is coming up is writing their own music, which is the first step towards what this is about. And I think at some level there has been a shift in terms of people now appreciating other forms of music. I also attribute it to the internet, because you can access any music any time on the internet. You’ve heard bands from different parts of the world which you wouldn’t have twenty years ago because there was no access. And you really see unique stuff online, which I think has contributed to how people perceive music in general. It’s become very experimental, like the lines between genres are fading. The general popular music out there is all the same. In terms of that the definitions of genres are sort of gone. And this isn’t something new in our country we’ve had bands like Pentagram and Parikrama around. I just think now it’s just more accessible. People are more open, the audience’s perception has changed about new material.

Is it also because of how the music fraternity is within Delhi or Bombay, and with all the music festivals, there’s a lot less competition I guess and everybody’s a lot more open, and supportive of each other’s music?

Chayan Adhikari – It’s possible. I think one big factor in all of this has been the establishment of all these music festivals because they’re providing an environment where everybody’s just hanging out with everybody else. Forget musicians hanging out with each other, the audience is also as close to the artist as anybody else. People like Karsh Kale, we’ve been listening to him for ages, but now he’s just so much more accessible like when you’ve been on the same stage as him. Something like that is wonderful. In terms of competition, I don’t know if I would say “competition”, but there is a certain sense of unity in the independent music industry because Bollywood has always been a big part of the music scene and it always will be. I’ve grown up listening to it, so I don’t see a reason to fight it because it already is popular, it’s fun, it’s entertaining. I’d say leave that alone, and with the independent scene rising it wants to carve its own way rather than go at loggerheads with Bollywood. Which is why there is such a great unity in all the people who are a part of this indie music industry, they all want to do their part in the rise of it. Everybody is doing their bit.

Now that you’ve been featured on MTV Coke Studio and The Dewarists, has there been a significant change in the way you guys conduct yourselves and the way the audience perceives you?

Chayan Adhikari – I think MTV Coke Studio was the first big boom for us. The amount of viewership you get on TV and how people treat you after you’re on TV, it really changes the way you are perceived. It pushed us to another level. Afterwards, MTV Unplugged happened and recently The Dewarists happened so we’ve definitely found more of a fan base and an audience that took in our music the way we hoped they would, we’ve found fans in places we never thought we would, especially small cities.

The TV angle really helped us out. And, like, now that you know there are so many people following you, it’s scary because there are so many people watching your every move, but at the same time it’s so overwhelming that it drives you more.

Any songs which are completely different, in terms of music and thought process?  

Chayan Adhikari – It’s a difficult question to answer from my perspective as such but there are definitely songs that, when heard independently, you might not instantly relate to as an “Advaita song” and they’re interesting because they’re different. Especially songs like Hamsadhwani and Why.

What about when you’re composing your music, are there any tracks where you decide to do something completely different?

Chayan Adhikari You always start every track with this thought in mind, “Let’s try something new”, but at the end of the day you’re kind of conformed, so you drift towards a certain sound. So you might start off with something really different. But at the end of the day if everybody from Advaita is jamming on it, it’ll end up sounding like an “Advaita song”.

(Giggles) What’s an “Advaita song”?

Chayan Adhikari It’s difficult to define. If you’ve heard the two albums, you’d know what an “Advaita song” is. It just sounds like a genre on its own. We’ve tried to categorise it under fusion, world music, but it’s really difficult you know. Fusion is sort of a selling point but it can be just about anything. We, however, have more of an Indian influence than an average fusion track.

Do you guys have a favourite city?

Chayan Adhikari – Delhi.

You don’t get the same kind of response in, say, Bangalore?

Chayan Adhikari – You get ardent fans and people who are really into your music, but the kind of “home-ground advantage” you have, in terms of no matter where you play at least fifty people would turn up whether it’s a holiday or not is in Delhi. Something like that is difficult to recreate in a different city.

So what’s next for you guys?

Chayan Adhikari –There’s a lot on the wish list; especially international tours. We’re just hoping to find the right kind of people to take us there because honestly it’s not possible for us to fund an international tour. We’d probably go for an all-India tour; we’ve done that before, maybe either later this year or next year some time. This year we hadn’t really planned for Maldives or South Africa but they just came along, so hopefully something like that will come around. I honestly don’t see another album for another two years at least. We might come out with singles and all, but not an album as such.

As told to Aishwarya Dravid

Image Source []