Getting Goofy With Dhruv Visvanath

I was very curious to interview this person, about whom I had always heard the nicest things. Dhruv Visvanath, the name would come up and everybody present would suddenly smile cheerily, look more interested and just…appear brighter, for some reason. Dhruv Visvanath, they would say, nodding and beaming, very nice guy, very, very sweet.

So when I set out to interview him, I already had an idea about what to expect, and Dhruv Visvanath lives up to his reputation, even exceeding it!

He greeted me with the sunniest of smiles, and I was already agreeing with everybody else in my head. With his cheerful disposition and an easy-going manner, he would look at you with warm eyes and we immediately fell into an affable conversation and good thing too, since there was so much to talk about.

As of now, he’s one of the most gifted musicians in the country- a self-taught guitarist, drummer, bassist, vocalist and a trained pianist.

And? His style of percussive guitar playing is extremely rare in the Indian music scene.

And? He’s opened for Swarathma and played in the Siri Fort Auditorium.

And? He’s got thousands and thousands of views on his Youtube videos from people across the world.

And? He has his own EP, titled Chronicles.

And? He recently performed at the Bacardi NH7 weekender, Delhi chapter, alongside artists and bands like Anoushka Shankar, Megadeath, Indian Ocean, Raghu Dixit and Them Clones, to name a few.

And? He’s only 21.

So we got together with “the” Dhruv Visvanath and asked him about music, the NH7 Weekender and most importantly, himself. Here’s what he had to say:

How was the NH7 Weekender? Was it everything you hoped it would be?

“It was probably the highlight of my musical career so far,” he starts off, grinning. “I’m a college student, and performing in front of an audience of 250 to 300 people, I was nervous as hell, my legs were shaking! But I got such a great response, my friends were there, cheering for me, the crowd was great, young and into world music and thankfully English-speaking, because me speaking in Hindi is, well, it’s not good. But the best was that the audience there appreciated all type of music, and it was the most humbling experience, really.”

So how did you come into the whole music scene?

“I’ve only been performing like this for the past two years,” he says “and since then, everything’s just been snowballing. I was a pianist first, and somewhere in my piano playing days, I picked up the guitar. I still remember the date, the 21st of December 2004, I was 13 years old, and since then, I haven’t been able to keep my hands off it.”

And any midnight complaints from the neighbours?

“Neighbours were actually more annoyed with the piano!”

So tell us about the first time you laid hands on a guitar?  We’re sure you have a name for it!

“My first acoustic guitar, I call her Sophie, the one I had to use at my first performance. Now she’s a guitar that I use to compose sometimes, I get very nice ideas. Later, I became a fanatic for acoustic guitars and stopped playing the electric. And…voila!”

So how is it before a performance? Are you sh****** bricks?

“The thing is that, two hours before a performance, I feel nothing. I binge eat, or drink four bottles of water, drink lots of Coke, I’ll be fine. But two minutes before I get on the stage, I’m like, ‘Oh man. I’ve to play in front of so many people’.”

And once you’ve started off…?

“Then it’s all good. I mean, I PLAY for that feeling, there’s nothing like it.”

So let’s go back to the beginning…We hear you’ve grown up in lots of places…

“Yes, I spent most of my childhood living in England, Hong Kong, Zambia…Bombay. I spent most of my schooling years in Hong Kong, maybe that’s why my Hindi’s such a disgrace.”

Noted. But since you’ve spent so much time moving around, you must have noticed differences in the music cultures of these cities.

“Yes, definitely. There’s a big difference. There’s a reason why I’ve been able to perform my music here better than I would have had there. The sense of competition in the other countries is horrible. In England, everyone wants the big show and wants to get to the top. The sense of rivalry is very high. Maybe it’s because the number of bands that exist there is so much larger as compared to India, but it’s there all the same. In Hong Kong, the music scene is very underground. The city flourishes on having international performers- you get your Coldplay, and Muse and Linkin Park. But what happens is that it discourages the little acts to perform because everybody wants to go see the big act. “

And how is it in India?

“In India, this is not the issue. Here, in Delhi especially, we have a sort of brethren. All the musicians know each other, are friends, and will actually support you if you’re stuck. There aren’t any boundaries here and the sense of promoting each other is very strong, because we know that none of us will get anywhere without each other’s help. There’s a solid feeling of brotherhood here, and I really like that. I try to propagate the same philosophy as well, as much as I can. Plus the Indian audience has a lot of capacity to absorb. At the Weekender, there were 7000 people for Megadeath, and around 5000 for Indian Ocean, and at the same time.”

That’s a very fair point. So when did you realize that you wanted to make a career out of music, as opposed to just pursuing it as a hobby-if that is the case?!

“I’m afraid to tell my mum that I want to make a career out of music!’ he answers with a playful chuckle.

“See, I love studying; I’m a geek and I love reading up. But I love music just as much. I feel that I’m in a position right now where I’m very close to making a career as a musician. But it’s a prospect, because I’m still a college student, and I want to take advantage of this time to learn. And I feel that I owe it to myself to be well-educated because my parents put me through very good schools, and I need to take advantage of that. But as far as music concerned, I’ve seen the lives of musicians, and the joy they get out of what they do, it’s unparalleled and I want that.”

But how has it been so far?

“Performing for the last two years, it’s taught a bit more about being a man, about being more responsible. And obviously, just do what I enjoy and earn from it as well.”

Your characteristic feature, the one which makes Dhruv Visvanath distinct, is your usage of the guitar as a percussion instrument, a style which is extremely unusual in India. How did you ever come to develop that sort of style?

“This style is very prominent across the Atlantic. Guitarists like Andy McKee are big influences on my music style. I would watch videos of these artists, staying up at night, sacrificing on my sleep, assignments and homework, just to learn how these guys do what they do. This style is unique in India is because no one’s really tried, except for Benny Prasad, one of the most travelled musicians in the world. I got bored of the electric guitar and gave this a shot.”

It seems to have worked out pretty well for you. When you describe making music, you do it with thoroughness and you are also, uncannily so, very visual with your instrumental music. So how do you compose your music?

“The way I write music is very strange. I will come up with a new tuning on the guitar and I will sit with the tuning and keep trying to figure out what’s unique about it. After writing the piece of music and then when I listen to it, I get images in my head. It’s different while writing lyrics and instrumental pieces.”

Like in your original compositions like “Father”, “He Said She Said”, “The Journey” or “Meteor”, one can clearly see that there is a lot of honesty and sincerity instilled in your music. The kind of diligence with which you work, comes out beautifully. How do you manage to retain such genuineness, keep your music free from any pretense, and not give in to trends that might tax your music?

“It’s a lesson I learned from my father. My father was the kind of person who would never try to bend to others’ expectations, and would always make his own. I try to use the values that he imparted in me. Maintaining that honesty and sincerity is a very vital part of who I am, and it’s not just in the music, it’s there in the way I conduct myself. My father always said that when you die, the two things that remain intact are your character and your reputation, and I’d like to keep that.”

And what about your mother?

“Out of all the people in the world, all of them, I owe it to my mum. She actually cares. She’s my only parent now, and it’s very important for me to have her as a part of my life, and this journey. I need her support and she pays attention. I’m a mamma’s boy.”

So, tell us about your upcoming gig…

“Yes it’s on Thursday, the 17th of October, in Hard Rock Cafe. It’s the first time I’m playing with a trio, and we’ve been practicing a lot. We are a good group of musicians. My bassist is Hemant Chona and my drummer is Ishaan Gandhi. I think it’s a very good opportunity to test waters, and I’m even back to the electric guitar. I really hope this show turns out to be positively different.”

So we are approaching the end of our interview and as one last question; I would like to ask you something that I personally am very curious about. What is the story behind the hat?

“Oh the hat…I was living in England at the time, and my family had this surprise thing of going to France for the holidays. So we went to Paris during Christmas, and we went to the Gallery la Fayette, and I saw a hat. A black, corduroy hat. It was insane, because I thought, ohh you get these cool hats here, I really wanted it. Having the hat made me feel like the cool musician because at that time, I never did all this stuff. As I grew, I just held on to that hat to so that I could identify myself with it. In my first show, I wore my hat; every show that I’ve done since then, I’ve worn the hat. I have bought more hats now, when I went to Istanbul and Goa. Thankfully!”

The time was ticking and Dhruv Visvanath was continually being summoned for his college Music Society practice. We finally decided to conclude our meeting, and exited the park in his college, where other students practiced their street play, in the background.

As he walked me to the main gate, I could not help but think that he is the sort of person, who, when you meet him, reinstates your belief just a little more in people. In their amenity, their kindness, and most of all, their fresh and optimistic take towards all aspects of life. Someone whom you would not like to miss out on, surely.

As told to Srishti Chaudhary

Image Courtesy [Dhruv Visvanath]