Interview: Folk fusion band Swarathma on their new album, influence of theatre and making music for a cause

The band will perform at Tabula Rasa in Hyderabad this weekend.
L to R: Jishnu, Joel, Vasu, Varun and Sanjeev
L to R: Jishnu, Joel, Vasu, Varun and Sanjeev

It wouldn’t be too much to say that Bengaluru-based Swarathma spearheaded the folk fusion genre in the country in the early 2000s. The five-member outfit started in 2002 when there weren’t too many takers for indie music as there are today. Bassist and vocalist Jishnu Dasgupta, however, tells us that the band never looked at it as a challenge. Quoting the late Ashim Chakraborty (Indian Ocean’s vocalist), Jishnu says, “No shows, no albums and no audience — it was all there but we were having too much fun to notice. We didn’t really treat it as a challenge or a struggle. As Ashim once said, ‘If you’re having fun, don’t call it a struggle’. That’s the only way to do it.” Apart from Jishnu, the band includes Vasu Dixit (vocals, guitar), Sanjeev Nayak (violin), Joel Milan Baptist (drums) and Varun Murali (guitars).
Ahead of their performance at Tabula Rasa this weekend, we speak with Jishnu and Varun about the decade-long journey, influence of theatre and making original music. Excerpts:

What can we expect in your upcoming show in Hyderabad?  
Varun (V): We’re stoked to return to Hyderabad again in a matter of a few days after a great gig at Secunderabad Club recently. We’re looking forward to performing a mix of our new album songs, along with our old hits.

How has your music evolved over the years?
V: Our journey so far has had its share of ups and downs. We’ve grown as people and learnt to work with each other despite the differences, even as we evolve as musicians.
Our musical tastes have changed based on what we are individually listening to, and that reflects in the music we make as well. We are looking forward to how we’d surprise ourselves with the new songs we write.

What goes into the making of a Swarathma song?
Jishnu (J): A song idea could come from anywhere — a riff, a melody, a groove, or a bass line. We all take on the role of primary songwriters. We pick up on each other’s ideas and it slowly begins to take shape in the jampad or studio. As the song takes shape, it begins to make sense of what the song could be about. And the lyrics usually come in the end.

Was the process similar for your new album, Raah-e-Fakira?
J: In Raah-e-Fakira, we chose to look inward within ourselves for our songs instead of writing about news. All of us were in an emotional space, which has reflected in our songs too. It was in 2016, when we took a break from everything and focused on making music for this album. So most of the ideas and structure was decided during that period.  

How does theatre reflect in Swarathma’s performance?  
J: Vocalist Vasu has a theatre background. A lot of the theatrical elements come into the music, as a result of those influences. This could be from the interplay of politicians in Topiwalleh to the song-storytelling in Yeshu Allah aur Krishna.

Tell us about the causes you are associated with, through your music?
J: We believe that music has a larger purpose than just being for entertainment. So if our music resonates with a cause, we’re happy to lend it to amplify the voices. Most recently, we were a part of an initiative called Tour of Trees, where we performed in support of 170 trees in Bengaluru that are at risk of being felled.

What do you think of the current indie music scene?
J: The indie music scene has grown to include anything that's not Bollywood - and that's a thinning line as well. I think there will always be space for good music and creative ways of expressing that. Technology has brought a lot of world class production within reach of young artists, and it is great to see them come up in such great ways. We have a youngster opening for us - Shiv Menon, and we're keen to watch him play as well.

What are your future projects?
J: We have a new set of videos, Bringing You Our Happiness. It will feature us performing at unlikely places like hospitals and blind schools, spreading joy.

Rs.500. At Tabula Rasa.
February 2, 8 pm.


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