The Band with Heart

Bystanders turn and stare as six men from early 20s to mid 30s, clothed in varied styles and starkly contrasting hairdos, enter a hole-in-the-wall eatery after a three-hour session at their jampad in Ejipura. This easy-going group form Swarathma, known for their eclectic folk fusion sounds and poignant lyrics primarily in Hindi and Kannada.

With Swarathma, the Bengaluru based folk fusion rock band that swept the Jack Daniel’s Rock Awards in February, you often run into surprises. Then again, with a lead vocalist-cum-rhythm guitarist Vasu Dixit who likes his vegetables (and lots of them), Varun Murali, a guitarist-cum-backing vocalist who would rather stay at home reading books on wildlife, violinist Sanjeev Nayak who subscribes to the Scientific American India, Pavan Kumar, the percussionist who is an award-winning photographer, drummer Montry Manuel who moonlights as a graphic designer and a bass player-cum-backing vocalist who is an ex-corporate highflier, endearing idiosyncrasies are the norm.

Their debut music video ‘Pyaasi’ released in June, rather than a eulogy to their undoubted plethora of talent, is an initiative to facilitate clean drinking water in rural areas. The song, which sprung from the pathos of the Cauvery maa caught in a tussle between her children, reminds an apathetic urban world about the universal dwindling of natural resources.

The group have performed in UK, Hong Kong, Singapore and Morocco and are set to tour UK again this month, though they are happier strumming to an audience in rural bylanes, where no one has heard rock music before. As part of their Action Replay series, the band performs one free concert for every paid gig they do. They take live music out of their conventional space in pubs and amphitheatres into villages, schools for the visually challenged, and homes for the destitute, victims of commercial sexual exploitation and leprosy patients. Recalling a gig at a school for the blind in Pune, Dixit says, “For the first time, I felt that our music was physically felt when the children reached out to touch us.”

“Playing to an audience who come with no expectations satisfies our artistic urges,” says Manuel, calling the socially conscious effort a selfish act of the band. Yet, Swarathma selflessly pitches for reduced use of plastic by promoting cloth bags made by Small Steps, an NGO that works with the tsunami-hit women in Pondicherry. They spend time at performances talking about the work done by these women and have even distributed the bags at their shows.

The band broke onto the music circuit in a big way after winning the Radio City talent hunt in 2008 and bagging a record deal with EMI. Their next album will be unveiled at the end of 2010, following the self-titled debut album and Soundpad, a compilation by acclaimed British producer John Leckie.

Says Dixit about the power of music, “Music can go deep and wide simultaneously. It lets you go deep within and find your true self as well as lets you reach out and touch others.” Swarathma continues on that journey to understand that power. One could say they are getting there.

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