Raghu Dixit was washing the make-up off his face after a Bharata Natyam recital at his Mysore college when a guitar-toting classmate mocked him for being effeminate. Angry, the 19-year-old Dixit hit back, saying, ‘Give me two months and I will learn to play the guitar and sing as well’.
Two months later, Dixit went up to his classmate and, in front of a crowd of other students, sang the American folk song ‘500 Miles’ to raucous applause. Thus began indie folk rocker Raghu Dixit’s musical career.
Now 38 and a household name in urban India, Dixit has set himself a new target: Penetrating the international market, via the UK.
Dixit’s band, The Raghu Dixit Project (TRDP), has already played in 15 countries, including the US, Norway, Japan and Russia. TRDP has also had seven number one hits on the iTunes UK world music charts.
At home, his debut album, Raghu Dixit, was the highest selling non-Bollywood album of 2008.
Dixit has come a long way since Mysore, where he grew up in a strict Tamilian-Brahmin joint family that “wasn’t musical at all”.
It was only after Dixit’s father, a man with a ‘ferocious temper’, caught him trying to imitate one of his female cousins that he encouraged him to learn Bharata Natyam.
In college, despite the guitar incident, Dixit was focused on acing his Master’s degree in microbiology; he eventually scored the highest marks in his year. He then found a good job in Belgium.
All this while, he continued to play music. “Dance had been all about rules and guidelines. Music gave me the release I was looking for,” he says.
It was in Belgium that his landlord heard him play and helped him secure a slot on a Brussels radio station. As the fan mail poured in, Dixit decided to quit his job, return to India and become a musician.
With no formal training in singing or playing the guitar, Dixit formed his first band, Antaragni, in 1996, aged 23.
Over the next nine years, he wrote songs in English, composed radio jingles and scored music for Kannada films. In 2004, Antaragni disbanded and Dixit formed a new band, The Raghu Dixit Project, after he met now bassist and manager Gaurav Vaz at a coffee shop.
Three years later, while performing at Bandra’s Zenzi pub, they were spotted by Bollywood composer duo Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Rajviani aka Vishal-Shekhar and offered a record deal.
The 2008 album was more successful than anyone had predicted, selling more than 1 lakh copies.
The following year, TRDP was invited to play at the Lovebox and WOMAD music festivals in the UK, where they met Paul Knowles, a talent manager. Since then, Dixit and Knowles have been working together, their sights set on the UK market.
In late 2010, TRDP appeared on a BBC 2 talk show, alongside British pop sensation Adele and Robert Plant of iconic rock band Led Zeppelin In June 2011, he became the first Indian artiste to play on the prestigious John Peel stage at the Glastonbury music festival.
On April 15, he performed on a BBC 1 talk show telecast live to a viewing audience of about 20 lakh. And a review in British newspaper The Guardian dubbed the band last year’s “world music breakout star”.
The crowning glory for him, however, came on May 12, when he was among eight artistes picked from around the world to play for Queen Elizabeth II as part of the ongoing diamond jubilee celebrations.
Backed by a 70-piece orchestra, TRDP and dance group Nritarutya (founded by Dixit’s wife, Mayuri Upadhya) played to a royal audience in the gardens of Windsor Castle. “The whole process, from waiting in her private chambers to having tea with her and seeing how elegant and well maintained the castle was, was surreal,” says Dixit. “It felt like we were part of a historic moment.”