Our band’s first member is Kabir: Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café
Destiny works in uncanny ways. At least it did for the five members of fusion rock band Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café.
As self-taught folk musician Neeraj Arya, who was performing 15th century poet Kabir’s works as a solo artiste for years, met Carnatic-trained violinist Mukund Ramaswamy, it set into motion a chain of events that gave birth to the band that has successfully fused the mystic saint’s age-old philosophy with a modern outlook.
Though bands such as Avni and Indian Ocean have contemporised Kabir’s works, this three-year-old band has created a unique soundscape through which they want to spread awareness on how the poet’s works are relevant even today.
“I was singing Kabir as a freestyle musician and had extensively researched his poetry. People appreciated my music and then I went to Mumbai for a project that promotes independent musicians. I was singing at the Bandra local station when I met Mukund,” says Neeraj, who is originally from Delhi.
Mukund Ramaswamy, with a Carnatic background and violin in hand, did not understand Kabir when he met Neeraj. A mechanical engineer, Mukund took a chance as he felt “there was a certain vibe that he shared with the bumbling, energetic musician in front of him.”
“Kabir helped me see beyond classical music and into a realm that is free of structure. I took up the project for a friend, but I never thought that it will turn into something that will consume us and make us what we are today,” says Mukund.
The duo played together, rising to popularity, when they stumbled across Raman Iyer. The coversationist among them, Raman has been playing the mandolin as a hobby. He has Hindustani classical training with an education from Ramakrishna Mission in Mysuru.
“I had a regular job as a creative director of an advertising firm. But when I met these two, there was an instant connect. We started jamming together and realised that music kept us hooked at all times. I realised then that Kabir cannot be a hobby. It was clashing with our daily humdrum routines, so we had no choice but to take it up full time,” says Raman.
This is where the youngest member and drummer Viren Solanki enters the picture. Viren comes from a family that identifies with the Kabir panth. So, it was only a matter of time before he joined the trio.
“I was walking on Carter Road in Mumbai when I saw them. They were singing Kabir in a different way. I’ve grown up on this music. My dad is a Gujarati folk singer and our family follows the ideology of Kabir. So, we started jamming together,” says Viren.
The band was complete, in a way, but destiny had other plans. Britto KC, a bassist, was playing and teaching music in Pune for eight years but often felt like he didn’t know where he was going. All the way from Manipur, his father was in a rock band that played in Shillong.
“I started searching for a band in 2014 and a sound engineer put me in touch with these guys. I just knew music, not Kabir. But the melody and soothing vibe worked like magic for me,” says Britto.
In the end, it was an organic coming-together of sorts. The band believes, no matter what, humans are spiritual deep within, which keeps their music alive. Be it in foreign countries or weddings, they have always performed Kabir.
“The first member of our band is Kabir. He is the cohesive factor. People sometimes criticise us. But we have the poet on our side. A café is a place for conversation and through our music, we want to keep Kabir’s legacy alive,” says Raman.
Other performances shine through
The day started with a sublime performance by Kamakshi Khanna Collective, who impressed all with her original songs and a soulstirring voice that lulled the audience into a trance with the sun shining brightly.
The next performance suddenly brought the crowd to its feet as Neeraj Arya’s Kabir Café brought their own rendition of the works of 15th century poet Kabir, fused with rock and pop. With tracks such as ‘Bhala hua mori mala tooti’, ‘Chadariya jhini’ and ‘Sunta nahin dhun ki khabar’, the band created a spell with conversation and gave the audience much to juggle between philosophy and entertainment.
The entry of ‘Breakup Song’ singer Jonita Gandhi became the perfect foil to the performances. She set a tone of familiarity to the highlycharged atmosphere with mash-ups of popular Bollywood and Western numbers.