Ankur Tewari: The Wandering Troubadour

The musician and composer talks about travels past and writing songs in sunny public parks.  
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Berlin’s parks and live music draws musician Ankur Tewari to the city. Photo by: Hanohiki/Shutterstock

I’ve been an Ankur Tewari fangirl for a few years now—and I don’t use that word lightly. I’ve shown up for album launches, intimate gigs, music festivals, anywhere I could catch him serenading listeners with his soulful Urdu/Hindi folk rock songs as a part of the band, Ankur & the Ghalat Family. I went for the music, but stayed for the artist: a person who not only knew how to patiently deal with a blushing and gushing fan, but was thoughtful enough to indulge me with an unexpected and long chat at an airport. Every time I see him at a show, he’s always made an effort to swing by and chat with me a minute or two, thoughtfully asking about my family and job—he’s even dedicated “Sabse Peeche Hum Khade” to me at one such event. He’s the kind of guy that makes you say, “They just don’t make them like him anymore,” so when my editor gave me the green signal to interview this very musician, songwriter and composer, last September, I jumped at the opportunity.

Over coffee in Mumbai’s Bandra neighbourhood, Tewari, with three albums behind him, spoke about life after the Gully Boy spotlight (he was Music Supervisor for the acclaimed film’s 18-song soundtrack), and how travel has influenced his music. He has, since our chat, supervised music for two other Netflix specials (Yeh Ballet and Guilty), released a single for climate emergency called “Dhuaan Dhuaan,” and one in solidarity with Indian protests called “Woh Hum Nahin.” Here are edited excerpts.

 

I read that you were born in Belgium. What were your travel memories growing up?

I was born in Brussels, but moved here when I was three. So most of my travel memories are from Roorkee, where we lived in India.

 

Did you travel a lot as a kid?

We were always travelling. One set of grandparents lived in Shimla, and one in Allahabad. So we would visit them frequently.

 

What would be your fondest travel memory as a kid?

My parents, sister and I travelled to Shitlakhet in Uttarakhand. We stayed in a forest guesthouse, it was in the middle of the jungle. We used to go to the hills a lot, but this one was special because it was just us.

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Berlin is Ankur Tewari’s favoured destination–he makes an annual visit to the city. Photo Courtesy: Ankur Tewari

Have you gone back to Brussels with your parents? 

I actually haven’t, and that would be an interesting trip to plan. I’d love to see the city through their eyes.

 

How is it like travelling with your partner? Is there a special kind of travel you like to do together?

We both love to travel, and travel individually as well. As it happens we always end up travelling separately and meeting somewhere, combining our trips into one. Berlin is a special place for us, we make a trip there regularly. Otherwise, we like travelling to places where there’s a lot of art to consume. Recently, I saw this amazing exhibition in London at Tate. We like simple things: relaxing in a park, reading a book under a tree. You don’t get to do that in India a lot.

 

What is the difference between you being on the road for a tour, and travelling for yourself?

When you’re on a tour, you’re on a mission. The schedule is fixed. While travelling with a band, you follow the routine just so that other people are not inconvenienced, and you get adequate rest before a performance. That is never the case when I’m travelling by myself. I like to follow a leisurely pace—wake up late, drop by smaller cafés for meals, and generally not follow an itinerary.

 

Coming back to Berlin. What is the first thing you do when you get there?

There’s a park called Tempelhofer in Berlin which is my favourite. It used to be an airport earlier, and now is a park. It’s almost an annual pilgrimage I make to the city. On my last visit, I also made a stop in Florence. I saw Michelangelo’s “David” and it blew my mind.

 

The photos you take, and upload on your Instagram, have a different composition to them—your artistic style comes through. What is it that you look for in the photographs you click? 

As a songwriter, I’m looking for visuals that can translate into words. It’s the same for my photos. As a kid, I used to sit in buses with my sister and imagine a backstory for the people around us. I follow a similar concept for the photos—building a story within them.

 

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New Orleans’s jazz scene is Tewari’s most memorable live music experience. Photo By: GTS Productions/Shutterstock

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Growing up, the singer-songwriter visited Shimla, where his grandparents live, quite frequently. Photo By: Amit KG/Shutterstock

 

What are your favourite spots to catch live music in the world?

London, definitely. It has a bustling scene and different kinds of live music. New York, too. But my favourite has to be the jazz scene in New Orleans. Everyone I’ve ever seen perform there is phenomenal, I spent three days there witnessing one genius musician after another, everything from street music to that in bars.

 

If you were a travelling musician with a pickup truck, what would you take with you?

When you travel, you take a bit of home with you, things which comfort you even the surroundings are sterile. I would carry a few books, and food of course.

 

Which is your favourite city to perform in?

I love performing in Pune. I’ve always had a good response there.

 

Two songs from your album Side A, “Wagairah Wagairah” and “Aa Jao,” were both shot in Paris. Why Paris?

Because I was there! There was no agenda as such.

 

If you had an unlimited budget, and had to pick a place to shoot your songs where would you go?

Lisbon would be nice. And Tokyo, for sure. That city has crazy visuals. I would actually write a new song for Tokyo. It’s a unique place and deserves a new song.

 

And for a do-over?

I don’t believe in do-overs. But if I had to shoot say “Jhoom,” another track from the same album, it would be a road trip song. I sang it with Pakistani singer-songwriter Zoe Viccaji, so I would want part of it to be shot road tripping in India, and part in Pakistan.

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Tewari wrote a song in 15 minutes sitting under a tree in Madrid’s El Retiro Park. Photo By: The World in HDR/Shutterstock

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As a musician, he likes to travel for art. Last year, he saw, and was captivated by, Michelangelo’s “David” in Florence. Photo By: Lornet/Shutterstock

Five songs you’d play on loop on a road trip?

“Uno” by Rex Orange County

“Mein” by Meesha Shafi

“Dastaan” by Tajdar Junaid

“Nadiya” by Jimmy Khan

“Kaari Kaari” by Qurat Ul Ain Balouch

 

Would you say a place is capable of sparking creativity or music in a person?

There are some places that have an energy, and it doesn’t have to necessarily be a serene place, for example, Bombay has its own energy. Shillong has amazing energy. 

 

Have you visited a place and knew you had to write a song there?

It happened to me in Madrid, I was in El Retiro Park, and I wrote a song in 15 minutes. That song “Jahaan Tak Hamein Yaad Hai,” is a part of my EP Duur.

 

How climate conscious are you on your travels?

We travel on airplanes, so that negates everything. But, I do smaller things like carry my own water bottles and avoid plastic. It’s the least I can do.

 

What is your most memorable hotel experience?

I’ve had many, but I think what comes to mind vividly is finding out that there was a dead body found in the room next to ours in Raipur, while we were partying in our room. Police were swarming the hotel, and we had no clue, we only found out the next day. Otherwise, we’ve had special menus designed for us and extra wine bottles have found their way to our hotel rooms. It helps to have studied hotel management, and have friends in the industry!

 

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Tokyo’s psychedelic visuals have left an impact on Tewari–he wants to write a song for the city. Photo By: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

 

What is your go-to drink—one which you order in every place you go to? 

Different places, different drinks. I would drink beer in Hamburg, whisky in Tokyo and a vodka with cloudy apple juice in Berlin. It really depends on where I am, and how cold it is.

 

Lastly, what destination is on your bucket list?

Africa.

 

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  • Lubna Amir is Assistant Digital Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.

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