“Jump, jump, jump, jump,” instructed a dancing Raghu Dixit, dressed in his signature lungi and ghungroos, to a boisterous crowd at Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex last year. His fans, including me, gladly obliged. This was the fourth time in three years that I was seeing him perform live, but the magic hadn’t dimmed. “Now keep those mobile phones away and sing with me…Lokada Kalaji Maaduthinanthi…” he said, launching into a popular track from his 2013 album Jag Changa. I could only manage the first word of the song. I mumbled the rest (the lyrics are in Kannada, a language I’m unfamiliar with) but my feet never stopped moving.
Dixit’s first album Antaragni, which released in 2007, marked him out as an inimitable force on the Indian independent music scene. Since then, Dixit and his eponymous band—The Raghu Dixit Project—has performed in over 30 countries, graced the Glastonbury Festival twice, and even put on a show for the Queen of England. At 43, Dixit is a veritable Kannada folk-rock hero, whose compositions have kept local poetry alive. “Lokada Kalaji” is adapted from Kannadiga poet Santa Shishunala Sharifa’s work, as is “Gudugudiya Sedi Nodo,” another cut from Antaragni. “I grew up in Mysore, in a strict Brahmin family, where my day started with Kannada music. The songs I sing are the best representation of who I am—a true-blue Mysorian,” says Dixit, during a telephonic conversation. In the following edited excerpts, Bangalore-based Dixit rewinds to childhood in his hometown, and explains why he wears his love for Mysore on his sleeve.
How would you describe your connection to Mysore?
For me, Mysore will always be the small town where everyone knew each other, there was no hurry to get somewhere, people didn’t have great ambition (laughs a little). It defined absolute calm and peace… it’s what I seek every time I go there. It brings me great joy when I think of all the time I have spent there, and it makes me cringe when I remember how the expanding tech industry has brought skyscrapers and commercialisation to the city. I fear for its future.
How often do you go back?
Not as often as I’d like, honestly. My mother still lives there, and I try to make it there at least once a month.
What was growing up in Mysore like?
The city I knew—and to a great degree, still know—was a great place to learn. Every home used to send at least one kid to learn classical art forms, there were dance and music classes in every street, temples used to host classical dance concerts and festivals frequently. Because of the Mysore University, of course, there were a lot of international music concerts too.
I grew up in that rich culture. I learnt Bharatanatyam for 18 years, and learnt Hindi at Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachaar Sabha. I am glad I learnt the language today, because when I sing in Hindi, people can’t believe I have South Indian roots.
What were your favourite childhood haunts?
Most of my childhood was about music, dance and studies. I used to frequent a library called Children’s Book Council in Vanita Sadhana School, it was my introduction to English and Kannada literature. Later, the Mysore University Gardens was where I spent my time. I remember sitting with my guitar by Kukkarahalli Lake. It is one of the most picturesque of Mysore’s lakes, and right by my college. Another favourite is the Kalamandir; it is an auditorium, but right behind it is one of India’s best drama schools Rangayana, which was started by the Kannada legend B.V. Karanth. Much of my initiation into theatre, music, and the life of a full-time artist happened here.
You performed at Mysore University’s Open Air Theatre in February. How does it feel to perform there?
The theatre is the hotspot for youngsters—to dream, to romance, to study. I used to stand there as a student and imagine the applause. It was absolutely surreal to go back to such a packed audience. I have performed in Mysore, on that very stage, several times, but every time feels like the first, and I want to make it happen again.
Where do you like to go when you visit Mysore?
I like to stay at home (laughs). I visit my school (Balodyana English Medium School), my college (Dixit has an M.Sc. in Microbiology from Mysore University, and was a gold medallist). I don’t eat much outside; home food is always spectacular. My mom’s puliyogare (tamarind rice) is the best in the world.
You famously perform in colourful lungis, and sing Kannada songs—would you say that’s a homage to your hometown and upbringing?
It’s not a homage; I can only see myself. I tried singing, and writing in English and Hindi earlier, but I realised I was faking the accent and it was not who I was. Representing where I came from and the culture I grew up with is what makes me a natural on stage. I am comfortable in my own skin, I sing with much more conviction because of it.
Keeping the Mysorian in me alive is imperative to me. That is why I haven’t moved to Mumbai in spite of reasons and temptations (Dixit is a Bollywood music composer. His latest project was Chef). My music comes from where I come from, and I don’t want to change that, or add distance to it.
How has travelling around the world as a musician changed your relationship with Mysore?
It has made it stronger. In fact, when I retire, I want to give back to the city I call home. I want to build a small theatre for kids, entertain them, tell them stories and make musicals, and teach them what is it like to use their imagination.
What is the side of the city that you want people to see?
For history buffs, a visit to Mysore Palace is a must. Apart from being witness to its lit-up splendour, go for the art. The Maharaja of Mysore had a stupendous art collection, which is accessible for public viewing. Personally, I enjoy making the most of the waterfronts around Mysore. When I used to stay there, my friends and I would often cycle to Srirangapatna and Balmuri, both by the banks of the Cauvery. Srirangapatna is also home to Tipu Sultan’s old fort and summer palace, and gorgeous temples like the Ranganathaswamy Temple. There are also a host of resorts by the banks of the river for a quick getaway. For a panoramic view of the city, get to the top of the Chamundi Hills, and visit the Chamundeshwari Temple too.
Musician, composer, singer, producer—over the years, you’ve taken on many roles. Have you dedicated any particular song to the city, apart from “Mysore Se Ayi?”
Apart from that one, no. For me, “Mysore Se Ayi” is the epitome of me being a true-blue Mysorian. Lyrically, it is just a silly collection of words; it is one of the only songs I have written in Hindi. But every time I perform it on stage, I feel the love for the city. Especially now that I have left home, and travel the world, Mysore is the girl I sing to.
Lubna Amir 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.