Music sessions

A music platform with no-food, no-booze policy is drawing Indian independent musicians to Kerala

Building a music scene requires more than just muses and musicians.

“It’s better now, but for the longest time, Kerala had no venues for bands to play in,” complained Govind Menon, a violinist and composer. “That’s why most musicians from Kerala would come to Bangalore to get an audience.”

For musicians like Menon, who rued Kerala’s lack of performance venues, two music lovers from Kochi found a solution in June 2016 with The Muse Room – small dedicated platforms online and offline that host upcoming independent musicians every week.

The idea was conceived by Sumesh Lal along with ex-Motherjane frontman and founder of recording label Aum-i-artistes Suraj Mani, the same people behind the popular Music Mojo series on the Malayalam music channel Kappa TV (a show similar to Coke Studio).

So far, Lal and Mani have propped up four venues, one in Kochi, another in Thiruvananthapuram, and two in Bengaluru, where gigs are held as part of The Muse Room theme. Unlike regular restaurant-cum-live music venues, most Muse Room venues stand as somewhat pristine citadels for musicians – they serve no drinks or food to minimise distractions for the audience and allow the music speak for itself.

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The platform has a fervent admirer in Jitesh James Dharmaraj, bassist for the Chennai band RJD who also plays for Junkyard Groove. At the end of RJD’s show at the OO Heaven, a small concert hall of at the Aum-i-artiste office in Bengaluru, he declared to a small audience of about thirty people: “In all my years of playing music, never have I played in a place like this. A place for musicians by musicians. It’s so rare to find a place where the audience is there only for the music.”

His brother, Ritesh John Dharmaraj, lead singer of the RJD who plays drums for Junkyard Groove, agreed. “I normally never talk about the stories behind my songs, people tend to simply talk over it and not listen, but here I could do that.”

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Mehdi Deobandi of SMAKmahadev, an acoustic, experimental band which has also performed at the OO Heaven, said, “Most places that hold gigs, especially in Bangalore, charge concert rates but they’re just bar gigs, where the owners are looking to fill up the venue and provide some entertainment for the night. Don’t get me wrong, playing to a crowd of drunk and excited people is fun as well, but you don’t really feel like your music is reaching anyone.”

With alcohol and weekend socialising, the music becomes secondary, Deobandi added. “[At the Muse Room] for the first time, I had people coming up to me after the show and asking me about the meaning of certain lyrics and the slightly odd tuning that I give my guitar,” he said. “They were actually paying attention.”

Suraj Mani explained the Muse Room’s novel style – “What we’re trying to do is to create infrastructure to help build the music scene. One of the ways is by making a simple format of acoustic shows which we can take directly to people.”

Until now, only acoustic bands have been featured at The Muse Room venues. Ranjini Menon, who is in charge of artist relations at The Muse Room, said they were open to all kinds of music. “The Muse Room in Kochi at least, where all the videos on their YouTube channel have been recorded, is a small venue that can’t accommodate a drum kit which is why we’ve been somewhat limited,” she said.

Encouragingly, the lineup sees several musicians singing in Malayalam apart from English, perhaps as a consequence of the venue’s location. However bands from other parts of the country have also been making their way down south to be featured on the channel.

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As of now only the performances that take place at the Kochi Muse Room have been put up on the Muse Room’s YouTube channel, which has a little over a 100 videos. Audio recordings of the performances at the OO Heaven are being compiled for a soon to be released album. Like Balcony TV, a multi-city YouTube music platform which started its Indian edition in 2012, Muse Room hopes to curate and showcase some of the best upcoming talent in the country (as well as all over the world) in recorded performances. There are plans to expand to more venues and host similar shows in apartment complexes and other community spaces.

Packaging music content in a video format is crucial for any new band, but popularity depends on the quality of content they produce, both online and offline. “A video that we put up three years ago had only 10,000 views to start off with,” said Menon. “Only after we performed at several gigs, it has gone up to lakhs of views now.” Earning money through the sale of albums or songs themselves is practically unheard of. What brings home their bread are still concerts – and so multiple, good venues are crucial.

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Another way to discover music is to attend music festivals like NH7, Strawberry fields, Sula Fest or any other from the other growing list of events. These events showcase several bands over the course of a few days – known and unknown – which is a great way of boosting the music scene. However, festivals come only once a year and last for about a week at most.

Compared perhaps unfairly to the West, India is missing the effort that goes into building a music scene – musicians being able to reach their audiences and listeners having easy access to fresh content. Infrastructure such as promotion of new bands on the radio, billboard charts, dedicated venues and even good music journalism for that matter, is sorely needed. This is where Muse Room comes in. “We’re championing independent music,” said Mani, in a fundraising video. “We believe in it. We have been rewarded many times over by the content that we have seen come out of this country.”

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.