It has only been four months into 2018 but Mohini Dey seems to have experienced a year’s worth in this time.

Mohini Dey, 21, is one of the world’s – and certainly India’s – youngest female bass guitarists. She performed at the 2018 National Association of Music Merchants show in Anaheim, California, in January, and was part of the line-up at the 2018 Bass Bash with Australian guitarist Plini and German drummer Marco Minnemann in the same month. At Bass Bash, she shared the stage with bassists John Patitucci and Abraham Laboriel, whom she grew up admiring. “I almost had tears in my eyes,” Mohini said.

The next month, she was at Delhi Jazz Festival, alongside American jazz fusion drummer Dave Weckl. And, along with Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess, she features on Indonesian guitarist Dewa Budjana’s album, Mahandini.

If three words were allowed to sum up her life, they would be “music, music, music,” said Esani, Mohini’s younger sister and a guitarist. And then she added with a laugh, “And family, family.”

The routines of both sisters revolve around their instruments. While Mohini spends much of her time travelling across the globe for tours and gigs, Esani performs mostly as a session musician. “We see each other maybe four times a month,” Esani said.

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Mohini Dey with a bass guitar solo.

An early start

The musical journey of Mohini Dey, who has been described as a prodigy ever since the media got wind of her talent, is rooted in her Mumbai-based family. Her father is jazz fusion and sessions bassist Sujoy Dey and her mother Romia Dey is a classical singer. The Deys were struggling to make ends meet when Mohini was born, Sujoy said. “I was busy working as a sessions artist for Bollywood composers like Laxmikant-Pyarelal.”

When Mohini was roughly two or three, she was sitting next to her father as he played his bass guitar, which was connected to a processor and a pair of headphones. When Sujoy put the headphones on his little daughter, she could hear what he was playing, and, suddenly, she was tapping the floor in rhythm with the twangs. He realised that she had an ear for music – “I thought that there is no female bass guitarist in the country, so why not [train] her?”

Soon, Mohini was listening to jazz fusion bands and artists such as Weather Report, Jaco Pastorius, Yellowjackets and Miles Davis. Sujoy assembled a tiny bass guitar from pieces of wood and gave it to her to practice on. To increase her interest in the instrument, he would get her to play, shoot her performance on video, and show her the footage, which always thrilled her.

Sujoy Dey with Esani (left) and Mohini (right) and Romia Dey. Image credit: Mohini Dey.
Sujoy Dey with Esani (left) and Mohini (right) and Romia Dey. Image credit: Mohini Dey.

Mohini got her first instrument, a Fender Jazz Bass guitar, when she was nine or 10. By that time, she had been accompanying her father to studios for recording sessions and was accustomed to that world. When Sujoy was part of the recording of a spiritual album for T-Series and Mohini was with him, he remembers asking her to participate. “I told her – you play, and she played, and then I played a little. By the end, both she and I had contributed equally to the song. The music director was happy and I was really proud.”

Finding her feet

Mohini was now studio-ready. And a meeting with the veteran drummer, arranger, music producer, singer and composer Ranjit Barot would go on to change the course of her life. At her first meeting with Barot – a friend of her father’s – Mohini picked up the bass guitar and played a couple of Victor Wooten’s tunes. Barot, who had initially been sceptical, was impressed.

According to the Deys, Barot, who had been away from live performances for nearly eight years and was busy with music programming and production, decided to take Mohini under his wing once he heard her play. They soon performed at gigs across Mumbai before Mohini got to be part of Barot’s acclaimed debut album, Bada Boom (2010).

Soon, Mohini became a regular on Mumbai’s live performance scene. By the time she was 13, she had performed with keyboardist Louis Banks, renowned music producer and composer Nitin Sawhney, sitar player Niladri Kumar, tabla player Zakir Hussain and Mumbai’s jazz cats Floyd Fernandes, Karl Peters and Joe Alvares. She had also had a taste of performing with Bollywood artists Shreya Ghoshal and Suchitra Pillai.

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Ranjit Barot, Mohini Dey and band performing Singularity from Bada Boom.

Getting to perform with the who’s who of music in front of live audiences, day in and day out, did she ever feel star-struck? “No. Because I grew up around big names,” Mohini said. “My daddy performed for over 400 to 500 Bollywood movies. I accompanied him to Bollywood parties and all the stars and directors would be around.”

There might have been times she was shocked, such as when her father took her to the stage at Prithvi Theatre and she discovered that she would be playing alongside Zakir Hussain. She had just turned 10.

Championed by a legend

It was perhaps her unflappability that impressed AR Rahman. Or so she thinks. “I used to frequently go to Nirvana studio [in Mumbai] to record,” she said. “So, during one such recording, I got to know it is for a song by AR [Rahman]. I did not know much about Bollywood music. I don’t watch films. If I get any free time, I choose to sleep. I knew Ranjit uncle and daddy knew best so I never bothered to ask. So, I knew that AR was big but I did not know how big he was exactly.”

That night, she mentioned to her father that she had played for Rahman. “My father was happy and proud and that’s when I googled [Rahman] and realised Humma Humma and Humdum Suniyo Re were his,” she said. The next day, Rahman called her to ask if she would be a part of his band for Coke Studio, and Mohini agreed. “I had literally played nothing on that track [at Nirvana Studios],” she said. “Just a simple pop groove. I wasn’t showing off. But a good ear listens to everything even if it is little.”

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Tauba Tauba by NAFS.

Rahman, who is known to be soft-spoken, rarely pays compliments, Mohini said, and the first time she met him, they only smiled at each other. But she remembers hearing him tell guitarist Prasanna Ramaswamy how incredible she is on the bass guitar. “Then, he told me that he was trying to get Tal Wilkenfeld [an Australian singer and bassist] for his band but after he heard me perform, he had to choose me,” Mohini said. “That was a big compliment.”

She appeared as a part of Rahman’s band in the third season of MTV Coke Studio in 2013 and was catapulted to stardom. Over the years, she has been featured in Rahman’s work for films and she was a part of his Intimate concert tour of the US and Canada in 2015, the Global Citizen India Festival of 2016, and several other tours in India. She is also a member of NAFS, the band that Rahman founded in 2015.

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Jagao Mere Desh Ko by AR Rahman, Mohini Dey and band on MTV Coke Studio.

In her own right

Over time, Mohini has become a star of sorts in her own right, winning both adulation and appreciation. Drummer Gino Banks, a close friend of Mohini’s and a frequent collaborator, notes that there are not many female bass guitarists around the world, let alone in India. “What she does is commendable and one of a kind,” Banks said. Guitarist Rhythm Shaw, who has often performed with Mohini, agreed – “She is one of the few hardcore bassists and she is killing it.”

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Mohini Dey with Guthrie Govan.

“I am being modest when I say that there are not many people of my age who can gain what I have gained,” Mohini said. “I am proud of what I have achieved…I am blessed because of my upbringing. These international collaborations with so many artists are a blessing. It is mindboggling for outsiders, yes, but most of the crowd is inspired by seeing such a young girl make a living from [playing] bass [guitar] because it is a difficult instrument to make a living on. Bass players have a hard time to get by in the industry and if I am inspiring young people to take up the instrument, that’s great.”

Sujoy, who started his musical career as a jazz fusion guitarist in Kolkata before moving to Mumbai in 1989, slowly moved away from jazz and became a sessions artist to support his family. Today, Mohini’s tremendous success as a bass guitarist in jazz, fusion and progressive styles, comes as vindication for her father who once struggled to get by playing similar music. “Mohini and Esani are my challenges,” Sujoy said. “When I played jazz rock, no one valued me despite appreciating my talent. Now, they call me Mohini and Esani’s father. I feel proud. How many people can do the kind of music these two young girls are doing?”

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Guthrie Govan with Mohini Dey.

Ups and downs

Committing her life to music, though, has had its challenges. For instance, growing up, Mohini had a hard time connecting to people in her age group – “Every time I went to school, I felt like an alien.”

Between squeezing in eight hours of school, tuitions, homework, practicing her music and accompanying her father to studios and rehearsals, she had little time left. And then she began performing on stage at 10 with seasoned musicians such as Barot and Hussain. Being constantly surrounded by older men whose world was music, Mohini never found herself drawn to interests that others her age would indulge in.

“When I went to school or college, it was hard for me to match up to and understand their [her classmates] mindset,” she said. “I always found them so childish and immature. I [didn’t] have time for that. I was already working.” The few close friends she has of her own age are musicians like Rhythm Shaw and Gino Banks, who, much like her, grew up in musical families and can relate to the kind of childhood Mohini had.

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11-year-old Mohini Dey and eight-year-old Esani Dey in 2008.

Balancing the demands of academic schedules with her life as a musician was challenging. When she was in Class 12 at Bal Bharati’s MJ Pancholia College of Commerce, she was a part of Rahman’s band and because of the constant travel between Chennai and Mumbai, was completing the course via correspondence. The night before her board exams, she was in Chennai in Rahman’s studio, recording until 4 am. “AR was like, can you stay for one more song, but I said, sorry, I have my board exams, I have to do this.” When she flew back to Mumbai, she went straight to the examination hall from the airport, wrote her paper, and flew back to Chennai to continue her work.

Making time for life

This year, Mohini plans to spend five or six months in the United States, playing and performing with musicians who have been inviting her. “People keep approaching me to collaborate,” she said. “Like when Jordan Rudess asks me to be a part of a special project. I cannot say no, right? And then I can ask him or Steve Vai [the American guitarist], who I have performed with, to come and be part of my album.”

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Mohini Dey at NAMM 2018.

But before that, she wants to make time for family, particularly her sister Esani. After travelling across the globe for a steady stream of projects, Mohini wants to slow down, though the sisters also plan to go on a tour this year with their band, Generation, a jazz fusion three-piece outfit with Gino Banks on drums, that was formed in 2013.

In the meantime, the two Dey girls are trying to do “sister things” together like shopping and going to the movies. “We are so surrounded by work always that we forgot that we have everything we need in the family,” Mohini said. “We are more than sisters,” Esani said. “We are like best friends. Every girl should get a sister like her.”