There was a six-year gap between Swarathma’s sophomore album Topiwalleh and their latest effort Raah e Fakira. In that time the folk-fusion band’s long-standing drummer Montry Manuel left the group, they parted ways with their management company Only Much Louder, and found that a chunk of their original fan base had got busy with nine-to-five lives and stopped frequenting shows.
Dropped online in early October, Raah e Fakira is a triumph for the ensemble, who have been around since the mid-2000s. “I don’t think we really saw them too much as earth-shattering challenges,” said bassist Jishnu Dasguputa about their half-decade of disruptions. “We were just looking at releasing a body of work. For the band, the confidence that we get when we say to ourselves ‘We just brought out our third, full-length, studio album’ makes us feel great. There are not many [Indian independent music] bands that are three albums old.”
The record sees the Bengaluru group – best known for their buoyant, sing-along anthems about such weighty issues as communalism (Yeshu, Allah Aur Krishna), corruption (Topiwalleh) and ecological degradation (Patte Sare) – looking within for a change. “We were like, we’ve been writing so much about things around us, why don’t we write an album that’s more inward than outward?” said guitarist Varun Murali. “People always expect us to write about social causes and at one point, we [asked ourselves], ‘Are we becoming an NGO band?’ We’re not just that. [New] songs like Kaash, Manwa, Jiya Lagaaye, Jangama and Raah e Fakira, they’re talking about either yourself as a person or as a character.”
The shift in perspective could be related to the circumstances they’ve had to deal with over the last few years. “To a large extent, there were instances in the songwriting that reflected our state of mind,” said Dasgupta, citing the funk-flecked Manwa as an example. “It’s almost autobiographical, in the sense [that it’s about how], when you’re really hoping and pushing for things to work out, it’s very hard to keep doing what you think needs to be done when nothing seems to be working. At that time, if you tell yourself, ‘Calm down and take a break’, it’s going to be alright.”
Their biggest hurdle was dealing with the absence of Manuel, who left the group after six years to form his own percussion ensemble in 2012. It took them nearly four years to find a replacement. “It hit us much later, how much the chemistry changed even when [only] one member left,” said Murali. “Finding a drummer for a gig became the biggest hunt. [Then] we had to worry about [whether he] has learned the songs. Every time we would meet, we would only be rehearsing the old songs.”
As a result, they found themselves with a bunch of half-finished ideas and a stagnant set list, until mid-2016, when they collectively took a call “to not play any shows until we have new songs and not do anything until we have a full-time drummer”. Fortunately, in just a month or so, they met and enlisted Joel Milan Baptist. Then, in 2017, Swarathma put out no less than three singles, including the well-received Clinton Cerejo collaboration Agla Savera, and the Salim-Sulaiman duet Ollekaala Bandide, which they recorded for spirits maker McDowell’s.
The third, Beta Sweater Pehno, is the only one they’ve put on Raah e Fakira. The ska-tinged, mid-tempo track about the unreasonable pressures the education system places on children is typical of Swarathma in its humorous treatment of a serious topic. At the same time, it exemplifies their new material, which unlike their older earworms, isn’t as immediately infectious, but grows in appeal with each listen.
The layered compositions are a result of their fresh approach to songwriting, which has changed from “flowing in the direction of one person”, as Dasgupta put it, to a more collaborative exercise. On several tunes, Murali’s bright guitar riffs and Sanjeev Nayak’s vibrant violin strokes elevate the proceedings as much as Dixit’s impassioned vocals.
What has remained the same is their faith in the Mumbai-based lyricist Puneet Sharma’s ability to convert their thoughts into words. “We bring him down to Bengaluru for three or four days [to] hang out with us,” Dasgupta said. Before Sharma makes the trip, the band sends him phone recordings of the basic structures of the tracks. That’s for “him to get a feel of what it’s like, the energy levels,” said Murali. “Generally, he stays [with] Vasu [Dixit, who] can sing the tune for him as many times as he wants [so] he [can] pen down all that he’s not been able to write in the jam room.”
Murali’s opening of a recording studio has made Swarathma’s life easier. It’s there that they laid down all of Raah e Fakira, their first self-produced release. (Their eponymous debut was helmed by Indian Ocean’s Amit Kilamm, and Topiwalleh by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s Loy Mendonsa). “I don’t think very many bands have the luxury of a studio they can go to at any time,” said Dasgupta.
In a music scene, where scores of groups break up because of individual members’ ambitions and internal conflicts, the fact that Swarathma have stuck around this long is an achievement in itself. The longevity can be attributed to their growth, not just as musicians but also as individuals. Take, for instance, how they’ve dealt with percussionist Pavan Kumar KJ taking an extended break for personal reasons, and Dixit launching a solo career that he runs concurrent to Swarathma “because there are songs that are close to me and I want to put out but they don’t fit in with the band”. Dixit admits that he’s “trying to find a balance” between the two projects but his move has not affected things as deeply as Manuel’s departure.
“When Montry said he would like to start his own percussion collective, which he went on to take up full time, [our reaction was] ‘Are you saying we’re not giving you all that you want, that’s why you need to go elsewhere to search for what you need?’” said Dasgupta. “I think that [was] an unfair question. For a creative bunch of people to continue to stay together and create stuff, they need to be as creatively satisfied as they can be.”
For Dasgupta personally, this has manifested in his debut as a singer on the acoustic guitar-led campfire ditty Kaash and being the driving force behind the soaring ballad and standout track Aasman Ki Dukaan, a “rant” about the commercialisation of spirituality, with sharp and snarky lyrics by Sharma.
Raah e Fakira features a well-balanced mix of both classic Swarathma and its version 2.0, with which they hope to tap into a new fan base in a musical landscape “where [a lot of] people [are] listening to reimagined cover versions”. The only way to do that, they’ve figured, is to keep on keeping on with a renewed enthusiasm. “For us, this is a representation of who we are now,” said Dasgupta about Raah e Fakira. “This is the best that we can be.”