Sanjeev Thomas’s distinctive guitar strains can be heard above the sweep of Bollywood

As a young boy Sanjeev Thomas dreamt of being Barry Gibb, the Bee Gees rockstar. Being the lead guitarist of A.R. Rahman has almost fulfilled that dream, he says. But this appellation is not his only claim to fame.

He is one of the youngest and foremost among breakaway musicians who gave the genre of independent music—Indie—in the country a distinct note. And his music continues to be heard above the sweep of Bollywood tunes.

Sanjeev categorically states his Rahman connect to be the high point in his young career.

In the city for the launch of his studio, Springr’s first live event with the EDM band MIDIval Punditz, Sanjeev says, “I did not know Rahman then. He needed a guitarist for the ‘Vote for Taj’ single. He called me on a friend’s recommendation and selected me. I have been with him since.”

His brand

The eight years with Rahman catapulted Sanjeev into the grandstand of music, but the 31-year-old guitarist arrived with his brand of fresh tunes in 1998.

Indie music certainly existed then but in an amorphous form. It was a time of wilderness for musicians trying off beat music. Underground had not surfaced and independent bands and musicians were disjointed notes. Musically there was an interval. Sanjeev’s inimitable notes then took root. His electrifying guitar played music that was unconventional, fusing the irregular with traditional scale. His music was noticed. “The regular route taken is to play covers and then form your own style. But I played my own music, right from the start and that too in English,” says Sanjeev, who originally hails from Kottayam. Being born and brought up in Kuwait gave him a different exposure, introduced him to a cosmopolitan way of life. Musically too he heard different sounds that teased his formative mind. There was lots of English music at that time. “The Bee Gees were a sensation. I wanted to be Barry Gibb. I was influenced by the music of the 60s, 70s, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppellin,” says Sanjeev, who has learnt Carnatic and Hindustani. He was influenced by church music too.

Sanjeev formed his band, ‘Buddha’s Baby’, in college in Madras University. He then moved on to opening Rainbow Bridge, his studio in Chennai, which became a hub of independent music. It was then that his big break came, quite out of the blue. It was a phone call that he can never forget. Once in the fold of A.R. Rahman, Sanjeev talks of eye-opening exposure to world music. He speaks with adulation of a learner, a student, a fan and a colleague.

“From him I learnt about life, about spirituality. I have been inspired by his god fearing ways. His attitude brushes on all of us,” says Sanjeev with thrill recalling his first tour ‘Journey Home’ and the ‘Jai Ho’ world tour.

Working with other artistes

Working with Rahman brought him in touch with the best in the business from rare Mongolian contortionists, to the most talented musicians. And that experience seeped into his music. “My music has evolved because of my experiences with people.”

The 90s saw the fading out of independent music groups like Colonial Cousins, Baba Sehgal, Sunita Rao “because the channels stopped supporting them. It became just Bollywood”. Sanjeev’s underground tunes remained around.

Today, too, Bollywood rules, but underground has found a place. “Compared to Bollywood we are still underground but now there are so many festivals, live shows and venues that promote us,” he says with great hope, sensing the change and recognising the prospect. In 2011 his music struck a chord with folk as he played in Coke Studio along with Kailash Kher, Tamil folk singer Chinna Ponnu and Assamese folk artiste Papon.

Sanjeev has lately relocated to Mumbai recognising a livelier future for his kind of music. He is doing background scores for commercials and theatre. The films have beckoned him from time to time but the relationship has not been easy as he “was new and the industry too complex.” “In the film industry you are not sure of payments unless you are established,” he says, divulging that he is, after the years of experience, now in a position to re-enter the industry as a music director.

Meanwhile, he has, along with Kochi-based entrepreneurs, opened his music studio Springr in Mattancherry—a studio that will support budding musicians. “A young musician needs a period of support and Springr will do just that. I too am young and I would like to do much more,” he says, looking ahead at the upcoming tour with Rahman later this year.