Baiju Dharmajan can easily be described as one of India’s guitar gods. On the verge of forming a new band, he says music for him is an emotional self-expression
It is an unlikely path to a ‘music’ studio. The road to it , in the interiors of Vypeen, narrows before disappearing altogether into the interiors of Vypeen. The stillness after the rain is interspersed with the sound of water dripping and strains of music emanating from a decrepit, old house. “This is where we are practice,” says Baiju Dharmajan, “I am a boy from ‘Vypeenkara’, this is the place that has nourished my music. You can take me out of Vypeen but not Vypeen out of me. I will keep coming back.”
One of India’s leading guitarists, in the league of guitarists such as Sanjeev Thomas, John Thomas (Karnatriix), R. Prasanna and Bruce Lee Mani (of a Thermal And A Quarter), Baiju is on the verge of forming a band. Solo projects and shows have kept him busy for the last couple of years since he left Motherjane, one of Kerala’s popular rock acts. It is time for the ‘next phase’, he says.
The 13 years with Motherjane, he acknowledges, were good while they lasted. “But then comes a time when one has to move on. I became Baiju Dharmajan a year after I left the band. I did things on my own and found my way around things. I wouldn’t have done this within the comfort zone of a band.” He is much more relaxed and smiles a lot as he talks. The first year, after quitting Motherjane, was extremely tough, he admits, financially and artistically. But with a series of collaborations and the release of his solo album, The Crossover, Baiju consolidated his position as one of the country’s best.
His music has a distinct Carnatic sound, an individualistic stamp that has ensured his longevity and freshness as an artiste. What music he knows, he taught himself. “I don’t know the ‘terms’ and the ‘techniques’. I just make music as it comes to me, sans fuss, frills or complications. To express an emotion musically, I don’t see the need for a thousand notes. A single note is enough.”
The two-time winner of the Jack Daniels Award for India’s best guitarist says he almost gave up music when he was younger. He got married very young and to support his wife he was expected to do ‘something’. So he set up an audio-video-photocopy shop which “failed spectacularly. For those two years there was no music in my life. I never thought I would take it up again. But thank God for Seby Nayarambalam.” Theatre music director Seby offered him a chance to play for a recording. “I got Rs. 750 for that recording. A very precious amount at the time. And, fortunately, haven’t had to look back after that.”
The journey to becoming ‘the Baiju Dharmajan’ started in Kollam where his father was working. His grandfather was a violinist, and the only other musician, in his family. Baiju took violin lessons while his father took guitar lessons. He may not have become a violinist, but he is grateful to the one big ‘favour’ his violin teacher did for him.
“He sent me to play at ganamelas which provided me with plenty of practical experience.” He played the guitar at Edava Basheer’s ganamelas when he was very young, “around 16 or so”. This is where he had his first brush with playing for a live audience. While very young he performed with artistes such as K.J. Yesudas and K.S. Chitra, besides others. He got to interact with greats of the time. That gave him a lot of confidence and “money too. So much so that my parents who had decided to settle down in Kollam returned here so that I would ‘mend’ my ways.” He also forged bonds he cherishes.
Some of these extend to the next generation as with Rex Vijayan of Avial and his father Albert Vijayan. “I had worked with Vijayan maash and now Rex and I work together. These relationships go back a long way.”
A generation of musicians and budding musicians looks up to him, worships him. “I don’t get that. After my show in Kolkata, recently, with guitarist Andy James, I got off the stage and these kids were touching my feet and I asked Andy, ‘what is with these kids?’ And he said, ‘it’s called getting old.’ I don’t take myself seriously for this kind of adulation.” Comfort in his space marked by a complete lack of insecurity makes him the ideal mentor, “I should be able to inspire people (musicians). Music should influence and inspire.”
Baiju lives in Vypeen with his wife, Harida and daughters, Ahana and Neha. Ahana is preparing for her medical entrance and Neha is in Class VIII.
On the cusp of change, as he sets out to launch his own band, he points to his fate line in his right hand, “I have been very lucky. Every low has always been followed by a high, be it on the personal or professional front. The rest? I’ll take it as it comes.”