Simply bold and beautiful, the idea of a band that plays only music. No room for vocal chords here, at The Big Indian Band, conceptualised by violinist Balabhaskar. `Confusion' in the early days of his musical career gave way to something `big' just a year ago. So there you have a young band, with seven musicians, each with a distinct identity, but the whole gelling into a kind of universal music. Melody, rock, jazz, blues, you name it and you have it, that's the Big Indian Band, according to them.There's Nirmal Xavier on the drums, Prakash Ulliyur on the keyboard, Jossy John on the base guitar, Mahesh Mani on the tabla, Sudhir playing the ghatam, and Prakash Krishnan on the guitar.
"Our new album is almost ready. It was recorded in Kerala, and the rest of the work was done in Mumbai and London. The name is tentatively fixed as `Funky Priya,'" says Balabhaskar, about the new fusion album. `Funky Priya' is a number in the raga Shanmughapriya. The names of some of the numbers are equally funky: `Rocking Kalari,' `Buddha Had a Talk' and `Love in Indian Train.'The surprise in the album is the presence of the world famous master percussionist Hakim Ludin, the Afghan musician from Germany, who has jammed with the Big Band. Another is Mattannur Sankarankutty who creates magic on the chenda. The USP of the Big Indian Band? It is the right mix of the flavours and the commitment of each member towards creating a kind of universal music that cuts across all cultures and is truly global, Balabhaskar explains. Balabhaskar started young, at four, when his famous uncle, B. Sasikumar, virtually pulled him out of bed every morning, and put a violin in his hands. "It was gurukula training, and my uncle did not teach in the conventional way. He would play some swaras and expect me to do the same. It was like being thrown into the lion's den and one simply had to manage. So, manodharmas came naturally to me. The violin became a part of me and I think I can express myself best on the violin. My arangettam was at 12 and at school, I tried out my own compositions for youth festivals," he says. His post-graduation in Sanskrit helped him understand the kritis better, but he wanted to carve out something fresh and in a fit of revolutionary zeal formed the band `Confusion' while still at college. The group disintegrated when ideologies clashed. To Balabhaskar, plain music is easier created than scores for lyrics, he admits. He has also tentatively bid bye to singing as he feels there are others better equipped to do the same. He concentrates on composing music for his shows and albums. The Big Band has already done more than 100 shows in Kerala and the Gulf.All the members of the band have a common agenda, of making their living by making good music that appeals at a global level and they are working towards that goal, they say. That instrumental music has never got the kind of attention that vocal music has, pains them. While Balabhaskar's uncle was instrumental in awakening the musician in him, keyboard player Prakash Ulliyur's father, a nadaswara vidwan, schooled him in the rudiments of music. Largely self-taught, he is one of the few harmonists in Kerala. Prakash regularly plays for ghazal singers like Pankaj Udhas, Hariharan and also does recordings. He is currently scoring music for a film directed by Mohan Kupleri.The other Prakash in the band, Prakash Krishna, who is the lead guitarist, did his four-year diploma in the Swati Tirunal College of Music with veena as his subject! He plays the guitar in many of the playback singers' programmes, with K.S. Chitra, M. G. Sreekumar and also M. Jayachandran.
Sudhir who plays the ghatam in the band (the only band member not in the photo) is a first rank holder of the music college in Thiruvananthapuram. He plays the mridangam too. Percussion in the Carnatic mould prepares you for anything, Sudhir feels. When he went to Japan on a musical tour, he found that the Carnatic percussionists could play all the other instruments while the musicians from other countries found the tala system here very complicated. Jossy John, base guitarist got his first lessons from his father and later taught himself, listening to CDs. He played for the songs in `Chronic Bachelor,' `Symphony' and also for some of M. Jayachandran's compositions. Mahesh Mani, the tabalist also began his early training under his father. Advanced lessons were picked up from Fazl Quereshi, while he is still learning from his long time guru, Manohar Keskar. He played for Raveendran Master's songs for many years. Mahesh played the tabla for the songs in `Nandanam.' Nirmal Xavier, the drummer, was always drumming away on the dining table and chairs in his childhood till his parents took him to Kalabhavan. He was too small, they said, and turned them away, but a guitar teacher who was standing nearby came to their aid and taught him how to play the drums! In six months the little boy was on stage. He won several youth festival competitions and turned pro soon after. He used to play for 13 AD during the band's Gulf sojourn. They have similar ideals and thinking and plan to go on, producing better and better music, hopes Balabhaskar and the other members of the Big Indian Band. Comics and televisionBalabhaskar does not have any hobbies, he declares. It's violin, violin, and more violin throughout the day. "Listening to music is not a hobby for me," he says. When your job is making music, you cannot listen to music for relaxation. Music is work. When I hear some kind of music, I always wonder about the technical aspect of it.Then how does he relax? "I read comics and see silly TV shows so that I can laugh and the tension just slips away."