Ranjit Barot talks about the joy of drumming and the importance of remaining true to yourself
Photos: Ranjit Barot performing at Kochi; with his mother Sithara Devi
By Shevlin Sebastian
One of the first things that drummer Ranjit Barot said when he stepped on stage for a show at the JT Pac, Kochi, was, “The food here is incredible, maan. Fish and prawn curry. I am being very well fed.”
He looks prosperous: broad-shouldered, and dressed in a black T-shirt, brown trousers and white sneakers. His drum set is gleaming. The drums have been supplied by Sonor and the cymbals by Meinl, both German companies which are world leaders in their respective fields.
At Kochi, Ranjit begins with a song called T=O (Time = Big Bang). It starts with a section on the electric mandolin by U. Rajesh, alongside a riff by John McLaughlin, who is regarded as one of the legends on the guitar.
This is from Ranjit's debut album, 'Bada Boom'. Some of the top musicians of the world have taken part. Apart from McLaughlin, they include luminaries like Zakir Hussain on the tabla, Wayne Krantz on the guitar, the late U. Srinivas and brother Rajesh on the mandolin.
The theme of the album is eternity. “I was fascinated by the birth of our universe and how we take everything for granted,” he says. “Each song is a stage in the birth of the universe.”
And before he plays the next song, 'Singularity', Ranjit says, “I want to capture this tidal wave of beauty. Everything and nothing. The complete unknown.”
But music was never an unknown to him. It was right there in his house in Mumbai from the time he was born. Ranjit is the only child of the great Kathak dancer Sitara Devi, now aged 94.
When he was a youngster, great musicians like Ustad Alla Rakha Khan, Ustad Rais Khan, Mehdi Hasan, and Kalyanji-Anandji would come to their house and have impromptu jamming sessions. When Ranjit was 14, he was attracted to drums, and told his mother about it.
“My mother was very supportive,” says Ranjit. “But like all middle-class parents, she wanted me to do academics and become a doctor or an engineer. What is the security of a life in the arts? My mother, being an artist herself, knew what a struggle it is. You are at the whim of audiences and organisers. And the truer you are to your art form, the harder it will be for you.”
Some artists find the pressure a bit difficult to handle. “So they sell out,” says Ranjit, with a smile. “But there have been people who have remained true to their inner selves and became stars, like the great Ustad Alla Rakha, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Zakir Hussein. They showed people you don't need to compromise to be successful. They are my heroes.”
Ranjit is a hero himself and of international stature. The musician has performed in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Norway, Finland, Russia, United Kingdon, Slovenia, Serbia and USA. One reason is because he plays for John McLaughlin's 'Fourth Dimension Band'. “It is my knowledge of Indian rhythms which seeps into my playing that John is attracted to,” says Ranjit.
He is also a composer, and music arranger for Bollywood composers like Laxmikant Pyarelal, Anu Malik and AR Rahman. “The first song I worked on with Rahman was 'Humma Humma [from the film 'Bombay']'” he says. Ranjit has also been the music director on several of Rahman's live shows and is working on a new song with him for a Rajnikant film.
“Rahman is a wonderful human being, very spiritual and gentle,” says Ranjit. “He has the gift of finding the meeting point between ordinary people as well as connoisseurs. In other words, he has mass appeal, but has remained true to himself.”
Even though Ranjit has worked closely in Bollywood, he feels disappointed that it has ended up as the only cultural export to the world. “Bollywood is entertainment and that's fine,” says Ranjit. “But to use Bollywood at important functions and cultural events abroad is wrong. There is a lot of culture and music in India that is untapped and ignored. We need to nurture it.”
Meanwhile, on the Kochi stage, even as Ranjit interacts with the audience, he is out of breath now and then. His shirt is drenched with perspiration and he frequently wipes his face with a white towel. Occasionally, he takes a sip of water.
“Drumming is a physically demanding profession,” he says. “I am digging deep and finding the strength to execute a certain idea that is coming to my mind, but it is pushing me to the physical limits. However, I always feel a joy inside and am completely alive.”
Backstage, he is surrounded by young drummers, all excited by the performance that they had seen. And he offered words of advice. “Stick with your art and do something so spectacular and beautiful that people have no choice but to contact you and give you work,” says Ranjit. “It is a challenge. You have to practise a lot. Find a vision. Find something that works across all genres.”
Suddenly, he says, “I am feeling low on sugar. Can somebody get me a drink?” And a young man rushes out and returns a few minutes later with a can of Coca Cola.
“Drumming is all about connecting,” he says, as he takes a swig. “Always try to have a conversation with the audience.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)