Indian Folk Star Raghu Dixit Visits Berklee for Residency and Sold-Out Concert

Kimberly Ashton
April 12, 2017
Raghu Dixit addresses a sold-out Red Room at Cafe 939 on April 5. His concert was one of the fastest-selling shows in the venue's history.
Students with the Berklee Indian Ensemble record a video of Raghu Dixit's song "Yaar Bina," which will be the first off his upcoming album. In total, 17 Berklee vocalists and 14 Berklee instrumentalists worked on the song.
Raghu Dixit kicks back in Q Division Studios during a recording session with the Berklee Indian Ensemble.
Raghu Dixit records "Yaar Bina," the first song off his upcoming album, at Q Division Studios in Somerville.
Raghu Dixit looks on as the Berklee Indian Ensemble records a video for "Yaar Bina," the first song from his upcoming album.
Student Katya Krishnan of the Berklee Indian Ensemble interviews Raghu Dixit at the Red Room at Cafe 939 just before his performance. Dixit had to cancel a Facebook live interview earlier in the day because of strained vocal cords.
Gaurav Vaz, the bassist and manager for the Raghu Dixit Project, plays at the Red Room at Cafe 939 concert.
Raghu Dixit sings before a dancing audience at Berklee's Red Room at Cafe 939.
Image by Tara Chopra
Image by Rohith Jayaraman
Image by Rohith Jayaraman
Image by Audrey Harrer
Image by Rohith Jayaraman
Image by Tara Chopra
Image by Tara Chopra
Image by Tara Chopra

After years of trying to break through as a musician in India, Raghu Dixit landed a meeting with a major Mumbai record label in 2006. He waited hours past the appointed meeting time before the woman who was supposed to meet him came into the lobby. She quickly told him that his style of music, Carnatic folk, wouldn’t sell and, besides, he wasn’t good-looking enough to be a rock star.

“I was completely disillusioned,” said Dixit, who was recently at Berklee for a concert and four-day residency that included a public talk, a sold-out concert, a workshop, and the making of a music video with the Berklee Indian Ensemble. The video, recorded at Q Division Studios in Somerville, was for his song "Yaar Bina," which will be the first off his upcoming album. 

After the Mumbai meeting, Dixit broke down crying on the median in one of the city’s busiest streets. He decided that his dream of pursuing music, for which he had left a stable job in Belgium as a scientist at a major pharmaceutical company, just wasn’t going to happen. As he stood in the median, a friend called to tell him that he had booked him a show that night. Dixit decided it would be his last.

Instead, it was where Bollywood producer Vishal Dadlani, of Vishal-Shekhar, heard him and helped him launch a career as one of India’s most popular musicians, known for his joy-inducing live shows.

'I Make Them Sing and Dance'

“The way he just brings energy to everyone around him is just incredible,” says Blake Johnston, a fifth-semester professional music student who sings bass vocals in the Berklee Indian Ensemble, which performed a few songs with the Raghu Dixit Project at the 54th Bengaluru Ganesh Utsava megafestival last September. “The audience was obviously really excited to see us but as soon as he came out on stage they couldn’t stop screaming,” Johnston said.  

Johnston was one of several students who, along with members of the larger Boston community (and even someone who made a daytrip from New Jersey), listened to Dixit tell his story from the stage of the Berk Recital Hall last week. Dixit was joined by his manager and bassist, Gaurav Vaz, and by Annette Philip, leader of the Berklee Indian Ensemble and artistic director of the Berklee India Exchange.

Dixit told the crowd about how he came to music through a background in classical Indian dance, but never expected to make a living in the arts. “Like every Tambrahm (Tamil Brahmin) family, fine arts are [considered] to be only hobbies; they are not supposed to be mainstream professions.” So, just out of high school, Dixit earned a bachelor’s, master’s, and M.Phil. in the biological sciences.  

Image by Tara Chopra

Eventually, however, his passion brought him back to India and in front of thousands of ecstatic fans regularly. Dixit’s performance philosophy is simple: He wants to make people happy. That’s why he doesn’t play sad songs in concert.

“I don’t want anyone to be reminded of their sadness. Everyone has problems … everyone comes to my concert with problems, yes. They’ll bring whatever worries they have, and I make them sing and dance and make them forget for two hours,” he said.

And that’s just what the audience did at Dixit’s Berklee show on April 5, which was one of the fastest-selling shows in the history of the Red Room at Cafe 939. Though his voice was strained from touring, and this had caused him to cancel a Facebook live event earlier in the day, Dixit didn’t hold back on stage, pouring what appeared to be inexhaustible energy into every song and tossing out laugh-out-loud lines in both English and his native language, Kannada, while exchanging an easy banter with the audience.

Spying a man in the audience who wasn’t singing, Dixit teased him for not trying. After all, he said from the stage, taking in breath and letting it out as song is one of the most natural things a person can do. Then, with a smile, he turned back to the microphone and took in breath.