That old but new feeling

Some of the most profound aspects of India’s ancient culture get a modern treatment in the works of Mohit Pandit and his Melbourne-based band Melody Theatre

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“I’m a nationalist at heart,” says 45-year-old Mohit Pandit, founder of Melody Theatre, a world music project that has been the talk of the town following its recent musical release, Tiranga Mathe Sajo, a tribute to slain CRPF personnel in Pulwama.

He adds, “Three generations of my family are from the Army, so incidents like these affect me personally. It affected all of us. And that’s how Tiranga… happened.”

You will find, though, that Tiranga doesn’t sound like a song. Mohit explains, “In the Army, there’s something called a battle cry; it’s sung when soldiers go to war or perish at war. CRPF, unfortunately, doesn’t get any such treatment. So, we came up with the idea of making a battle cry for them – and that’s what Tiranga is. It’s a two-minute composition and our version of a battle cry dedicated to these brave men.”

L-R: Satyajeet Samant (producer, guitarist, singer-songwriter), Gurinder Bhogal (executive producer, percussionist and drummer), Khusbhoo (guitarist), Kunal Mehta (executive producer, singer), Chris Win (bass).

He adds, “There’s a verse in Bhagavad Gita: Tum kya lekar aye the, kya lekar jaoge? The truth is, people like you and me won’t take anything from this world. But these men will – they will take the tricolour with them. That was the essence of this Tiranga Mathe Sajo.”

The composition, which has garnered a whopping 36,000 views on social media in under a week, features the Melody Theatre trademark: lyrics that are simple yet meaningful, music that’s inspired from multiple cultures, and a distinctive underlying texture of rock.

It’s the common thread that runs across all the songs the band has composed to date, which are heavily steeped in culture – whether it’s Naam Mein Bhagat, a tribute to Bhagat Singh (which is also their first official release on the occasion of Independence Day in 2018 at the Consulate in Melbourne), Kanha Ji, Meera Ri, a delightful conversation in which Meera wants to know why Lord Krishna can never truly be just hers, or Tajdar-e-Haram, a modern reinterpretation of the classic Sabari Brothers qawwali by the same name.

The process of creating a composition always starts from a concept, Mohit reveals. “I think about a concept for at least two weeks so that I can build a word dictionary around it, live like that character to really understand the emotion.” Mohit explains using a little-known conversation from the Sanskrit epic Ramayana between Lord Ram and Laxman, which also happens to be a song he’s working on right now. “I’ve picked the concept, and now I have to present it in a way that can be easily communicated. The process is a mix of retaining the essence of the shloka and imagining. It’s a powerful, overwhelming feeling.”

Once the rough draft is built, Mohit builds a scratch track. “Everyone just sits together, jams, and throws around ideas about how it should sound. It’s a collective effort. And because everyone has such different music sensibilities, they bring varied textures to the composition.”

Mohit laughs and adds, “Our songs usually go over 10 minutes because we incorporate everyone’s input.”

It’s easy to draw similarities between the music of Melody Theatre with other bands which also often combine rock with Indian instruments and music, like Indian Ocean (folk and rock) for instance. But there are two key things that set them apart. First, that there’s no electronically-produced music – what you see and hear is what you get. Second, their deliberate choice of simplicity and of telling meaningful stories that are rooted ancient traditions in their own trademark style.

Take Rasiya for example, which blends the rich, evocative ‘Music of Malwa’ and fresh sounds to create an absolutely joyful rendition.

It’s no mean feat to do what Mohit and his fellow musicians at Melody Theatre do. Their music is niche and the inspiration for their music, even more so. There are other challenges on the way. For starters, the indie music scene isn’t really thriving. In fact, Melody Theatre isn’t their main gig, and doesn’t make any money right now. The band members invest their own hard-earned money to make music they love.

“The kind of content we create doesn’t attract any outside investment. Production, distributing and marketing music is another big hurdle. We have a fan base that’s growing slowly, and we’ll get there in due time.”

Interestingly, Melody Theatre’s music could (and should) find resonance not just with youngsters wanting to establish a connect with their culture, but also the older generation, for whom Mohit’s music could easily create a sense of nostalgia. Mohit agrees. “My generation and yours – we’ve grown up watching shows like Mahabharata and Ramayana. But what about our kids? And even if we wanted to teach them, how do we do it? There is no content out there anymore.”

He adds, “In an interview I once came across, a musician said about their music, ‘I’m not writing anything new or different – my music is simply a reflection of the current society.’ By that logic, is the song Chaar botal vodka, kaam mera roz ka a reflection of our society? Woh kaunsa ghar hai jisme aisa hota hai? (What houses are these where this happens?) What sense does that make? And whose responsibility is it to introduce youngsters to good, meaningful content? Ours. That was our motive – to tell stories that truly reflect our values, our culture, our tradition and connect our younger generation to them.”

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Neha Malude
Neha is a daydreamer. She is a diehard Jeffrey Archer fan and wishes she could tell stories like he does. She is obsessed with journals and fountain pens and she uses these to write stories that usually end in twists that will leave you saying ‘Whaaa?’ She is currently toying with an idea for a book but hasn’t had the courage to start writing it.