Rohan Rajadhyaksha Is Next.

Rohan Rajadhyaksha Is Next.
Karan Kumar for Homegrown

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In the heart of Juhu, a small four-way intersection cowers under massive billboards and their bright lights. It’s right off the massively popular tourist beach, a short walk away from Prithvi Theatre, not far from (former) legendary indie gig venue Razz Rhino, and bordered by a high school, a gas station, and a five-star hotel.

It’s an intersection any resident of Bombay has passed through countless times - whether they’re heading south to Bandra and beyond, east to the airport, north to sleepier residential neighbourhoods, or arriving at the beach. There’s no reason you’d stop here other than to wait at the traffic light. Or to a visit a nondescript little residential society that is easier to miss than to notice.

Rohan Rajadhyaksha lives alone here, in an apartment on the second floor. Despite the busy street right outside, his home is surprisingly quiet. In the living room sprawls a massive upright piano on loan from a friend. A couple of keyboards, cables, chargers, adaptors and notebooks are strewn across the table and the mattress on the floor. Somewhere in the debris is a notebook that Rohan used for his first piano lesson ever. When he was five, Rohan began learning music from an elderly Parsi gentleman named Rustom Karwa, a legendary harmonica player and whistler - Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s go-to session man. Mr. Karwa made sure to underscore his formative years with an appreciation and understanding of musical tradition and classicism. His very first lesson started off with sheet music.

A couple of months later, on December 16, 2017, far from his Juhu sanctum, I watch Rohan perform as part of a trio led by composer Sid Vashi. We’re in the middle of the desert in Rajasthan at Magnetic Fields Festival. He rejoins the crowd within minutes of getting off stage to watch the next act - legendary British producer Four Tet. Afterwards, we eat together at a food stall and consider whom to watch next. At another stage inside the old Mahal, we can hear a headliner DJ take to the decks to begin spinning incredible drum-n-bass. Neither of us can take the sensory overload, and walk out into to the desert to the festival campsites to take in the food, the quiet, and the cold night air.

With nothing on the place ground really off limits, we stumble right into a massive Lynch-esque scarlet tent with a pointed roof. Here, Rohan finds himself a spot on an unoccupied couch at the back and lets himself feel the warmth of the secret unannounced performance by virtuosic Indo-French latin-jazz band, The Lationation. As the band improvises and explores, he closes his eyes and smiles, betraying at once his high from adrenaline and cannabis, and his exhaustion from touring for months on end. Rohan’s eyes stay closed, seemingly asleep, as Latination’s keyboardist, Pradyumna Singh Manot, plays into the night. Only when the last note is played, his eyes open to look over to me. He motions towards the exit with his head.

Performance at Sofar Sounds Bombay. Source – Facebook

As a child, Rohan cared precious little about the keyboard as an instrument. “It was always just a vehicle for me,” he says when I probe him on his writing process, “I’d always have something playing in my head. More often than not, it’s something I wouldn’t know how to play if I tried.” His earliest lessons were learned not just from Rustom Karwa, but also from spending time in the auditory arms of Mozart, Hans Zimmer, Phil Collins and Sting. He reminds me that Hans Zimmer was responsible for the score of The Lion King, and illustrates his point by showing me a piece of the score that directly quotes Mozart’s Ave verum corpus in D Major. He may have inadvertently discovered Mozart through the death of Mufasa, but he cites Rahman as a peerless influence, “He made me think about music. Rahman taught me chord substitution. For one five-six period…I think around when he did Bombay, Maachis, and Dil Se, he did this thing where he’d lay down a melody early on, and over the course of the song he’d change everything around it. I didn’t know it was chord substitution at the time, but I felt it. I saw it as him laying a premise, changing the context, and showing you the premise in a new light.”

It took many years for Rohan to find himself comfortable and confident as a songwriter, performer, artist, and collaborator. “I spent my entire time in school depressed. As soon as I was done and I went to college, it felt like a whole new world. I didn’t even know I’d been depressed. But suddenly I felt this weight lift and I just wasn’t anxious anymore. I didn’t know there was a way to not be anxious all the time.” As the anxiety left, he started to spend increasing amounts of time in the empty apartment he now lives in. He’d spend days and nights practicing singing and writing songs; for the first time writing lyrics to go with the music. He began to teach himself to play the guitar, stoking his creativity with its unfamiliarity in an attempt to keep himself from getting boxed in by the piano. The silence and acoustic character of the living room we sit in served as the ideal place for him to teach himself to sing too. “Short reverb,” he says, clapping once and listening intently to the room’s response to show me what he meant. “If you’re alright, you can get a little confidence out of practicing here. If you suck, the room will tell you.”

On 21st April 2018, I watch as Rohan fidgets nervously with every cable running in and out of his keyboard, amplifier, laptop and soundcard. “I can’t figure it out”, he says to the in-house audio engineer. He sits before a seated audience of 30, under a dimly lit chandelier, the only source of light switched on in a record store in mid-town Bombay. Eventually, he seems to manage to get things working to a satisfactory degree. Or perhaps he decides the audience has been kept waiting long enough already. He looks over to his bandleader Tajdar Junaid, and then over to me, to signify they’re ready to begin.

Over the next two hours, Rohan and Tajdar weave in and out of songs from Tajdar’s 2013 album ‘What Colour Is Your Raindrop?’ - one song, then another, then back to the first, then both at once. They were only booked to play for 30 minutes.

Spund In The Box performance at Nh& Weekender Pune. Photographed by Parizad D

Rohan today is a very different person from Rohan yesterday, and he’ll be different tomorrow. Over the last 7 years, he’s played with his band Spud in the Box, and as part of live acts for some of the finest songwriters on these shores - Parekh & Singh, Tejas, Tajdar Junaid, Dhruv Ghanekar, Sid Vashi, Merkaba, and Dhruv Visvanath. He tells me he considers Tajdar, Ghanekar and Sid Vashi his three “pillars” - it’s easy to see why. In Ghanekar, Rohan finds his virtuosic self. Playing for Dhruv has challenged him unfailingly and constantly. The first time he auditioned, he didn’t make the part. With Tajdar, Rohan finds his childhood self - cinematic, orchestral, emotive, and expressive. As he tells it: “After my first jam with Tajdar, while we were standing outside about to leave, I casually asked him what my parts were. He told me my parts were whatever I had played at the jam. I couldn’t believe it. He trusted me.”

His relationship with Sid Vashi, however, is the most indicative of things to come. Both artists are massive music nerds above all else, and obsessed with pop music. Although he claims to never have been able to find relatability and honesty in hip-hop, Rohan cites Kendrick Lamar as one of the primary influences right now. “I love DAMN., but To Pimp A Butterfly was amazing. For Free, man. For Free!”

After seven years of learning, or “going to school” as he calls it, Rohan feels like he’s finally ready to release the music he’s been writing on his own. Earlier this year, he sadly found himself at the end of another parallel seven-year period - his relationship. He isn’t reserved when he talks about it, “I guess my new music is about that, really. About heartbreak.” As he processes this new world, a world without a partner he had ever since his career began, he’s dedicating as much time as he can afford to finishing his album. “I’ve got 4 songs I know I want to put out,” he says, hesitating to commit further. He plays me snippets of new songs, rough scratches off his laptop and later he sings and plays some on the piano in his living room. Surprisingly, and reassuringly, it sounds like nothing he’s ever done before - with his own band or otherwise. The music is pure, honest, and refreshingly catchy. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rohan understands the power of the hook, and the importance of connecting emotionally with his audience. “Honesty, man”, he repeats time-and-time again as we discuss the most important elements of music we both enjoy - from Parekh & Singh to Frank Ocean. While he’s not yet sure where he stands in the world, or who he wants to be to his audience, or what his album will eventually sound like, he knows it’s time for him to reap the benefits of “going to school” for so long. For now, Rohan is done learning. Rohan is next.

Featured illustration by Karan Kumar for Homegrown, see more of his work here.

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