Soon after Farhan Akhtar’s film Rock On!! released two months ago, the mailboxes of Arvind Sankaran, 44, director, retail banking services* at a multinational bank in Hong Kong, and Bipin Balakrishnan, 34, the New-York based lawyer with Ernst & Young, were flooded with emails from long-lost batchmates remarking on the similarity between the film’s plot and their lives.
Like Rock On!!’s quartet, Sankaran and Balakrishnan are living their dream—of being part of a band. Since its inception in 2004 in Singapore, Bandwidth, has performed live once a year. The “Bollywood rock” band plays covers from Black Sabbath, Dire Straits, Led Zeppelin and popular Bollywood songs composed by R.D. Burman, A.R. Rahman and now even newer ones such as Pichle Saat Din on Mein from Rock On!!
Next Saturday, eight men and a woman will once again stand in front of a 1,000-strong audience comprising mostly friends, family, business associates and the expatriate Indian community in Singapore to relive that exhilarating feeling of their college days.
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“Though there are similarities with the movie—namely, that we are a group of friends who have formed a band; that we were all active musicians in graduate school; and that many of us have picked up music after a gap of 10-12 years thanks to Bandwidth— we have not regrouped to revive a band. Before 2004, none of us really played together; and all of us did not even go to college together,” explains Sameer Dev, 37, director, southeast Asia, Principal Global Investors, the band’s lead guitarist and its initiator.
The announcement of this year’s gig was hailed by a 429-member fan club on Facebook (this writer discovered the existence of the band through one member) that is waiting for the group to “rock them again”.
(from left to right) Vish Srinivasan vocalist day job techie, Shireesh Joshi keyboardist day job vice-president, Sameer Dev lead guitarist day job asset manager, Arvind Sankaran drummer day job banker, Dharmesh Singha bass guitarist day job studio owner, Ashwini Nair vocalist day job homemaker, Anand J Mehta rhythm guitarist day job general manager, Satchit Joglekar drummer day job tech consultant. Julian Lee
Formed by a group of friends who could not or did not pursue music as a career, the band comprises a banker (Sankaran; drummer), a lawyer (Balakrishnan; vocalist), an asset manager (Dev; lead guitarist), a retail services head (Anand J. Mehta; rhythm guitarist), a vice-president at an FMCG company (Shireesh Joshi; keyboards), a homemaker (Ashwini Nair; vocalist), a techie (Vish Srinivasan; vocalist ), account technology consultant (Satchit Joglekar; drummer and percussionist), and an audio studio owner (Dharmesh Singha; bass guitarist). “A nice thing about Bandwidth is that each of us is in a different industry, so there is no shop talk!” says Sankaran, the banker-drummer who graduated from BITS Pilani in 1985.
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The foundation of Bandwidth was laid about eight years ago in Singapore (though Joshi, the band’s chronicler and its most active member along with Dev, says it all really started in 1983 when his wife Priti and Dev were classmates at Vidya Bhavan, Pune) when Dev, Joshi, Balakrishnan, Srinivasan and Sankaran connected with each other and started jamming together. “It started out with singing songs at social gatherings and soon, we were having monthly mehfils where attendance was strictly family. Songs spanned genres—from rock to Bollywood, Carnatic to classical. A few friends saw us perform and thought it would be great if we came together as a band and that was the genesis of Bandwidth,” explains Joshi, 42, vice-president, strategy, at an FMCG MNC*, in a detailed email timeline.
Others such as Mehta, 36, group general manager, Harvey Norman Singapore/Malaysia, met Dev at a barbeque. Even though he was invited twice to play with the group, he did not take up the offer. “I made it to the studio after the third request and have not left the band since,” he says.
Nair, 39, the group’s female vocalist, and Dev go back a long way as well. They were members of rival bands during their college days in Pune. Initially, Nair ignored all attempts by Dev to get her to join Bandwidth. “I had not sung a note in over 12 years till Sameer caught up with me and convinced me to join the band,” she says.
A third generation Singaporean, Singha, 42, joined the band in 2006 after its second gig, while Joglekar, the band’s youngest member at 26, will make his debut this year after being with the band for six months.
The Bandwidth members are most likely not the only group of Indian professionals in their early 40s who are bandmates (see related story on L14). But what makes them unique is that these part-time musicians, most of them senior executives, live in four cities (Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and New York City) and make time for an annual gig around October-end. Despite packed itineraries, the travel (three band members live outside Singapore) and numerous family commitments, these nine people juggle their lives to keep their dream and passion for music alive. “People ask us how we manage to balance family, work and music. All I can say is without music in my life, a hectic work schedule would have been even tougher to manage,” says Srinivasan, 41, senior director, Applied Materials.
The members admit that in the early days they got in trouble with their spouses, and sometimes even at work, “but since our families saw how much this band means to us, they have been supportive. It would not have been possible without them,” explains Dev. Some, like Dev’s wife Priya and Srinivasan’s mother, have even performed occasionally at the concerts. Priya says she started performing because she wanted to be a part of Dev’s “other life”. “If you can’t stop them, might as well join them.”
It helps that the band doesn’t practise through the year. Many members are busy during the first quarter of the financial year and the last part of the fourth quarter and most band activity ceases during that time. “The tempo really picks up around July and August and is over by November,” says Dev. Mehta believes that for any band to survive, it is important for it to have a “collective soul”. An hour-long conference call with all the members, despite the time differences, is enough to convince me that this is a mantra Bandwidth knows by heart. No one member gets to play star and each and every one is prodded to say their piece amid howls of laughter and bouts of teasing.
(left) Dev’s dad taught him to play ; (right) Bipin Balakrishnan is a lawyer and a vocalist.
“I have always dreamt of being a musician, being part of a band and having an audience that I connect with. Every second that I’m with the guys on stage, I’m living that brilliant dream,” says Balakrishnan, who spent 48 hours commuting from NYC to Singapore this August just for two-and-a-half days of practice. “These sessions are about creativity, about mixing and matching and visualizing how the concert will be, and fun—eating out, playing pranks on each other, meeting families...I miss that.”
The reason why this band works for Sankaran is because “music has always been an important part of defining who we are. I don’t think any of us ever thought something like Bandwidth would be possible. In fact, I had settled for the occasional piling on to a live band at pubs or at company off-sites.”
But with Bandwidth, the passion lives on. “It is a wonderful feeling to have a group of otherwise very opinionated adults aligned to one objective (the gig) and, when required, to carry each other towards getting to the goal,” says Mehta, the “Aussie bloke” of the group, who used to be part of a band called Tender Prey in Sydney before he moved to Singapore.
To keep all the members on the same wavelength, the Singapore-based members record the practice sessions and send the audio files to Sankaran, Balakrishnan and Joshi so that they can understand the structure of the song, scales, tempo, vocals, and practise in their respective locations.
“My family goes to bed by about 8.30pm. So I end up practising until midnight these days,” says Joshi, who was in Delhi recently. Dressed in a black Bandwidth T-shirt, the Shanghai-based executive says that were he graduating from college today, it is likely he would have participated in a show such as Indian Idol. “Back in the late 1980s, you could be a rock star only on the campuses of engineering and management colleges. Once you graduated, it was all about building a career. For almost a decade after college, I did not sing or play the keyboards. Now, I don’t want to let go.”
Over the years, the line-up of Bandwidth has been fluid. “This is really a function of guys moving out of Singapore but the band has survived all the exits and embraced the new entries,” says Dev.
For example, when Sankaran moved to Hong Kong from Singapore in 2006, Rahul Malhotra, a regional business head for Shell (oil and gas) pitched in. “I was looking to restart my music. This was a great opportunity,” he says. However, Malhotra lasted only a year before professional commitments and excessive travelling made it impossible for him to continue. That’s when Satchit Joglekar, a techie who works with EMC Corporation, came in. The group has varied tastes in music and tries to incorporate all views. In fact, the name Bandwidth was chosen because of the range of music genres enjoyed by the different members.
Singha and Mehta say they differ the most as far as music choices go. “The rest of the guys grew up at a similar time in similar environments, hence the consistency in their taste—slightly heavy-handed rock. I am not a Deep Purple, Ozzy Osborne, Scorpions kind of guy,” says Mehta, in contrast to Singha, who grew up listening to Western bands and Chinese musicians. “I am new to Hindi music but I like the mix that we do…it has a little something for all of us.” The band tries to give some songs a special touch by reworking their musical structure, especially for Bollywood numbers, but they do not believe in creating remixed versions. “We try to be as close as possible to the original version, but we are a live band after all and each song we play has to take on our personality too,” says Srinivasan. In the early days, the band included a few Tamil numbers in its repertoire but eventually dropped them. “Well, it leads to all sorts of tension between the Marathi and the Tam brigade. We did not want communal disturbances,” says Sankaran.
For a new member such as Joglekar, who was heavily into Bollywood, the music list works because it gives him a chance to show off his skills on the tabla. “Though I enjoy Bollywood, initially I was hesitant about a band which mixed rock music with Bollywood. But in the six months that I have practised with the group, I can see why such a mix works.”
Joglekar, who studied engineering in Singapore, was part of two bands at Singapore University. Even today, he has a three-member troupe at EMC and plays with Bandwidth as well.
In fact, all the Bandwith members have previously played with other bands. Dev, who has been playing the guitar since he was six, was judged best guitarist at IIT Bombay’s annual cultural fest, Mood Indigo, in January 1991—his band Aryans also won the best band award. In 1985, at the IIT Kanpur campus, Joshi created ‘Smritiyan’, a concert series. Srinivasan, too, was a part of the series. Sankaran founded the Joka Bandstand with a few friends in 1986 at IIM Calcutta. From 100 people at their first gig in 2004, with the band paying for the attendees’ food and drinks, to around 1,000 people paying Singapore $40 for a ticket to this year’s show, Bandwidth has come a long way. Yet, the band refuses to hire larger venues. Their reason: most venues in Singapore don’t have an open air facility. “We want our performances to be interactive, and also keep alive the atmosphere that existed during our college years. A closed concert venue will not allow that spirit to come to life,” says Joshi.
Next year, Bandwidth hopes to create a few original tracks. “I am sure that our first original will more likely be a Hindi rock song rather than an English one,” says Dev. While original compositions are the next logical step, Srinivasan adds, they “may be more of a challenge considering how different our music sensibilities can be sometimes”.
*Company name withheld on request
Bandwidth will play at The Pavilion, Far East Square, 28 China Street, Singapore on 8 November, starting 9pm.