Tapan Raj is a moonlighter but it isn’t easy to figure what he’s moonlighting at. His more orthodox career, the one he was formally trained for, is that of a technology consultant. But his better-known career—as one half of MIDIval PunditZ, a successful pair of electronic musicians—has begun to edge the consulting work out of his calendar.
Unlike other moonlighters, Raj, 33, isn’t just pursuing a passion until it begins to pay for a living; if that were true, he would have turned a full-time musician years ago. It is quite the opposite—Raj isn’t prepared to give up on either vocation. Music may be the single largest object of his affections, but “I love technology too much to leave it behind”.
Raj and Gaurav Raina, the other half of the MIDIval PunditZ, met in school in New Delhi nearly two decades ago. “We were always the music heads of our class, listening to the latest stuff and telling our friends what was going on,” Raj says. “There used to be a programme called Hot Tracks on television, once a week. We’d record that on our VCRs.”
Early start: Tapan Raj of MIDIval PunditZ has dabbled in music since his school days. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
They were working out the configuration of their musical palate, although in retrospect Raj considers it a sign of their good taste that the music they liked back then—Led Zeppelin, Madonna, Duran Duran, A-ha—continues to be the music they like today.
After school, while Raina studied architecture, Raj got into an undergraduate course in textile engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi. “In India, the notion is: What you’re educated in is what you’re supposed to do for a living,” he says. Proceeding to an IIT seemed entirely sensible, especially since neither Raj nor Raina had been trained formally in music. “After all, you can’t imagine becoming a pilot without studying for it.”
In IIT, Raj began to experiment more with making his own music, and very early, he was asked to organize the IIT rock show. Raj and Raina started to dabble in computers and “small-time remixes”, and they both became drummers for their college bands. “That translates into our music now. It’s rhythm heavy.”
When he graduated in 1997, Raj had wanted to apply for a course in music production. “But without any repertoire, they wouldn’t have given me a scholarship,” he says. “So I had to admit to myself: Let’s make some money. That’s where I got lucky when I fell in love with technology.”
Raina, who has simultaneously been an observer of and a participant in Raj’s career, thinks that despite his passion for music, a professional dilemma must have existed at many points. “After all, these decisions are also financial,” he says. “But Tapan’s parents encouraged him to do what he wanted, although I’m sure they didn’t fully understand what he was doing. For that matter, 80% of the people around us didn’t understand; nobody knew what electronic music was. But if there was any pressure to get a job, it was only internal, to do something to measure up to his educational qualifications.”
As Raj worked a full-time job, and as Raina gritted his teeth and produced music for pop stars, the pair began throwing a series of parties called “cyber mehfils”. Every three months, they would spend roughly Rs25,000 to hire a space and equipment, invite people, and play their music—all to purchase that most invaluable of all kinds of publicity, word of mouth. It took a year and a half before this worked out for MIDIval PunditZ.
“Then people started to call us, asking when we were doing our next party, and we said: ‘Now you can pay us’,” Raj says. “That’s when we thought that maybe we can do this as a career.”
Shortly after, Raj gave up full-time employment, but even as MIDIval PunditZ worked with star musicians like Anoushka Shankar, Karsh Kale and Ustad Sultan Khan, he continued to consult on technology three days a week. His expertise with computers, in a way, has even helped his music: “We were the only musicians around who never asked for tech support.”
Raj admits he’s also been blessed with understanding clients. “Maybe they’ve realized subconsciously that if they keep me away from one field, my work in the other will suffer,” he says with a laugh. “I think I’ve figured out that my personality requires both.”