Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Ricky Kej: Bollywood dominates Indian music

Ricky Kej studied to be a dentist but went on to win a Grammy instead. This apparent dichotomy defines his music as well. The 33-year-old Bengalurean’s album, Winds Of Samsara, co-produced with South African flautist Wouter Kellerman, won the Grammy this year in the “new-age music" category. Kej describes new-age music as “the sum of all the winners and nominees of the category over the years, including Enya, Enigma, and Peter Gabriel to name a few".

With sounds inspired by India and Africa, Winds Of Samsara, Kej’s 14th album, competed against the likes of Paul Avgerinos, Peter Kater and Kitaro.

Kej spoke about his musical influences, which range from Peter Gabriel to Pandit Ravi Shankar, and why Bollywood doesn’t interest him. Edited excerpts:

How did ‘Winds Of Samsara’, your Grammy-winning album, happen? What made you collaborate with Kellerman?

We started working on these two pieces and discussed other compositions. For two years, we travelled around the world and worked with over 120 musicians in five continents.

With such inspirations and tracks titled ‘Mahatma’ and ‘Madiba’, you’ve described ‘Winds Of Samsara’ as a boundary-breaking, new-age album.

You started playing the guitar when at school and started learning classical music at the age of 24. What is the moment that defined the trajectory of your musical career?

Is that the reason why, despite being an amalgamation of multiple genres, Hindustani and Carnatic classical are the essence of your music?

Hindustani classical music is my way of expression right now. It’s like an Italian might be fluent in English but if he has to curse someone, it would be in Italian. That’s exactly how my music functions. Even if I try to do something that is not me, it will become me at the end of it. That is my Indian music or any Indian folk music. The other thing that is very close to me is Western classical orchestration.

Your dentistry degree from The Oxford Dental College and Hospital in Bengaluru was just a pact with your parents?

The deal with my father was that if I finish my degree then I can do anything with my life. Even during my dentistry, I was producing jingles in the evening, yet got really good marks. Then after all the fights with my parents, I needed to prove my music to them. I worked hard and realized that while talent is extremely important in any art field, even more important is hard work, dedication and discipline.

Despite doing commercial jingles and working with Kannada actor-director Ramesh Aravind for a few films, you’ve stayed away from Bollywood. Will it change after the Grammy win?

Ramesh Aravind is like my creativity mentor. By the time I composed music for his movie Accident in 2007, I was already successful in the US and Europe, but nobody knew me in India. I picked Accident just to get validation for myself in India and to avoid unnecessary questions.

After three films with Aravind, I gave up. I wanted to follow my heart. I could make a Bollywood item song that could give me instant fame and money, but that isn’t something I would want people to perceive as my identity or personality. For example, I don’t think that Sheila Ki Jawani is an extension of Vishal Dadlani’s personality but the sad thing is that it is the first thing that comes when you search for his name on YouTube.

You have also been vocal about artistes’ recognition in India and the issue of piracy.

Independent musicians in India cannot survive as long as there is piracy. Bollywood music is a major content creator in India. The problem, however, is that Bollywood does not necessarily put much focus on music sales since most of its revenue is from selling movie tickets. It is not bothered about piracy, which is rampant in India. If people are flooded with so much free content from Bollywood, and TV channels and radios are just playing Bollywood music, then there is no way an independent musician can showcase her work in such a mainstream way. Also, most people in our country don’t think of music as something to be purchased.

‘Winds Of Samsara’ debuted at No.1 on the US Billboard New Age Albums chart late last year. Your album ‘Shanti Orchestra’ was No.3 on the world radio charts. However, recognition in India was relatively sparse. Is Bollywood again the reason?

It makes me wonder. My music is primarily Indian and around 450 radio stations in America, Europe and Australia are featuring my music, but not a single Indian radio station or channel. It is not because all radio stations only play Bollywood music. There is no actual music radio station; it is just film radio station.

I would really like to listen to some Bollywood music coming straight from the musician’s heart and not a trend-based song. In America, there are songs written about wars and great depressions, hippy eras, slavery and political turmoil. The nation’s history is chronicled through music, whereas in India, Bollywood has become so huge that you can only hear love songs and item songs. I wish we could listen to more regional songs which are about real lives and cultures.

But we are seeing independent musicians and alternate music genres coming up in India. Do you think the music scene in India is changing?

It is not changing at all. It is moving more and more towards Bollywood. You can compare the number of Twitter followers of an independent artiste with the likes of Shreya Ghoshal and judge for yourself. An independent musician in India has two choices: go abroad and find an audience, because you surely can’t make money in India, or join Bollywood.

Who are your inspirations in music?

Peter Gabriel, because he is never afraid of experimenting. My biggest musical inspiration is Pandit Ravi Shankar, because he singlehandedly made Hindustani classical music popular across the world and mixed it with pop culture. He broke the cultural barriers for musicians like me.

You thought you would win a Grammy at 60. Now that it has happened much earlier, how will it change your music and life?

It’s almost like you’ve got a PhD when you are 10 years old. I have got massive validation in hand and I am energized right now to create more ambitious music. My music is always going to be about personal ideals and beliefs, and the genre would be wherever it takes me. I could be in a freaked-out mood in the next two-three years and make a heavy-metal album. For now, Wouter and I are working on a new album and are still figuring out the direction the album will take. We hope to have it ready by 2017, essentially as a follow-up to Winds Of Samsara.

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