Midival Punditz On Their New Album, Staying Together And Surviving The Indie Scene

Midival Punditz Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj. Photo: Anushka Menon.

Midival Punditz Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj. Photo: Anushka Menon.

At 18 years and running, Midival Punditz is among the country’s longest-surviving independent music acts. Their longevity itself is somewhat of an achievement. In the six years between the release of the Delhi-residing electronica duo’s last album, 2009’s career-defining Hello Hello, and their latest Light, which is out at the end of the month, most of the handful of bands that have been around as long as the Punditz have either seen changes to their best-known line-ups (Indian Ocean, Thermal and Quarter) or gone on an indefinite hiatus (Pentagram).

Six years may seem like a long time between albums, but it’s not like Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj have been idle in the interim. The pair, along with long-time collaborator, drummer-producer Karsh Kale, ventured into Bollywood with the background scores for Karthik Calling Karthik (2010) and Dum Maaro Dum (2011) and the soundtrack to the It’s All Gone Pete Tong remake Soundtrack (2011). Last year Raina released his debut solo effort Grey To Silver under the avatar Grain. Light has Raj and him returning to their core Indian classical- and folk-infused sound but it’s relatively subdued in comparison to Hello Hello, which included such club bangers as ‘Atomizer’.

A self-described “performance-based concept record”, Light has been created keeping in mind that these days, albums serve either as previews or souvenirs of concerts. At least initially, the Punditz will play the nine tracks in the order in which they are arranged on the CD at gigs where each song will be accompanied with visuals made by filmmaker Santana Issar. The idea is to take the audience on a journey of sorts. “This is a listening album, not a dancing album,” said Raina, who was in Mumbai last week to perform along with Raj at the finale of The Step Up, a mentorship programme organised by Johnnie Walker. The whisky brand is also bankrolling their five-city album launch tour. The Punditz were scheduled to debut Light at The Step Up finale but decided against it when they realised that the performance wouldn’t fit well with the setting of the event, where their fellow mentors were fashion designer Nikhil Thampi and chef Nikhil Chib.

Knowing the right time and right place for something is among the factors that have helped keep the Punditz going strong for nearly two decades. The duo in fact dropped two “supper clubby” tunes from Light including a “full-on bhangra smash hit” because “they were sticking out like sore thumbs”, said Raina. Though markedly slower than its predecessor, the album still has plenty of crowd-pleasing moments. Among the roster of guest performers are Assamese singer-songwriter Papon, flautist Ajay Prasanna, who Raina says vies with Kale for the unofficial position of the third ‘Pundit’, and vocalist Malini Awasthi who has become a mainstay of their live sets over the last few years. There’s also former Motherjane guitarist Baiju Dharmajan, whose Carnatic classical riffs embellish the chugging beats of ‘Rushing’, which along with the Rajasthani folk-flavoured ‘Baanwarey’ featuring singer and multi-instrumentalist Kutle Khan, and anthemic album closer ‘Don’t Let Go’ is likely to become a concert highlight, even for attendees with their eyes set on the dance floor.

Light will no doubt add to the Punditz’s collection of hits but great music alone is not enough to sustain a career, so we asked Raina to share what he thought were the reasons the Punditz have managed to stay together. Edited excerpts:

Knowing each other’s personalities
“From the beginning we’ve always understood each other’s good and bad points. For example, if one of us in short-tempered or not a morning person or is having a bad time in their personal life, it’s very easy to say, ‘I don’t give a damn, work is work.’ To be sensitive to the other person is knowing what is the positive that you want out of them and what is the negative you want to help them get over or get them through. It also helps a lot that we spent a whole lot of our initial growing up [years] together. We met in school. We became friends in eighth or seventh grade.”

Remembering that the band is bigger than you
“We’re working in a field that’s fairly subjective. Even till this day, there are times when I tell Tapan or Tapan tells me, ‘This is not what Punditz is’. We’ve had to pull ourselves back into line. We both understand that if we’re doing this, we better do it right.”

Spending time apart
“On a day-to-day basis, we spend a fair amount of time away from each other too so we don’t get sick of each other. We also write music on our own and bring it to the studio for the other person to hear.”

Understanding that being a full-time musician means running a business
“[Your career] won’t grow until you’ve applied certain business development tools. You can sit your whole life making music in a room and it might be absolutely Mozart-like but if you don’t go out there and actually do something about it, it’s no use. Frankly, touch wood, we’ve not gone and sold our soul too much. We have taken some fat cheques home but not at the price of ruining the Midival Punditz name. Talking about selling out, this project that we’re doing with Johnnie Walker we decided to take for two reasons. One was that they were happy to fund our album tour. [The second was that] mentoring kids is anyway something we’ve been doing. I’ve had people just out of sound engineering [college] work in my studio. Some of them have stayed for three years.”

Taking time off to do your own thing if you need to
“The reason Grain came about was because I was thinking so much in that English songwriting space for so many years. Only when I got together with Karsh [Kale] and [singer] Monica [Dogra] in the studio [that] just out of sheer luck we stumbled upon a sound. I said: before I lose this momentum, let me pursue it. I had to get it out of my system.”

Never forgetting your target audience
“We’ve had a fairly good synergy with our listeners. We’ve always given them ‘Punditz music’ but in the same realm experimented, taken it a step further or stretched the boundaries. I feel that’s really important – to respect your audience but in way that does not start to influence your creativity. Even if we are writing music for a fashion show, we’d write it in a certain aesthetic that comes naturally to us. [We worked in Bollywood because] we didn’t want to not try something. But we found it was a lot of work and it’s very thankless. Scores just don’t get that kind of recognition [as received by the dance numbers]. If that was not the scene, we would love to continue.”

Light by Midival Punditz will be released via Times Music on Tuesday, May 12.

Update This post originally stated that Light would be released on Tuesday, April 28. The album, which was out in the US on that date, will be available in India on Tuesday, May 12.

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