A Circus for Chronic Indian Blues

I associate Peter’s farm in Hoskote – some 30 or so kilometres out of Bangalore on the road leading eastwards to Tirupati – with two cobras entwined in a mating dance at the edge of his large pond, their twirling bodies balanced on their tails while they coiled themselves into a thick rope. I sat mesmerized on the rocks leading down, unblinking and barely breathing.

But that was 2004. I had reached Hoskote by bus, got off at the stop on the road – both of which are no longer there – then haggled with the auto-driver to take me on the mud road leading to the farm. There are no mud roads to be had around here any more. Given the way it is sprawling, Hoskote, once known for its rich farmlands, its abundant water, may soon even get its first ‘Mall’.

In any case, if you are a small-scale farmer these days in Bangalore, still blessed with a good aquifer below while the farms around you are shredded by real estate sharks, you thank your stars. You go to a bank, take a loan, buy a tractor and small tanker, then bleed the aquifer and supply water to all the real estate projects burgeoning around. You endorse, participate and partake of the callousness and greed. Maybe that’s the only urban dream we want to know.

On Peter’s farm the cobras have been blessed with a sacred grove, even though the aquifer that fed the pond has long been sucked dry by the hundreds of bore-wells sunk four sides of the property. Peter’s allowed the land around the pond to become a lush grove of trees, high grass and thick bush. Maybe out of defiance, because he’s never been afraid of being the last man standing. Inside, it is always dark, mysterious and foreboding, as if hundreds of tiny bright eyes lurk there, accusing the outside world.

The farm doubles up as the band’s studio, as it has from the time Peter launched The Chronic Blues Circus – as the opening act for the British band, Touch, that performed in the city on October 7, 1991.

Keep in mind that nobody in the twenty-five years of the band’s existence – some 70 odd musicians over the years – has ever complained about the long drive for rehearsals. They still don’t.

Even though the Hoskote they once knew so well has been hacked into two by National Highway 75, the dismembered carcass left on the butcher’s block – a victim of unmitigated, unplanned urban sprawl: buildings, houses, huts, a part of a slum, vendors’ carts, all cheek by jowl, following the lines and curves of the overcrowded roads; roads where no vehicle keeps its own lane or even side because the etiquette is determined by its size and the bluster of its horn; where pedestrians helplessly navigate within a chaos they may not even recognize as such. Like everywhere else in Bangalore, garbage is lazily strewn about like GM seeds, like it’s a fact of life everyone just has to live with and ignore.

We’re driving to the farm with Raveen, the band’s keyboard player – and Peter’s trusty young major. He’s so gentle, he could have been a monk in his last life. Even if he gets angry at rehearsals, when Peter’s not there for instance, he still ends up being nice. The rest of the band take it in stride, smiling with their eyes even as they listen to him yell.

In any case, I guess both of us are done talking about how badly fucked Bangalore is.

He has the windows up. We’re both listening to Madeleine Peyroux. Which may be a bad idea, because the old Billie Holiday truism that “when you are sad the blues make you happy; and when you’re happy the blues make you sad”, doesn’t work for us any more. Thanks to how the nightmare of our overstressed, urban everyday life unfolds, we’ve regressed into a limbo of silent brooding. Like Peter, we are the blues.

Andrea, Katheeja, Poornima and Phoebe are fast asleep in the back seat, bundled over each other like small children. They ensure Raveen and I don’t get too dark, that by virtue of their age, they will be the reasons we have to be optimistic.

Front row, from left to right singer Rajni Shivaram; drummer Shreyas Sel; a Hoskote hound called Kutti; lead guitarist Peter Isaac; and Raveen Panday, keyboards. Back row, from left to right, Owen Bosen, electric bass; and Mukut Chakravarti, additional keyboards
Front row, from left to right singer Rajni Shivaram; drummer Shreyas Sel; a Hoskote hound called Kutti; lead guitarist Peter Isaac; and Raveen Panday, keyboards. Back row, from left to right, Owen Bosen, electric bass; and Mukut Chakravarti, additional keyboards

The five of us have had four rehearsals with the band. We’re their backing vocalists for two upcoming gigs in the city – and more importantly, are honoured that Peter, Owen and Raveen invited us to join them on one of their sets at the anniversary bash. We are over the moon for that one.

Inside, at rehearsal, we’re scared shitless. We feel like we’re walking onto stage for the first time. Our palms are wet, throats are dry. I recall how when my friend, Steve Siqueira, the jazz pianist from Goa hears a bum note he makes a face of intense pain, you think that one second more of the same, wrong note would bring him to tears.

Peter is not so subtle. Bum notes are brought to an immediate halt, interrupted by a particularly nasty sound he makes – a cross between a man spitting, and a vicious dog snarling. The girls are incredibly nervous. I’m only trying to look cool because I’m older and must lead by example.

We needn’t have worried. Ever. The essence of this band is welcoming, they give and take in equal measure because they’re just intrinsically nice people. There is no talking down here, just the old hippie virtues of love, peace and respect. Firm handshakes, warm hugs, kisses. This is a blues band that could easily become a fruitful commune; it’s so well-knit it breathes together, in sync.

If you put them in a straight line, left to right, you get the grey-hair brigade, starting with Peter, the de facto founder, leader and resident philosopher of the band.13735745_550172855167047_1372276774354218748_o

Then there’s Owen, the guitarist turned bassist, who’s six foot eight inches tall but would never become a fiery pace bowler like Joel Garland. Both by his gentle nature and his intense love for fishing and fish, Owen is possibly India’s foremost angler. When I first heard, my eyes glowed. As a kid growing up in Kenya, both my grandfather and father taught me how to fly-fish for brown trout. I learnt patience. Not surprisingly, Owen’s eyes came alive too, and he told me his stories, which show me how as an avid angler, he has grown to be an environmentally conscious human being. His stories of what we are doing to our rivers and coastline can make you feel like weeping.

But, and this is a big but, you reckon a guy who throws the big fish back into the water after he’s nabbed it – instead of chopping it up and placing the bits gently into a fiery Goan coconut curry – is ever going to break a batsman’s head with a cricket ball? He just ends up being a damn good guitarist and a bloody nice guy, who plays because he loves it, with the patience of a fly-fisher and an almost meditative calm – whose big long fingers make the chunky bass fretboard look like that of a mandolin.

Sangeetha, additional bassist, vocalist and guitarist is after Owen. Long, straight hair now beginning to show grey, she’s been playing off and on with the band since 2012. A highly regarded accountant, Sangeetha is also a guitarist with a very deft and assured touch. When she sings, she has a voice that’s like a soft trumpet, partially muffled, that makes some of her phrasing sound haunting. You can so easily imagine what The Chronic Blues Circus and music in Bangalore would gain, if she just chucked up her job one day…

Then comes Raveen, his hair and beard now turning salt-and-pepper. Peter was his basketball coach when he was in school, then coached him in the keyboards. He joined the band doing the backing vocals in 1994, by 1997 he was playing keyboards. Soft-spoken, gentle, thoughtful and reflective is how you could describe him, a guy who lives his music. A family man in every sense of the term, totally in love with his wife, Supriya, and their two lovely children, Sadhyo, all of 7 years old who sits on the keyboard at home and willingly shows you the scales his dad has been teaching him, and Sasha, who’s already watching both of them with wide eyes.

Raveen’s learnt well from Peter. When Raveen got disgusted with the kind of bread being sold in Bangalore, he did what he did when he got his first keyboard, just got down and serious. You know Raveen loves you, if bakes you some of his delicious bread. You can so easily imagine how Bangalore’s reputation for good bread would soar, were he to chuck up the band and open a bakery.

It’s when he plays you see his sense of feel. When he sings, his voice tucked between a tenor and alto, he scrunches his face. On some songs you think he’s going to cry. With his fingers lingering on the minor notes, he takes out every ounce of their blueness.

Next is Mukut, his hair free of grey, on additional keyboard, who is as similar to Raveen as Bangalore is to Kodaikanal. He is so restless, you get the idea that he’s always standing on a hot floor that’s burning his soles. Originally from Kolkata, he moved to Bangalore with his wife to take up a job in marketing – until that is, he discovered the band and jammed with them one night in 2012. He’s also taken absent-mindedness to a new level, like leaving his keyboard at home and coming for rehearsal. “What?” he’ll ask incredulously, staring into the back seat of his car, “the keyboard is not here? I was sure it was there”. He’s also the wild one, banging out the in-between chords in a song and giving it a wild, edgy sound. I would call his style of playing ‘sly‘, although in context that is the stuff of legends. When he goes totally berserk as is his wont, Peter gently chides him and brings him back to earth.

After all the grey hairs and thirties people in the band, come the kids. There’s drummer Shreyas, who cut his teeth learning and playing the mridangam, until a school mate with a box guitar invited him to jam. “It wasn’t working,” he says, “and we wondered why. Then we went for a concert to hear a heavy metal band, I saw my first drum set and everything clicked in my head. I bought a really cheap kit and started learning on my own, watching stuff on YouTube, asking other drummers for tips, playing in a few bands and learning the ropes. I played mostly Metal but then three years back I heard Peter needed a drummer, and now it feels like I’ve found a home…”13765759_550172795167053_8294135340504800592_o

Peter brings with him a certain inclusiveness, an openness to change. As naturally as he breathes, he encourages his musicians to raise the bar. Shreyas tells me how when he joined, Peter told him that all the percussive patterns in the tracks were boring. “Working with Peter to change them,” Shreyas tells me, “was my major learning”.

The ‘babies’ of the band are Rajani, the singer, who’s so tiny, she could well be a bird, although she does chatter like one too. When she sings, she’s something else, with a powerful, unsettling voice that blows people away. Then there’s tall and lanky Adrian, a young computer engineer who’s more than happy to drive halfway around Bangalore after work to rehearse or play with the band. He’s a man of few words – except when you get him to talk about his love of football and the merits of Andhra style Mutton Biriyani.

Andrea asked me once whom the band reminded me of. Lots of guys I told her, all the people Peter’s been listening to for years. Out of that the band finds its own groove, the magic that makes them different. Like who she asked? I love the way The Chronic Blues Circus does Smackwater Jack. When they do it, I think of an old rocker like Peter called Leon Russell – a guy I often think about when the band gets its mojo going. What’s ‘mojo’ Andrea asked? Check him out here then, I said to her, you’ll figure…

I’ve known Peter for many, many moons. The first time I saw him, he was on a basketball court in a school, in track pants, whistle in his mouth, coaching some gangly young men. He was rude, offensive, and very effective. You heard the whistle, then him yelling at the top of his voice, “Don’t have any fucking brains?”

This time round, we hadn’t met for a good twelve years. An occasional call, an email, a ‘like’ on Facebook, is how our relationship went. When we meet though, you wouldn’t think time has passed. Maybe it’s because I’ve always seen him as the younger brother I never had. Maybe we’re just ‘soul brothers’…

This kid brother of mine is what you would call a ‘Bangalore Boy’. All his fondest memories, his loves, his heartbreaks, his passion for music and everything else that burns him, is linked to this city. You take away the city, you won’t have Peter. He studied at the Bishop Cotton Boys’ School, blessed with a gifted choir master and music teacher – the legendary Bruce Gabriel, who was known to stop his class and demand silence to hear a bird outside whistling in C Sharp.

No wonder then that Peter had his first gig in school, playing double bass in a quartet playing Dixie inspired jazz and getting the grove of two-beat swing. Years back, I heard Peter tell a young drummer learning the ropes that he should forget about counting four beats, if he didn’t know how to do two! “It don’t come easy“, he told the kid, “if you really want to get the groove.”

Eclecticism forced itself on Peter. Like he says, “those days you had to be very quick and very sharp – we only had the radio to listen to, Radio Ceylon, the ‘Top 10’ on BBC, Willis Connover’s Jazz Hour. If you weren’t quick, you wouldn’t learn the song”. Given the medium of his instruction, Peter grew up with a pot pourri of music – Satchmo, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra – till Rock n’ Roll changed the world and gave a new meaning to ‘pop’ music. Then it was Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and a black thing called ‘funk‘. Then, Peter’s world imploded, he found a groove that went with his heart, music that was Rock in terms of its drive, simple enough to be the Blues, and open to the irreverence of Reggae. Great place to be.

He willingly admits many influences. There’s his old friend Gussie Rick, another ‘Bangalore Boy’ (now teaching at the Delhi School of Music) who fronted a band called The Devil Beats; there’s the late Steve Law, the brilliant keyboard player who died too young; there’s the iconic band from the Mumbai of the mid 70s, Waterfront, with Derek Julien and Roger Dragonette; or the equally iconic band from Chennai around the same time, The Silencers; or a Rock band from Kerala, The Elite Aces, that blew Bangalore’s head away.

Peter tells me the younger musicians today are even more talented. If there’s a problem he feels, it’s because they may be too individualistic, that within a band they want a separate identity. Owen pipes in to say that that a lot of the younger guys are like sessions musicians, that they end up playing for too many bands. But both talk glowingly of two young bands in the city and recommend that I go listen to them, Polly Wants A Cracker, who Peter says have a very tough groove going; and Dark Light, who, as he says. “rearrange Floyd and how cool is that…”

The audiences have changed too both tell me. “Before,” Peter says, “they knew the covers we played better than we did. If you made a mistake, they’d boo you off the stage”. Owen says they weren’t sitting around a table getting smashed, treating the music like muzak in a lift. Peter adds that these days people hear the music – “but it’s like a visual spectacle for them, sometimes I feel that they don’t know how to listen any more.”

*

Some would argue that the Blues are a part and parcel of one’s life – like the cobras dancing. In it one’s politics, one’s commitment, passion and love churn. It is a position that keeps one constantly discontented and dissatisfied, but never cynical and bitter. So, it’s a pity for me that when The Blues Circus gets on stage this coming Friday, there won’t be a substantive documentary on Peter marking this occasion.

Maybe this will never be on the cards because it’s tough getting him to talk about himself. Because there’s much more to him than his many guitars, and the ritual he makes of polishing them with his ‘Mist and Wipe” spray specially made for Fenders.

Before he got the farm, Peter successful managed a rural health project – where he met his English wife, Rose, who had come there to work as a nurse. They put everything into that project so that it was up and running. Now they have two strapping sons living and working in England, and are proud grandparents.

When Peter got it into his head to farm the land he had acquired, it was the Blues that fuelled him. Else why would he go and live and work with the legendary Masanobu Fukuoka in Japan, a sage well worth reviewing given that Hoskote has fallen to the sword because some people, eagerly rubbing their hands, say “Look at all this land, just waiting to be exploited”…

Peter is more than just politically correct. He walks the talk and doesn’t make it into a TV show. “When you decide to do something,” he told Andrea, “you must give it everything you’ve got”. You ask him what gives him his humility, his capacity to teach anyone who asks him to, and he says “Football and Basketball, games, playing with kids your age, day after day, teaches you the value of playing in a team.”

He would readily agree that between his love for football and basketball, and his passion for music, he found the true meaning of community. Was it his love for football, or was it his intrinsic sense of politics that took him to the famed Guntroop Colony, a large Tamil settlement in Bangalore, best known for one of its illustrious sons, a man both Peter and I would have braved long queues to go and watch play.

Whatever the reasons, Peter learnt first hand, the virtues of community, and that there was, perhaps, a culture in the colony that he would have to contend with. The first performance of The Chronic Blues Circus featured young men from Guntroop Colony. The money they earned from the band, allowed them to set aside some savings and move on. Many of them now play for the films, where the good money is.

Peter is like that. He lives for people he mentors with the love of a parent, to move on. As all the 70 odd people who’ve passed through the portals of this band will endorse, Peter teaches from the heart, ensuring from the word go that he has no problems with his students surpassing him.

The Chronic Blues Circus will also be joined at the anniversary gig by Vagn, a Danish musician, much like Peter, someone who only knows how to walk the talk. The two first met in at Peter’s farm where he had come for a common friend wedding celebration. His hair has turned grey, but is still tied in a neat ponytail. His face is like a book chiselled onto his face, there for everyone to read. He’s much like Owen but shorter and much lankier. His grandfather and father, he tells me were butchers, huge, well built men. “I turned out wrong,” he tells me, “I was too soft”. The violin beckoned, the same one he will bring to the gig. It was Vagn who suggested the term ‘circus’ instead of ‘band’, because it was a place where performers come and go.

Talking about the first time they met, Vagn points. “He was sitting in that room,” he says, “playing some very nice riffs on the bass guitar, and in front of him was all these drunk fellows drinking even more. I couldn’t help it, I went up to him and said, hey man, you are very, very good, but you are throwing pearls in front of swine, come on with me, let’s go make music…”

They just never stopped.

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Hartman de Souza Written by:

Hartman de Souza has a background in theatre, education and journalism. He has been associated with several theatre groups in the country and was, till September 2015, the artistic director of the Space Theatre Ensemble, Goa.

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