If I had to cut to the core of my essence as a person, the central concept of my being and thereby my music, its of someone who is forever caught between duty and desire.
To understand this, is to reveal the nature and story of my family and how I came to be here, living in London as a musician with a unique voice.. and a full-time job.
So, here’s the thing… A lot of people spend years researching their genealogy and tracing their family history. I can trace my family back 12 generations without even having to ask a single question.
Why? Because my family, like many families in the farming community of India, stuck by their land and lived as an extended family. Working together and never having any ambition further than providing for each other. They were committed to the ideals of family, following your duty and keeping your word.
My family live in a small village on the outskirts of Varanasi, or Kashi to give its traditional name. it is said to be the most ancient city in the world and is also recognised as the holiest city in India. The place where according to Hindu mythology Lord Shiva resided and then departed to mount Kailash. And one of the key cities through which the holy river Ganga passes through.
It’s a city steeped in tradition and mythology, so if you’re a Hindu and born in Varanasi, you’re considered to be very fortunate. To die in Varanasi and have your ashes cast in the Ganges is said to wash away sins and guarantee rebirth… so why would anyone leave!?
When I was younger, I remember visits to my family village in India and my grandfather would wake every morning, walk a mile or so to the river bank, bathe in it and then go work on the fields with my uncles. My family considered themselves blessed to be born there.
So, who left and why!?
It was my grandfather’s older brother, who seeing the family struggle financially travelled to Calcutta to open a shop with the idea of earning and sending money back to home… duty. While there he met someone, who approached him with the idea of travelling to England to develop a trade in rugs- which were and still are still handmade on looms in my village.
My grand-uncle travelled to England by boat, established a small business in the East End of London importing rugs over and a few years later decided to call over his son – by father’s first cousin. As fate would have it, his own son could not cope with the vagaries of the English weather. It affected his health to such a degree that he had to return. So, it then fell upon my father to come to London to assist with the fledgling company.
At this point I want to point out that simple quirk of fate – the British weather, is the reason my father got the opportunity to come to London. Though for him it was not an opportunity, it was his duty.
And every time I go back to my village it never escapes my mind that I have lived a comparatively privileged life, gained opportunities, developed an outlook that so easily could have been gifted to someone else. It weighs heavy – as my extended family in India are still in relative poverty.
Back to my father.. he came here with no long-term plan. No idea of how long he would stay. His only purpose was to earn money and send it back home to support the family… duty.
His Uncle passed away a few years after, leaving my Dad to run the business by himself. He had an arranged marriage - so did not even see my Mum before the wedding… duty. And he carried on sending money and equipment for the farm back home.
The norm for Indian families, is to have loads of children, because life is fragile and unpredictable. Literally, it’s a game of numbers so it increases the chances of a surviving heir. My father saw this as the cause of misery.. more mouths to feed. And he made a promise to his family that he would only ever have one child.. he stuck to his word.
So, there he was, an economic migrant. His sole purpose and duty to provide for his extended family thousands of miles away in India. Other than that, there was nothing. The expectation on me, even before I was born was that I would follow this path.
I was bought up with the same ideals and values as my father. Just ponder on that.. my father had a traditional village upbringing and that is what he projected on me. The problem was twofold. First of all I was growing up in London. Secondly, the India of his own youth was rapidly changing beyond recognition.
The pressure was on me from childhood. My life was mapped out. Education to degree level, then either a high net job, or take over the family business.. or both!
Culturally I was bought up in a very traditional Hindu way and this was re-enforced with annual trips back to my father’s village and the constant coming and going of guests from India to my house – which like a lot of Asian households in those days was like a hotel.
But something didn’t fit… and it was me. I was always too English for my family back home and of course obviously Indian over here in England. I wanted other things. I wanted more than what was expected of me. And worst of all, I wanted more than my duty allowed.
Growing up was a constant struggle. As an only child, expectations were high, and I simply did not want to follow the path laid out for me. But I had to… duty. The annual visits to India developed a sense of responsibility and guilt… I owed my family. Not just because they are family. But because I was the one who got the privileged life in London.
Music was always a part of my life as it was for most Indians. Hindu devotional songs, Bollywood.. but of course, I also fell in love with Western Pop music. Truth be told I was always writing songs in my head.. I guess it was the way I dealt with the conflicting parts of me. But it didn’t crystalise until I discovered the Blues. More specifically musicians like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker.
That was it… I found a place where I could live. But listening to music is one thing… for me, wanting to play it was a whole other mission. I have to now blame The Beatles.. I mean, I could never be an old Black guy from Mississippi, but for some reason, I could be a white man from Liverpool! They made it all seem so accessible.
My first guitar was actually bought for me by a family friend who was living at our house while studying for an MBA. It changed my life. I put all my energy in to it to the detriment of my education… I was straying from my duty.
But I laboured on with my studies, to the point of depression. It was obvious to me at a young age that I wanted to be a musician, but it was never an option for me. I never had the luxury of support from my family in terms of music. I never had the luxury of being myself. Music was always a distraction… a hobby that was tolerated.
It was more than disapproval, my parents actually didn’t even recognise what it meant to me. I remember playing my dad my first demo recording. ‘That’s a nice song’ he said, ‘who is it?’ When I told him it was me he said ‘that can’t be you, you can’t write music’… see, it wasn’t even disapproval, it was complete denial!!
And so I followed my duty whilst also keeping my desire for music alive. I slogged hard through an education system which was clearly not geared towards creative people. Spent a lot of my life thinking I was stupid because I failed exams.. retook them and carried on. Trying my best to hold on to my duty.
I somehow made it through Uni, got a job.. all the while gigging, jamming, doings sessions. Never having the luxury of parental support. Never having the luxury of being average! My father unfortunately lost his business and got made bankrupt… something from which he never recovered. So, the pressure on me ramped up, just that little bit more.
And I’m still living in that space. I work full time. I hold down a responsible job, have a regular income so that I can support my family and I still fulfill my desire to be a musician. With my touring band Botown, with my solo material, the session work I do and with other projects like the two musicals I am developing.
My central concept is the conflict which arises from my duty to my family and my desire for personal fulfillment, which comes from music.
And that conflict spills over to me as a person.. I am still struggling with the idea of where do I actually fit in. Culturally? The India that I was bought up to believe in has moved on and modernised. The England I was bought up to believe in, gives me constant reminders that I don’t belong. Issues of identity, representation, marginalisation all affect and inform me.
I am pulled in many directions as a person. I have to be one person to one set of people and another to a different set of people.. conflicting duties.
I’m essentially trying to navigate, reconcile and work all this shit out. Find some balance. And music is the one place where I feel… at home.