Neeraj Araya’s Kabir Café, uses the words of the great poet Kabir and fuses it with rock music. The Citizen in conversation with the band explores the idea of spreading Kabir’s poetry in tunes and making it accessible to people via music.

What brought the band together?

It's been close to 5 years now, and close to 900 performances across 11 countries, yet when we go back to how and why the band was formed, we still don't have a solid answer! We simply feel Kabir found us, and not the other way round!

In short, Neeraj Arya our singer had connected to Kabir while in Delhi with the NGO Manzil through a documentary called Hadh Anhadh by Shabnam Virmani from the Kabir Project. He then went to Madison, Wisconsin to pursue filmmaking and ended up in Bombay to work as a resident artist with the NSPA (National Streets for Performing Arts), where he met violinist Mukund Ramaswamy. They jammed with Kabir, and soon met Raman Iyer, the mandolin player. Several jams with many other musicians later, by the end of 2013 the three got connected, quit their respective jobs and careers to put all their energies into music and hence Neeraj Arya's Kabir Cafe was formed.

Neeraj Araya, lead vocalist

Mukund Ramaswamy, violinist

Raman Iyer with his mandolin

Viren Solanki, drummer

Poubuanpou Britto KC, bassist

Kabir's Doha and rock music, how did this combination come about?

It's not a conscious idea to particularly mix rock or any genre with Kabir's poetry. It's just an extension of what music comes naturally to each one of us, and we try to present it. Neeraj comes from a folk and theatre background, Mukund comes with more than 2 decades of experience in Carnatic violin, Raman is a freestyle mandolin player with experience in Hindustani background, Viren Solanki is a drummer but with solid roots in Tabla and folk music (former student of Ustad Fazal Quereshi) and Britto KC comes from classic rock and western country music influences (his father Mr. Gabriel KC had a rock band in the 70s in Manipur).

What aspect of the Kabir dohas appeal most to the band?

Kabir never has gone out of fashion over the centuries. Simply because Truth always prevails, and Kabir conveyed the truth in the simplest way possible. It is this aspect that we connect the most to Kabir. To convey the truth in an engaging and interactive manner and keeping everything else, including the music, simple and easy on the ear.

Considering the recent trend of music, was it difficult to find an audience for the kind of music that the band does?

It wasn't! There's space for everyone and life is surely not a competition. Yes, one can surely say popular music trends are going in a certain direction, but Kabir has held his ground for 600 years! Which is why perhaps we are the only band in India who only pursue what we do full time. None of us have side jobs, or play sessions or do other work to earn money. We have found enough audience who have given us great stages and importantly, allowed us to stay in Mumbai, paying rents and taking care of ourselves and our families, by only doing our music and exploring Kabir.

The band at one of their many performances

How has been the journey so far and what plans does the band have in the future?

The journey continues to be magical. There's no other word that does justice to it. From abject poverty to be able to live decently, from playing in railway stations to crowds of even 80,000 people, from not able to afford a taxi to a gig in Bombay to have toured 11 countries, from refusing big money to those who wanted us to sing Bollywood to have given two songs for Bollywood (Hindi Medium and Baadshaho), the journey indeed has been magical. But only one thing was constant throughout, that the five of us were together in this. And that's the plan. Stay together, explore Kabir, and believe. The rest will happen.

Kabir Café in a photo-shoot

As a new fan and admirer of the band, I really hope they stick together and continue spinning more magical moments for their audience.