The Fuschia Tree
Editor's Note.
The melodies of our lives crisscross across the maps of our emotional terrain; they are the paths by which we chart our inner journeys.

If we peek between the notes, we find Time working its mysterious fingers through every tune. While rhythm imparts order to the musical experience, melody gives it a sense of continuity. It is the line that connects the dots, connects the performer to the audience, connects us to each other and to the transcendental experience of music.
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By Varsha Reshamwala, Issue 24, Melody: A Different Tune
With his long dread locks and lanky frame, Nikhel Kumar Mahajan looks the part of the quintessential musician – one almost expects to hard head-banging music emanate from his records. To the contrary, his music affords relaxed concentration. As Sattyananda, his electronic style is ambient and chilled out. It is also deeply meditative, drawing on influences that range from the spiritual to the paranormal. Aside from being a music producer and composer, he's a front runner for the alternative music scene in the country, promoting and nurturing the genre through his aptly named Audio Ashram. Here, he chats with us about his music and everyday musings.

The Fuschia Tree: How would you describe your style of music?

Nikhel Kumar Mahajan: My music can be categorized into three main projects. The first is Sattyananda, which can be described as ambient, chilled-out electronica. The second is Kalyug, under which I make progressive dance music. Shiva Central is the third, which also entails dance music. Additionally, I have a project with Hari Singh called Satvik Sequences, wherein we create different styles of music.

TFT: Are there any specific experiences or insights have shaped this style of yours?

NKM: There was no specific experience per say. In 1997 I started making music. Before that I used to paint. It was only in 2006 that I released my first album. So for nine years I was experimenting with sound. During that time, experiences formed themselves and music happened. I was just the medium.

TFT: There are heavy undertones of spirituality in what you say and do…

NKM: Spirituality for me equates to awareness. Since I used to paint from a young age, I think I have always had a kind of creative awareness. That’s morphed into something deeper over the years. I also like reading Osho, Krishnamurthy and Shri Shri Ravi Shankar’s writings. It gets me thinking. Some of the Buddhist teachings are also fascinating.

TFT: Aside from the spiritual, mythological and religious influences that inform your music, I read that you seek inspiration from paranormal phenomena. Could you elaborate on this?

NKM: I don’t really seek inspiration from it, but I am fascinated by it. If you take, for instance, technology and humans, the former is in a sense alien to humans because it is not ‘natural’ or ‘biological’. On one hand you have a flute, for example, which is made out of wood, a natural material, and on the other hand you have a synthesizer, which runs on electricity! Anything out of the ordinary is fascinates me.

TFT: How did the name Sattyananda come about?

NKM: To cut a long story short, I had met Guru Sattyananda of the Bihar School of Yoga when I was very young and had nothing to do with music. He told me that music would change my life, so my choice of name is dedicated to him. The word ‘Sattyananda’ means true bliss. I am seeking to achieve that when I make music.

TFT: Can you produce your kind of music at will? Or do you need to be in a particular mood or frame of mind to capture a moment? Tell us about your creative.

NKM: I need to be in the zone, which is not in my control. I sit down with an agenda to make good music, but some days it just doesn’t happen, whereas on other days it all comes together. So it really depends.

In earlier times, musicians used to perform riyaaz which entailed practicing with their instrument everyday. I make it a point to do that. Everyday I come into my studio, play with my systems and instruments and get lost in my world. Sometimes something good comes out of it, sometimes not, but I’m at it everyday.

TFT: You skillfully incorporate Indian classical instruments in your compositions. Have you had formal training in Indian classical music?

NKM: I haven’t had any formal training in music. Since 2002 I have been working with Indian classical musicians, and I suppose I have learnt about the instruments and ragas on the job. I also have an interpreter, Bal Krishna bhai. I’m able to work with classical musicians, some of whom have been playing their respective instruments for over 40 years, because we’ve both mastered our space. They’ve mastered their classical instrument and I the digital or electronic, so we’re both able to understand what the other person wants, and bring it together.

TFT: ‘The Awakening’ – a multi-media experiment – was a grand coming together of your music, a Bharatanatyam performance and some remarkable visuals. What was the audience feedback like?

NKM:The Awakening’ was a collaboration between Avinash from BLOT!, Bharatanatyam dancer Jayalakshmi Iyer, who happens to be Avinash’s mother, and myself. Avinash and I worked on the visuals together, telling a story through them based on the music and dance performances. ‘The Awakening’ was performed five times at various venues and was very well received by the audiences. It was unique in that it went beyond music.

TFT: You have previously collaborated with Shubha Mudhgal and Aman and Ayaan Ali Khan. Are there any other musicians, performers or artists, Indian or otherwise, on your wish list?

NKM: I’d love to collaborate with one of the spiritual gurus and produce a piece on which people can meditate. That would be a high point for me.

TFT: Aside from your creative side, you are also a keen entrepreneur. Tell us in detail about Audio Ashram, the alternative music company that you run.

NKM: We set up Audio Ashram in 2008 with the aim of creating a robust alternative music scene in India, and we do just that through the company. We pick and nurture musical talent; we manage artists; we have a music label as well as a venue called Café 79; we manage the programming for other venues such as Blue Frog and the Lalit Group of Hotels and we also have a radio channel called Radio79 dedicated to alternative music. We’ve launched a number of Indian artists and have also released the works of foreign artists in the country. Earlier on, people would shy away from taking up music as a career. Through Audio Ashram we hope we have been able to change that mindset. We’re here to help artists within the alternative space carve a niche for themselves.  

TFT: Audio Ashram has interesting plans in the pipeline, including the launch of a music and lifestyle magazine…

NKM: Yes, it will be an online version called Grunt, which we’ll be launching soon. It will be a place where fans and followers can get news and information about their favourite artists. It will naturally focus on the alternative space.

TFT: What are your professional goals as a musician and as an entrepreneur?

NKM: As a musician, I don’t really have any goals or agenda. I just want to make good music. As an entrepreneur, the goal has always been to see a healthy, robust alternative music scene in India. I think we’re still a good 15-20 years away from that, but we hope to keep working at it by spotting, encouraging and nurturing talent.

TFT: What do you listen to when you are by yourself?

NKM: The sweet sound of silence! Most of the time I’m making music, so when I’m not, I really appreciate the quiet.

TFT: What is the most memorable thing a fan has done for you?

NKM: Listened to my music and supported me! That’s a big deal in itself. I also remember a couple in Portugal who gifted me clothes. I had gone there to perform and the airline lost my bags. This couple used to listen to my music everyday, so when they realized who I was, they overwhelmed me with their generosity.

TFT: What is your biggest musical accomplishment so far?

NKM: The fact that I can make music! On a serious note, I was the first Indian to be selected to play at the Glades festival in Europe, as well as the Freedom Festival in Portugal. I’m the only person who’s been given the opportunity to play in all three stages of a music festival – the main stage, the progressive stage and the chill-out ambient stage. For each I have played music from a different avataar of mine.

TFT: And now for some quick-fire questions! If you could live on only four foods (you have these in abundance), including the essentials like salt, water, gin, what would they be?

NKM: Chai, Fruit, Chapatti and Dal.

TFT: You're traveling around the world with one book and one song. What are they?

NKM: I don’t carry music with me when I’m travelling. As for the book, I’d probably carry the Shiva Sutra, in which Lord Shiva tells Parvati the 112 different ways of experiencing bliss.
TFT: What’s your most valuable possession?

NKM: I’m not so attached to anything, but maybe I’d take my puppy Woofer with me.

TFT: What were some of the jobs you had when you were young?

NKM: I was a graphic designer, a sound engineer and creative producer for Red FM before delving into music.

TFT: What would you tell a lost, young musician?

NKM: To have faith and be dedicated to what he wants to do.

TFT: Besides your work what is the one thing that completely consumes you?

NKM: Love.

As told to Varsha Reshamwala, an art critic with other interests, based in Mumbai.  

Nikhel Kumar Mahajan, known as Sattyananda, was born in 1979 and has been a musician for over 15 years.

Radio 79 Delhi is India's first and only Alternative Music Channel.

Also in this issue

Illusion: Seeing Beyond Seeing
Meaning: In Search of Significance.
Melody: A Different Tune
Rhythm: Ordering Time

Dhrupadi Ghosh is an old friend of mine. We have often had long sessions of adda late at night, discussing her dream projects since her college days at Santiniketan, where she majored in Sculpture.