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“Art is all about submission;  just submit, let it do what it wants to do through you.”

Tajdar Junaid

Musician &  Composer

in conversation with Harshita Sethia

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Ever-evolving and evergreen, Tajdar Junaid’s music sweeps you away from the present, perhaps to a familiar and timeless state of emotions. A singer, composer, instrumentalist, producer, and a teacher - Tajdar is married to music in its myriad forms. Diversity and variety define his artistic trajectory. 

 

Ten years ago, Tajdar’s debut album, What Color is your Raindrop was released. His work spanning the last decade is a testimony to his unique voice and production process. From contributing to the Oscar-nominated documentary, ‘Writing with Fire’,to collaborating with Gulzar Saab, his music is as versatile as water, ever-flowing and gracefully embodying the required shape for every project.

 

A distinguishing quality about Tajdar’s music is the remarkable instrumental compositions. Tajdar has spent time collecting knowledge about different instruments like South American Charango, steel guitar, Sarangi, and learnt how to play them over time. This has helped him carve a niche of his own. Alternatively, Tajdar also has a band called Ruhaniyat, that explores the realm of folk and Baul songs.

 

With his great finesse in playing exotic instruments alongside experimenting with varying genres of music, Tajdar tends to reject all labels and categories. “I dislike being pigeonholed, I feel very suffocated with being put in a box that this artist does only this kind of a thing.” he says. 

 

Hailing from a family with no artists preceding him, Tajdar is a trailblazer treading the road less traveled.

“Sometimes you can't see the end of the road, but take it because probably when you walk on this road the rustle of the leaves will be more musical to your ears than the road which has no leaves”

This link has access to all of Tajdar’s music:  https://linktr.ee/tajdarjunaid
 

The following conversation with Tajdar delves into his artistic practices, transformative life experiences and creative processes that have shaped his journey as a musician.

Q. Could you talk about your growing up years and your earliest memories of music?

 

I grew up in Calcutta. I'm very fond of the city because of the pace. It's a very slow city,  there's not much of a rush to get anywhere or to prove anything or show your achievements.  There are places to get by, places to go with your family even if you don't have much money, you can just enjoy a trip by the river. So you can spend good quality time with your loved ones. When a city allows you to just be it's a great sign. 

 

My earliest memories of music are my father playing Mehdi Hasan, Earth, Wind  & Fire, and Jimi Hendrix. I remember quite distinctly, I was in class 7 and my cousin from the States had come down to Calcutta with cassettes of Beastie Boys and Led Zeppelin. When she put on Led Zeppelin it was the album called No Quarter and another song called Dazed and Confused. She put the cassette and I just got sucked into the speaker and I've been forever stuck over there. Led Zeppelin was my first pathway door to good music and whenever I am low, I just go back to that moment  and I'm reminded why did I choose to become a musician in the first place, it's that feeling which I cannot forget.

It's one of those things where you are jaw dropped and you just submit, that's what I think art is all about submission; just submit, let it do what it wants to do through you.

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A photo of Tajdar (L)  performing with his first band, Cognac circa 2007. 

Q. What was your journey towards pursuing a career in music like? 
 

In my family there are no artists, there are only doctors, officers and engineers. So it was all the more difficult to convince them that this is something that I hear in my head and heart all the time. I wanted to express myself through music but I did not have words to tell them that this is what will put food on the table. I didn't know how to make money out of being a musician. The Internet wasn't too big back then to go online and tell people. After a point of time my family understood that I was very serious about it. When I was in college I was also teaching music at schools, sometimes I was teaching three schools in a day just to make ends meet, get some money to buy my equipment and not be answerable to people. I was hopeful that as time progresses things will open up if I just stick to doing what I love doing. As I started working, interviews and newspapers started happening.  The same people who doubt you appreciate you, so it's a funny feeling because it's about faith and belief. In our society it's always understood that the elders know more, maybe if you just let your children explain what they’re dreaming of, perhaps a few words of encouragement will help them achieve their dreams a little quicker. 

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Q. You teach music too, how did that happen?

 

When I was in Calcutta I was teaching music to support myself financially and I had few serious students.  I trained Nishchay Parekh from Parekh & Singh and Ronodeep Bose from the band Ganesh Talkies. When I came to Bombay about nine years back, it became very difficult to find time to teach because I had to figure out how the city functions.  The pace of the city, the rent that you pay, the public transport, the food, everything is much more costlier than Calcutta. I had to choose whether I should get into composing, find time for my own riyaz or I teach.  Now after about nine years I'm in a place where I can find time for myself and also find time to share all this. I take workshops and I am a visiting faculty at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. I really enjoy sharing whatever I have learned. I believe it's not my knowledge, I've just collected it from different places and I'm just being a channel for sharing it, I don't take the onus of this. 

Tajdar with a group of students, at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.

Some things are too beautiful and meant to be shared. You feel joy in sharing something which gives you happiness and hope that also translates to the other person as well. 

Q. In day-to-day life what helps you fuel your creativity? 

 

Being close to nature really helps me. To switch off the phone and do nothing. Just stare out into the sky and think of the patterns that the clouds are making. One of my favorite things to do is play my guitar for no one. Being under a tree and just playing for the tree, for the sky. It just helps me connect with the reason that I do these things. There is no audience, there is no applause, there is no like dislike button, no social media, none of that. It's important that one is involved creatively with things otherwise the mind wanders and in today's day and age when the mind wants instant results, it's important to spend some time with oneself.

 

I think one of the best ways for creative people to stay alive and sane is to ensure that once a project is over another one is lined up. It could be either helping your friend clean up the garage, assisting your friend  on  their film, working on your own poetry which you have not attended for many months or attending your own piece of music that you have recorded as an idea on your phone. 

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Tajdar with kids in a park in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh.

Q. How did you navigate the uncertainty that comes with being an artist, especially when one is starting off?
 

Our DNA is made in such a way, in our memory banks we keep the things that we are fond of. Our mind will attract the frequencies that we are sending out, if you keep yourself open then life gives you a lot of these opportunities to learn, evolve and absorb.  In my free time I practice, I focus on my voice, on my instrument, I educate myself. I see films that I have not seen, read writers that I have not read, and try to visit places by my own means. I don’t go by a social yardstick of validation, awards and 100 crore milestones. I'm an individual and I'm free from impositions.  That's why I have done Coke Studio, made music for documentaries and commercial films. I like to write songs with other people and collaborate with other bands and perform. If you are open you will let these experiences happen to you to mold you. One cannot ever say that this is it, I've arrived or this is who I am because I'm changing every day. Purely because the air around me is changing, the people that I meet are changing. 

As artists our job is to be like a sponge. We keep absorbing and what doesn't work for us, it filters out on its own.

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Q.  Your repertoire of work is quite diverse, how do you choose projects? 

 

I look for the soul. If it is soulful enough, I am there.  If there is something profound which that person wants to share and if I can help  them share that, I'm on.  I don't think twice about those projects. It's very crucial because I've done my homework and I know how certain instruments work and what they will do to a certain scene, so my job is to help that person achieve their  vision through what I have learned in my field. At the end of the day it's about bringing people together, and you hope that everyone is on the same wavelength.  When I am jamming with new musicians with whom I have never played before or working with filmmakers whom I have never worked with before, I like to have a meal with them. You can tell a lot about the other person when you're having a meal together. If you can get along on a meal, you can get along on any other aspect of life.

At work, in his studio in Bombay. 

Q. In the bigger picture, what experiences from your body of work or collaborations have stayed with you? 

 

One of them was when I got a chance to work with one of my heroes, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He was a very important part in the Iranian new wave cinema, I made music for his film called The President. He has been under political asylum for many years and  many of his films were made with a lot of difficulty with no support and the state after him. I have always been very fascinated with people who express themselves against all odds. At the International Film Festival of India in Goa, they were having a retrospective of  Mohsen Makmalbaf’s films. The President  was also being shown, so this was my opportunity to meet him.  One of the first questions that I asked him was, “Why do you make films with so much opposition, when everything is going against you?” He said, “If we don't make films we will die.” It's very easy to take up a nine-to-five job and not be a filmmaker anymore because the government is after you. It's very easy to give up whatever you've done all this while because some people are opposing you. 

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Album cover of What Color is Your Raindrop (2013). “My father took this photo on a strike day near our house in Calcutta. I must have been about 3. Posing proudly with a traffic policeman's cane,” Tajdar says. 

It's actually very easy to take the easier route and it's all right to take the easy route, but what happens to the road not taken?

I took  on Writing with Fire because it was a very strong story about women journalists from Dalit families who had never held a smartphone in their lives. I was very intrigued by these women, who we think are powerless but  can summon so much energy and be so powerful that it will put  us to shame.  Who  would have thought that a documentary about underprivileged women in Uttar Pradesh will go to the Oscars? It's crazy when you think of it!

Q. Could you talk about your journey with your debut album, What Color is your Raindrop?

 

These songs were not done with the intention of touching people. These were done only because I had to express myself. I was getting very frustrated with all the sounds and words in my head, but not being able to translate them. It was a way of expressing what I was going through at that time. It was all done in my bedroom with whatever savings I had in  Calcutta, with no support from any label or any producers. It's a complete DIY, self-sponsored and self-produced album. I enjoy that process because of the creative freedom. It just so happened that it reached some people, and then it reached more people. It's like a jigsaw puzzle where slowly things just start falling in place. The trick is you cannot see those pieces of puzzle because you don't know where the other pieces are but then one of them just pops up and it falls into the place.

Q. How did the songs for What Color is your Raindrop come together?

 

I had to dig very  deep in trying to say what I wanted to say. Each song came from an experience. Aamna happened because my elder brother and his wife had a child. That was the first child in my family and her name was Aamna, as a chacha I wanted to give her something, but I’m a musician so I wrote the song for her. Though I Know is a song which I wrote in my 20s for someone that I was with and it was a parting song for her. Mockingbird came from the same experience, it was for a stage in life where you are confused about love, about whether this person is the right person or not. Daastan was me trying to think of a story in my head and how it progresses and reaches the pinnacle, but it starts off with a small seed. So I start off very softly and then it picks up pace, the reason for using sarangi is that because I had never used sarangi, I just thought let's see what happens and that's it, and this has always been the mantra. 

Q.  You recently made music for the animated film, ‘Sultana’s Dream’.  What were your key takeaways from this experience? 

 

For me the biggest takeaway was learning about patience from these two filmmakers, Isabel Hergeura and Gianmarco Serra. They are partners, and the writers and creators of this film. They have been working on it for the last 10 years. They would teach, save that money and put it aside for this film. This film is not a disney animated film, it is about a female reformist from Bengal, before the independence era. So all the odds are against them, for not having the funds, not having the right team. But it is about what you believe in and doing it no matter what. Doing it whether there are 10 people along with you or there is only one person.  

Q. What are your biggest inspirations, what inspires you to keep creating? 


I have two of my idols, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Bismillah Khan as wallpapers on my laptop.  I've read their biographies and I know the hardships that they have gone through, how they led their lives, how they managed to navigate through success and failures. But at the end of the day we are all unique individuals and we all have our own journeys to take, it's important that you fall flat on your face and you get up. You fall flat again and you get up. It can't be a smooth sailing ride all the way, it should not be. Because if it is smooth then you haven't gone through life, you have to go through the struggles. Once you understand that journey then everything falls in place.  It's about the journey not about the awards, it is about the curiosity that drives you everyday.
 

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Tajdar in Ustad Bismillah Khan’s bedroom in Benaras.

Q. What would be your advice to creators and artists?

  •  It's not about talent or about how much money you have in your bank account or how many people you know in the industry. The only thing ever in your life you need is persistence to get up in the morning and show up.
    An Anecdote:  When I was in my late 20s, I was playing with a lot of bands in Calcutta. We were playing Pink Floyd, Coldplay, and The Eagles. But we didn't have anything to say on our own, we were very good at imitating others, and this thought wouldn’t let me sleep at night. That's the time when I decided that I'm going to quit this and I stopped playing guitar for a couple of years. I started traveling, I visited local folk musicians, got to know about music from different parts of the world. Got instruments from different parts of the world, learned them. That's how the unique instrumentation came on to What Color is Your Raindrop. Now after 10 years I am hired for these exotic instruments. My friends laughed at me for learning these instruments because they were foreign to me. I share this only so it goes out to people who doubt themselves about the path that they take. 

  • Try not to be hard on yourself, especially in today's age we are always thinking about the grass being green on the other side, we tend to forget that we have a lot of things to nourish.

You have to take that jump because if you don't, many years later it'll come back and haunt you. If that path actually wants you, you better hear because that is your karma, that is what you are being sent to the world for.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

All photos courtesy Tajdar Junaid.

Miscellany Bowl

Tajdar fills his bowl of musings, interests, suggestions and recommendations!

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