A nostalgic retrospective of Motherjane’s sounds while it steered the mother ship of Carnatic rock in India.
“We have noticed our songs have come to include elements and melodies of rural India and at the same time has the aggression of rock”, says now ex-vocalist Suraj Mani in a documentary that was released in 2009, only a year before the band began to undergo a conscious reengineering. Often sighted at live performances with half of their faces painted with Kathakali and Theyyam dance designs, the band has stood to signify their ‘half flesh, half spirit’ beliefs, which in many ways, have viscerally sculpted their music over the course of nearly 18 years.
Kochi-based Carnatic rock band Motherjane, formed in the early months of 1996, has been one of the country’s oldest bastions when it comes to rock music. Known for its distinctive overtones of Carnatic rhythms interlaced with indefatigable hard rock, the band was one of the few forerunners who envisioned a link between the revolutionary idea behind ‘rock’ music and Indian traditions that had wired them from within as individuals. The concoction was an unparalleled offering.
Ironically, the story of Motherjane’s coming into being was not one guided by a master plan. It was the year 1996 when drummer and founding member John Thomas was the head of the Arts Society of the college that he attended and had selected a particular band to play for the college. It so happened that the band didn’t show up on the final day and as a saving grace, bassist Clyde Rozario stepped in to play along with John. After a few line-up changes, and more dilly-dallying with their music, Suraj Mani and Baiju Dharmajan came on-board on vocals and lead guitars respectively. And thus began the story of Motherjane and its journey to find itself through music.
Soon they started formulating sound ideas and structures. Each member played more than just a musical part – lead guitarist Baiju Dharmajan was the ‘God of Small Strings’, vocalist and lyricist Suraj Mani was the singing Sensei, bassist Clyde Rozario was the perennially calm Buddha-like sentient being, rhythm guitarist Deepu was the passionate guy who would walk 15kms for his music, and drummer John Thomas was the backbone. The band released two albums, separated by a gap of nearly seven years – their first album Insane Biography (2001) and second Maktub (2008). In 2010, they released two singles “Jihad” and “Tribes of Babel”. What many don’t know about is Motherjane’s tryst with the Malayalam thriller film Anwar in 2010. They were called by the director to compose an English rock single, which they did with “Jihad”, so that it could be used as the OST for the film.
From their list of insurmountable individual feats, opening for American metal bands Megadeth and Machine Head in Bangalore 2008 marked a new milestone, which was followed by opening for legendary Swedish metallers Opeth at IIT Madras’ cultural festival the same year. Though for its fans (also called Janiacs), the Megadeth show fell short of an exemplary spectacle as a result of which Motherjane looked like the glorious other of the evening.
Winning the Best International Rock Act at the Asia Voice Independent Music Awards (AVIMA) at Kuala Lumpur in 2009 and Asia’s Best Indie Rock Act in 2010, Motherjane had more than sufficient reasons to feel ecstatic– firstly, they were among the world’s largest contests for music. Secondly, it measured their music with a common yardstick across Asia’s biggest bands including Filipino rock band Wolfgang. Thirdly, and most reassuringly, the acknowledgment of the fact that those nominations were culled out of nearly 3000 artists across 16 countries.
Amidst all the fanfare, Motherjane had started receiving consistent radio airplay in cities of US, Japan and Mexico when guitarist Baiju Dharmajan decided to quit the band for reasons he left unspoken as ‘complicated’ in November 2010. For a man who considered Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Steve Vai as his idols, being held in high regard for his Carnatic-driven melodies, titillating solos and impeccable rendition of “Mile Sure Mera Tumhara” was but a natural proclivity. Till date, he has been thrice voted as Best Guitarist at the JD Rock Awards, besides being endorsed by Laney Amplification, Blade Guitars, Digitech Pedals and Gibson Guitars.
Once Baiju quit and moved to Kochi rock band Wrenz United, Motherjane had remorsefully replaced him with Santhosh Chandran. While Motherjane was finding its comfort zone with Chandran, Baiju announced that he would be working on his solo album The Crossover, therefore dropping out of Wrenz United too, within 5 months of joining. Though in 2013, as a sign of deep-rooted emotional connect with the band, which had played with for nearly 14 years, he released an e-book titled Motherjane: Baiju Dharmajan Diaries (download free e-book here) that traces his time and tide with the band from scratch to the mammoth name that it had led the world to accept.
While Baiju began playing the field solo, vocalist Suraj Mani also decided to break out citing health reasons and eventually released his solo project with a nine-track album called The Tattva Trip. During this time, the refashioned Motherjane, with its newly inducted vocalist Vivek Thomas, was touring five cities of Ukraine.
Most interestingly, before Baiju and Suraj found their individual paths, rhythm guitarist Rex Vijayan, who played with the band from 2000 to 2003, moved to Malayalam folk rock band Avial, fronted by Tony John. Today, Rex plays lead guitars with Avial.
Though the initiation of new members and withdrawal of core members from Motherjane had perhaps fractured the soul that once reflected everything spiritual, intelligent and traditional in their music, but the gist of the band still remains the same – a quest to find oneself through music. Their music is remnant of all that’s Carnatic and all that’s rock, pouring forth from one single prism.