Ajay- Atul: An amazing musical journey

Author: Dr. Mandar

Karma Events’ Ajay-Atul music concert in Dubai on October 16, 2014 was one great success. Held in Al Nassr Leisureland, the live concert, which was studded with star singers and musicians, showed the amazing popularity of the composer duo- Ajay-Atul. The talented Gaogavale brothers, who have long been recognized as the undisputed kings of Marathi film music, have also made significant strides in Bollywood through blockbusters such as Singham and Agneepath.

The day after the concert, though the good offices of Dr. Sunil Manjrekar, Sharad Sonone and Atul Vaidya, I got an opportunity to spend some quality time with the celebrated composers in their Grand Hyatt suites, which provided some wonderful memories and insights into their musical journey so far.

Meeting Ajay

When I enter his room, Ajay is having a late lunch. My medical credentials serve as the ice-breaker as it is he, who begins by asking me a few general health queries. Once that informal ‘consultation’ is over, I begin to pick his brains trying to find more about the brothers’ musical journey, which has now made them Maharashtra’s heartthrobs. Ajay is a fabulous talker and the conversation stretches to well over two hours. Here are the excerpts of our conversation.

While reading about you, I noted that you spent a lot of your childhood moving from one village to another in interior Maharashtra because of your father’s constant job-related transfers. Did this rural life help you in your musical journey?

“Actually it took us away from music. Good music has traditionally always been concentrated in major cities like Mumbai and Pune. As we went away from Pune into interior Maharashtra we could only hear a certain type of music such as Marathi songs of Pralhad Shinde, Sulochana Chavan or Shaheer Sable or the then popular Bappi Lahiri’s Hindi film-songs like I am a Disco dancer. We never got to listen to the classy Abhijaat Marathi Sangeet of artistes such as Shrinivas Khale, Babuji (Sudhir Phadke) or Hridaynath Mangeshkar.

From a very early age, we had decided that we wanted to be music directors; someone like Laxmikant-Pyarelal or Kalyanji-Anandji. Even though at that time we were totally unaware of what a music-director actually does! Taking formal music classes was out of question. Firstly there were no such facilities in the villages and secondly, our parents simply could not afford such a thing. But this adversity worked in our favour. It was as if God had already decided that we had to learn everything on our own. Since we were so much away from good music, we were more attracted towards it.

Jana Gana Mana (the Indian national anthem) played an important role in that early musical journey. It was a simple, catchy melody, which everyone knew and everyone could sing. I would try and play Jana Gana Mana on any instrument I could lay my hands on. So whether it was a flute, a mouth organ or a harmonium, I started playing those instruments and even carried out my early experiments with harmony through Jana Gana Mana-tune.

From our early school-years, we started composing tunes for poems. Every year, as soon as we got our new school-books, we would first scan all the Marathi poems and compose tunes for them. One of our early compositions for a poem called Deh Mandir Chitta Mandir became very popular in our school. Atul and I were asked to go to different classes to teach that tune. Everyone would clap and appreciate after we sang that poem but they would refuse to sing it. The reason- they found it too difficult to sing! So it was an early lesson that the tunes should be simple and hummable for common folk.

If you think that being in rural interior Maharashtra brought us close to folk music, then that was not the case. But being there definitely helped us to understand the local language better and the real punch of folk music is more in that local language’s lehja (intonation) and thaska (pungency). Folk-music is in everyone’s blood. A Gujarati doesn’t need to be taught to play Dandiya and a Maharashtrian doesn’t need to be trained to dance to dhol-taasha beats or to whistle during a laavani. It just comes naturally.

So whatever music we learnt came naturally to us. As it is there is no course to become a music composer. They may teach you the technique of notation or arrangement but they can’t teach you how to compose. That talent should be inborn.

Only after we came back to Pune, when I was in ninth-tenth standard, we came to know that a music director makes tunes for the songs and then we realized that we were already doing that throughout our school days! The only change was now we would have to make tunes for something other than school poems! Those days (1993-94) a debate was raging whether the tune should come first in a song or the words. Many times, the poet writes words in a particular meter, thus restricting the composer’s choice of a tune. We started making independent standalone tunes. We did not record them anywhere; just kept them in our heads. We didn’t even know that we would need to ‘show’ these tunes to somebody!

We also started to perform in music shows. Atul would play harmonium and I would sing songs such as Jai Jai Maharashtra Maaza. We just wanted to perform on stage and never even knew that we were supposed to be paid! Once we started getting payments for our stage performances, our parents were happy. Like any other parents they just wanted us to study, get a good job and settle down in life. But I must tell you one thing that they never stopped us from pursuing our musical dreams.

Slowly we started getting offers to compose music for Marathi television serials, many of which never even went on sets. In our first such project, we composed 12 songs for mere 4500 rupees. Well, the actual deal was for 5000 rupees but we never got the remaining 500 rupees. The producer used to stay in a village some 70 km away from Pune. Twice we cycled all the way to that place to get those 500 rupees but the producer was not to be found. So finally we decided to leave it at that!

But somehow people in the industry were now getting aware of our talent.”

So what were your musical influences at that time?

“Music had never really touched me inside till I heard the song Surmai Ankhiyon Mein from Sadma. Ilaiya Raja’s music changed my vision. It showed me that if music can make you move your body, then it can also move your heart. Then I followed his music a lot. It literally opened the doors for me and made me appreciate other composers’ work. So I started listening to the music of artistes like Shrinivas Khale, Babuji and Hridaynath Mangeshkar in Marathi. In Hindi music, I started to listen to songs of Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Kalyanji-Anandji and R.D. Burman. My father was a Mukesh-fan and later I became a follower of Rafi-saab. I started singing his high-pitched songs like Falak Pe Jitne Sitaare Hain Woh Bhi Sharmaaye. Later I started to like Ghulam Ali and learnt a few things about the nuances such as murkis and khatkas.

Just being in Pune was a boon because there I could see how people could connect to a melody like Sakhi mand Zaalya Taarka. From my other struggling musician friends I started to learn the basic rules and sounds of rhythm. All those things now come in handy while explaining to musicians.

Once we decided to join a music class. It was quite far from our home. We walked all the way there and returned with its brochures. Atul wanted to learn guitar and I wanted to learn drums. But the total fee for both of us would have been five thousand rupees and my father was then earning around three and half thousand rupees. So with a heavy heart he refused and we dejectedly tore off those brochures.

Still our quest for music was so strong that we would do anything for that. So we even played instruments in brass bands and banjo parties. In fact, I was almost about to join full-time in a brass band. The only reason for that was the proprietor would let me take a small Casio keyboard home to practice. I used to play songs like Laal Dupattewali Tera Naam To Bataa, Vaada Raha Sanam and Choli Ke Peechhe Kya Hai. Every day, the band’s office would write names of all the musicians scheduled for the next day’s performance. So when I confirmed to join them full-time, they wrote my name on that notice-board. When I looked at that board, something churned inside. I did not talk to anyone and just sat brooding at home. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this all my life. So the next day, I did not go for the performance and of course, the proprietor promptly fired me! Otherwise who knows I would probably still have been playing keyboard in a band!

But all these experiences taught us a lot. Later on we came to know that a composer needs an arranger and a conductor; here we were doing everything ourselves. Very few composers in India are arrangers themselves. People like Ilaiya Raja, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Salil Chowdhury, R.D. Burman…I think they became legends because they could themselves arrange and give full justification to their music. We then started to follow these composers more than anyone else.”

Did A.R. Rahman influence you?

Rahman is brilliant. Every new composer follows him- not only musically but also the way in which he has shaped his career. We were very happy when in one of his interviews he mentioned that he likes our work.

Every career needs one magic break, which changes everything. What was your magic break?

Our small musical ventures had given us some identity. With that we came to Mumbai. The devotional music was at its lowest point then. Ganpati songs on Hindi film-song tunes, Mantra-Ghosh on repeat loops…they were practically destroying the sanctity of religion. Our anger about that musical destruction and our love for Lord Ganesh then made us take up a challenge to compose a devotional album called Vishwa Vinayak. It was a unique experiment of giving a symphonic treatment to Ganpati aarti and mantras. Our fascination for Ilaiya Raja had made us follow masters like Bach and Beethoven. Beyond that we did not have any knowledge or training about symphonies. In addition, it was also important to give attention to accuracy of religious incantation. We researched and worked on that album for 1 and ½ years. Even though we were initially afraid of trying something novel on such a sensitive theme, midway through the album we realized that we are onto something special. We were sure that this album would make us stars overnight. We were in our early twenties and we were eager for success and stardom. But after the album was released, there was no overnight success for us. For two and a half years nobody called us to make music. It was as if Lord Ganesh had decided that we were still not ready to handle success!

“So didn’t you approach anyone during that phase?”

“Our father had taught us one thing. If you go to somebody to ask for something, your price gets halved and somebody comes to you asking for something, your price gets doubled. We have always followed that philosophy. So we did not ask anyone for work. We struggled a lot, even facing problems to pay our rents and milk bills. The easy way out would have been to make remixes, which was the simplest way of money-making in the music field that time. But we decided to stick to our originality and refused to do remixes.

Finally Lord Ganesh decided that we had faced enough difficulties and then, we got a first phone call appreciating Vishwa Vinayak. It was from a music-lover from Baroda, who had taken the pains to find out our phone number from Times Music Company. Since that day, we keep getting regular calls from all over the world praising Vishwa Vinayak!

Then work started pouring in. Ram Gopal Verma gave us Gaayab; Mahesh Manjrekar and Amitabh Bachchan called us for Viruddh; my Marathi friends gave us films like Saavarkhed Ek Gaon, Aga Baai Arechcha and Jatra. All this work came to us because these people liked our work in Vishwa Vinayak. So after 2 ½ years, Vishwa Vinayak finally made people take our notice. That was our path-breaking album.”

“While listening to your songs one after another, some common characteristics emerge. Your melodic core is very strong but your arrangement keeps throwing surprises- sometimes through a frenzied rhythm, sometimes through reverb effects, sometimes through chorus in the background. So your song is more of a soundscape, rather than a simple straightforward number suitable for bathroom singers. How do you analyze your own style?”

Ajay smiles and nods approvingly before proceeding with his explanation. “I think we have a very strong arranger within us, who constantly keeps criticizing our compositions. That arranger quickly scans every composition and analyses its strong and weak points, deciding to embellish them and throw up surprises. Sometimes there will be more surprises, sometimes less but there will be at least one such surprise in every song. Even in a soft song there is a limit up to which a silence can be sustained; so to come back to the song, we may use a rousing rhythm to change the tempo. It is a matter of individual taste. So while composing any song our minds are simultaneously, subconsciously working on the arrangement. That’s why our songs sound far more dynamic in terms of musical treatment. ”

“How has been your Bollywood experience- particularly in Agneepath and Singham?”

“Our National Award-winning music of Jogawa and the latter success in Natarang made Bollywood interested in us. Before Agneepath and Singham, we got the offer for My Friend Pinto from Sanjay Leela Bhansali. We have worked with top Bollywood banners and the experience has been amazing. They have all treated us with respect and understanding. No one said to us that you may be kings in Marathi music but you are just beginners in Hindi film industry.

In Agneepath and Singham we got big canvasses. We love to work on themes with heroism and cinematic grandeur. With better budgets in Bollywood, we could do experiments which we often don’t get to do in Marathi films.”

Any special memories of the milestone song Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin?

“Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin was composed when the director of Agneepath wanted to change one particular line in another Agneepath song- Sainya. I told him that instead of changing that one line, we will compose another new song for the situation. When he heard Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin, he was so happy that he finally decided to keep both the songs in the film.

The picturisation of Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin was done on the track that I had sung. But we wanted Sonu Nigam to sing that song. Agneepath music album release was barely 10 days away, when we finally recorded that song in his voice.

In those days, he was having some throat problems and was finding the higher notes difficult to render. We were recording some violin tracks in Yashraj studio at night, when he called me to tell that he had practiced the song all the day and felt that he could now render the high notes well. It was 12.30 in the night and we told him that we should record it the next day. But he insisted to record it immediately. In fact, at 1 am, he arrived in the studio. Since we were busy with the violinists, he waited patiently, constantly practicing the song while listening to it on headphones. Finally at 2.30 am, we started to record the song; at 3.30 am the director was called to okay the song and by 5 am we finished the recording!

After the film was released for many months, everyone was only talking about Chikni Chameli and we were slightly disappointed that Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin was not noticed. But finally people realized its worth. It is a song that will stand the test of time.”

What is your fondest memory in your musical journey?

“One of my classmates after passing his twelfth standard exam decided to take admission in a private dental college. I told my mother that he would be paying fees of 4 lac rupees a year for minimum four years and later would also be spending a lot to establish his dental clinic. I said that if she would give us 1 lac rupees to purchase a keyboard (synthesizer), we would not ask for anything else throughout our lives. She somehow managed to convince my father and they arranged that money with great difficulty to buy us a keyboard. Our parents said, “We could never afford to give you any toys to play with in your childhood. This is your first toy. Play with it to your heart’s content.”

We have never stopped playing with it!”

Meeting Atul

Even in our rather brief 10 minute chat, Atul makes an instant connection. He comes across as a complete contrast to his younger brother and he confirms it by saying, “Ajay has taken my mother’s looks and my father’s sensitivity, whereas I have got my father’s looks and my mother’s aggression. Yes, I am an aggressive go-getter. Sometimes I jokingly comment that I also happen to be a music composer, otherwise I could easily have been a Goonda!”

Reminiscing about his early days, he says, “We practically had no exposure to or availability of good music. Perhaps that’s why we were so much attracted towards it. That’s what fanned our passion for it. We would listen to any kind of music-whether it was (folk music such as) Jaagran-Gondhal or a (brass) band.”

Then I start the formal interview.

 “Since you are the elder brother, why didn’t you keep the name Atul-Ajay?”

He has an interesting tale to tell. “When our first musical project was about to be released, we had not even decided on what name it would carry. Those days we used to move about on a bicycle. Since I am short, I would sit in front seat holding the handle and Ajay who is tall and has long legs, would sit on the carrier seat. Then both of us would push pedals to cycle around. During one of these cycle rides, we were passing Pune’s Saarasbaug  Ganpati temple and there Ajay suggested, “Let’s take up the name Ajay-Atul for our music.” We were not even looking at each other when he suggested that- since I was on the front seat and he was on the carrier! I accepted his suggestion immediately. Not for a moment did I think that I was the elder brother and why it shouldn’t be Atul-Ajay! I am like that. I don’t care much for individual credit.”

“So what is your working pattern as a pair? Do you have any creative differences or conflicts?”  

“Whether it is me or Ajay, whosoever gets a new idea, he works on that tune. Our filtration process is excellent, so we will choose the best possible tune between ourselves. So the producer or the director would get to hear only that selected tune. Never have we presented two different options for a song. Of course, a lot of internal discussion would have already happened before presenting our final option but for the outsider, it would be given as the only option. Thankfully, none of our tunes has ever been rejected. Touch wood!”

 “The reputation automatically brings in the responsibility to maintain it. The feeling that we have to live up to our reputation makes us work harder. Now we have understood the knack of knowing what works the best for us. So now the working pattern is smooth without many creative differences and conflicts.”

“There are composers who keep music-banks of recorded songs. Do you have such a system?”

 “Those who have so-called music-banks are nothing but just shop-keepers. We don’t have, or rather don’t believe in that kind of set-up. When somebody comes to me with a film, I have to first connect to that person; I have to understand his background, his thought process and his outlook before I compose music. Without that how will I be able to do a good job?”

“Looking at your career, it becomes clear that you have worked on different kinds of films be it Jogawa or Natrang. On one hand, you have worked with big banners and on the other hand, you have also composed for practically unknown film-makers.”

“If you see our output we have worked on varied themes and with different banners- both big and small. For us, a person is more important than a banner. Our parents have taught us that. Only when I know a person well, I can create something for him.”

“For me, it is not a business. To give you an example- I will not accept if somebody gives me an order to make 100 tables. Rather than that I will be happy just making one table but I will carve it so well that everyone will appreciate!”

“From childhood, I have followed the philosophy that whatever work I am chosen to do, I will do it to the best of my ability, giving it my all. That’s why I am never afraid that I will fail or my music won’t do well!”

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