Dipesh Varma is not only a percussionist but also a Rhythm Arranger. A disciple of legendary percussion maestro Taufiq Qureshi, the musician has come a long way. A good rhythm is crucial in the success of a song and the musician knows every bit about this.
After having worked with the top music directors in the Hindi film industry, the young musician has made a name for himself. Today, his good grasp on a wide variety of instruments, classical music and current trends have allowed him to experiment more with sounds – something that he is very passionate about. Playing in Hindi and Marathi orchestras in his childhood further enhanced his understanding of rhythms. Overall, Dipesh combines many skills with improvisation to deliver the goods.
In this interview, he shares his views on the instruments he plays, how his first composition “Mahatej” was created during lockdown and his career so far.
What did you learn the most about yourself during lockdown?
I am a very patient and focused person. The musicians are anyways in their shell most of the times. Apart from missing recording sessions and performing live, I am enjoying my time at home. If you talk about learning then I have definitely learned to cook (laughs) in which I was zero. But I learned how to remain calm and composed and focus on your practice, making music in challenging situations like this. One thing I can proudly say is that post lockdown I am going to come out as a more responsible citizen, an improved musician and a decent cook.
How did you decide to make a career in music? Is it really worth it by the end of the day?
Music is there in the family. Since the day I was born I have been surrounded by music 24×7. My father Premnath Varma is a singer and my mother Devyani Varma is a very good listener. When I was just 3 months old, my mother started taking me to dad’s shows. Through her, my journey in music started. As I grew up, I started developing interest in rhythm and finally at the age of 10, I started playing a bit. After that I started playing in Hindi/Marathi orchestras, Dandiyas, Mata Ki Chowkis, etc. That helped me a lot to gain so much of knowledge because at one time I was exploring so much in music. In my case, yes, it is definitely worth at the end of the day because when your passion becomes your profession, you start enjoying the struggle.
“Mahatej” is your first composition. How did this track happen and who is behind its title?
One day during the lockdown I was sitting and making some music on my home setup. I got so involved in it that the ideas started popping up in my head one by one and eventually I finished the track in just 2-3 hours. At 2 am in the night, I messaged my Guru Ustad Taufiq Qureshi and made him listen the rough draft. He liked it so much and asked me to fine tune some places. Vijay Dayal [Chief Engineer at Yash Raj Films Studio, Mumbai] who is like an elder brother. He was kind enough to mix and master the track for me. He helped me a lot to achieve that spectrum of the track. Then I played it to my dear friend and one of the finest Kathak dancers of the current generation, Shinjini Kulkarni. Even she liked it and encouraged me to explore more. I usually keep listening to my work on loop to be in that zone until I don’t put a full stop to it. I was missing something in the track and suddenly the idea of having a singer came in my mind. The very first name I thought of was Rahul Deshpande Ji. I wanted a title which would reflect the mood of the track and should be in Sanskrit or Hindi. “Mahatej” has couple of meanings such as dark, divine, intense and it justifies all these meanings when you hear it. The title “Mahatej” is given by my Guru brother Abhishek Tendulkar who is one of the partners of an event company called ‘A Field Production Pvt Ltd’ and they manage a part of my work as well. Abhishek and Aditya Gupte have worked really hard and made sure that the whole process right from the beginning is smooth and steady.
Rahul Deshpande seems very suitable to perform this track. What is his contribution to the texture of your composition?
Rahul Ji has taken the track to another level with his magical voice. I was hesitating to ask him as he is such a popular personality in Indian classical music and I am quite junior in front of him but when he heard the track, he immediately said yes. His voice has so much of depth and intensity which is very rare. Also, he is very versatile and open to all kinds of experiments. This was all required in “Mahatej” and I feel nobody else could do what he has done in the track. It’s his magic which made it sound even more unique and fresh.
Was it a conscious decision for producing a track without any lyrics?
Well yes. I feel sometimes lyrics create a kind of boundaries around you and back of the mind you have to make sure that the poetry and the importance of each word is nicely maintained in the track. I didn’t want any kind of lyrical restriction in the track. More than that I wanted to focus on the overall feel, arrangement, singing and composition.
The transition from being a rhythm arranger to a music composer seems a logical move. Do you intend to compose commercial songs in the future, if good proposals come your way?
The intention is not to become a full-time composer. My love and passion for rhythm is going to be there till the last breath. But as you said, if good proposals come and I am allowed to do my stuff, then definitely I would like to give it a shot.
In your line of work, how good are you at improvising and describe times when it really surprised you?
Improvisation is an important aspect in music and one should keep on improve it with the time. I am still learning to improvise. One day I was recording for the background score of the movie called ‘Thugs of Hindostan’ (2018). It was a periodic war movie starring Mr. Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan. At one sequence I wanted to create a groove from sound of a sword and luckily at Yash Raj Studios Foley section I found out one old sword. Now the question was to create a sound out of it and transport it into a groove. I tried rubbing a big metal ‘manjira’ (bell) on the sword and surprisingly I could achieve the original sword sound. Once I understood the technique, I created a groove out of it. There are many similar incidents where I was really surprised to see the improvisation skills in me.
So far, which track had you have to put a lot of efforts into and what was the final outcome?
“Ghoomar” from the movie ‘Padmaavat’ (2018) is one of them. I have arranged and played the rhythm section in the track for 4 times. The final version is the 4th one which got released. Mr. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is known for his perfection and dedication towards his films and its music. He expects the same amount of perfection and dedication from each person who is involved in his film and its music. After doing rhythms for 4 times for the same song he was finally satisfied with the last one and the song became a huge hit.
You are part of many live concerts. While performing, what do you enjoy and dislike the most?
I enjoy performing different genres of music and collaborating with different musicians/dancers/singers. I learn a lot in that process and that’s how it should be. You should keep learning at every step. Doing an early morning concert is something I don’t like much (laughs) because I am not an early bird.
Do you have a favourite instrument? Why this one?
Oh yes!! It’s called djembe. It’s an African percussion instrument. I love playing it. My Guru has done a revolutionary thing of adapting tabla knowledge on the djembe. He has developed his own hand techniques and language to play that instrument. When he introduced me to djembe, I somehow really liked its sound. Now it’s my dream to take my Guru’s legacy ahead and make this percussion even more popular and establish it as an Indian classical percussion instrument globally.
As a rhythm arranger, how do you make sure the main melody is not lost in the arrangements?
I always believe that nobody is above the song. Be it an arranger, musician or technician. All of us are there to make the song sound as good as we can in our respective roles. That’s why whenever I arrange the rhythm section for any song, I make sure that none of my elements are disturbing the tune and lyrics. A rhythm player has a tendency to overplay in the song but one should know when not to play and that’s what I always keep in mind whenever I arrange the rhythm section for a song.
There is a perception that most percussionists only know how to play drums. Do you agree?
Not really. There are many percussionists’ friends of mine who are excellent in playing other instruments and some of them even sing also. I believe it’s always good to learn other form of music.
You learned a lot from Ustad Taufiq Qureshi and I understand that under his guidance, your music knowledge grew. How would you describe your growth as a musician?
It’s been more than 13 years I am learning under Taufiq Bhai and whatever little I am doing today is all because of him. He made me what I am today. Not just music but also, he taught me many aspects of life. Whenever I need an advice whether related to music or my personal life, he is the one who show me the right path. He has always encouraged me and his other students to have a bigger vision for rhythm. Once your vision is big you will find rhythm in everything around you. As a musician I see a lot of growth in me and that’s all because of him.
A few decades back, it was so rare to find credits on cassettes and CDs sleeves or even in closing credits of movies. How much has changed since then? Among the current breed of composers, who are taking this seriously?
It was very unfortunate that the credits on the cassettes and CDs in that era were missing. I am a 90s kid so I can relate myself with this a lot. Very few of us know who was the rhythm arranger of so and so song, who has played in the background score of the movie, etc. That’s because they didn’t get their credit. My guru Ustad Taufiq Qureshi has played a big role as a Rhythm Arranger in Hindi film songs. He has arranged the rhythm of famous songs like “Pehla Nasha” and “Ghar Se Nikalte Hi”. I know it because he told me about it. But as time changed and composers like A. R. Rahman, Vishal and Shekhar, Salim-Sulaiman, Amaal Malik, Pritam, etc. , came in the picture, they recognised the importance of arrangers and musicians in their songs and made sure that the credits are given to them on YouTube, closing credits in the movie and every possible platform. Earlier the audiences used to leave the theatres once the film was finished but now, they wait for the closing credits to see the names of the people behind the music. I am grateful and thankful to these great composers for valuing the talent of arrangers, musicians and engineers who make the song sound beautiful.
What is your inclination towards classical music?
Classical music is my foundation. I belong from the first family of rhythm in India which is my Guru Ustad Taufiq Qureshi and his father and Guru Ustad Allarakha (Abbaji). Whatever I do I make sure that the essence of classical music and teachings of my Guru is reflecting in it. It makes me feel so happy to be recognised as a classical musician even after being involved in so many different genres of music. That is because my foundation is classical music and I use that knowledge in every possible way.
Have you ever arranged a song and when it was released, it turned out to be awful? Share your experience and what did you do about it?
I had done one song long back for Shirish Kunder’s movie ‘Joker’ (2012). Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif were in the lead. The song was called “I Want Fakth You”. ‘Fakht‘ is a Marathi word and it means ‘only’. I was quite embarrassed when I first heard this word in the song because it doesn’t sound regular and if you keep on saying the word it sounds something else (laughs). I couldn’t do anything about it as the director himself liked that word so much.
Whose idea was it to associate “Mahatej” track with space in the video? Do you think mountains shown under partly cloudy skies could also be used?
My friend Aditya Gupte who is also one of the partners of ‘A Field Production Pvt Ltd’ came up with this idea of showing space and galaxy graphics in the video. Initially I was not completely convinced with his idea but later on I realized that it’s his imagination as a common listener after listening to the track. So, I felt this thought process will be of other listeners too when they will hear the track. That’s how we decided to have these kinds of graphics for the track. I am not sure how it would have looked with mountains shown in the video. That’s why I made my friends listen to the track and understood what they imagine while listening to it.