Pursuit of Happiness

Pankaj Kedia knows how to please the Gods with his guitar strums

For the MD-emerging markets of Dolby Laboratories, getting back to a childhood hobby has opened doors to spirituality

The story begins in the cultural capital of India — Kolkata. Amid pleasant harmonium melodies from homes in narrow alleys and lively band performances in main road cafes, Pankaj Kedia grew up with a fondness for guitar. When he was eight years old, his parents enrolled him in a guitar class and thus began his tryst with music.

The MD-emerging markets of Dolby Laboratories first learned to play the Hawaiian guitar and then moved to the acoustic one. After seven years of training, when he was in high school, Kedia decided to put his skills to use and became a part of an amateur band. “The first year we took part in an inter-school competition, out of the 14 teams participating, we were the only ones to be disqualified,” he recalls with a chuckle, adding that the problem was in getting all the members to synchronise. “Pretty embarrassing,” he says.

But, they were a determined bunch. The following year, the band took part in the competition again, this time trying a fusion of classical Bollywood songs with bass guitars and drums. “For 16-17 year-olds, this was a big deal,” he says. They bagged the top spot and redeemed themselves. That was the late ’80s.

Fast forward to 2014.

Now settled in Singapore, Kedia occasionally strummed the guitar in his free time, but with no intent of performing anywhere. It was only when he met a group of like-minded people that he truly reconnected with his childhood passion and got back into groove. “A bunch of us got together every week to read Indian scriptures, especially the Bhagwad Gita. When we began interacting with each other, we realised several of us had a musical inclination and wanted to do soulful numbers,” he says.

What began as a small group experimenting with beats has today turned into a community-driven open forum, where people can join anytime to learn the art of music and connect with oneself. “We practise around seven hours every week,” says Kedia. Drawing inspiration from the people around, he has also developed a liking for singing and is now keen on receiving formal classical training.

When it comes to adapting his guitar-playing style to bhajans, he says it has been surprisingly organic. “It is not an obvious fit. But, when other instruments such as harmonium, tabla and flute come in to the picture, it all blends together seamlessly,” he explains. Of the several chants, bhajans, hymns and sufi songs, the group has performed, Kedia’s all-time favourites are Kabir ke dohe and Nirvana Shatakam.

Performing for a crowd of 150 people, at least six times a year, he does not seek a resounding applause at the end of each set. What matters to him is the pause that the listeners take to soak it all in.  “If you get that moment of silence in the room after the end of a song, you know the audience has had a deep visceral experience,” he says. Thus, the group does not charge any ticket fee for their events. For them, it is not about the fame or the recognition, but the process of going through a shared spiritual experience.

Meanwhile, the hobby has brought Kedia even closer to work and he does not mind that. By dealing with audio engineering every day at the office, he has taught himself how to rig speakers, mix sounds and set up microphones for a performance. “Getting into the technical side of things was unexpected, but I quite enjoy doing it. I got to learn a skill that I would not have learnt otherwise,” he admits.

A proud owner of a Takamine and a Taylor, Kedia has now started writing and composing his own songs. On insisting, he shares two lines with us: Aao ab toh aa jao; Ab der nahin, aa jao. “It is about calling out to the Divine,” he shares. When not pursuing his hobby, one can find him listening to the rich tunes of qawalis or the fascinating and undiscovered folk songs of India. But, he is not a snob who dislikes those in the mainstream. “I like the work done by Prateek Kuhad, Jasleen Royal and Shantanu Moitra,” he says.

But, all said and done, home is where the heart is, and for Kedia, it is in Bengal’s Baul songs and Rabindra Sangeet.