Ankur Tewari And His Music Of Change
Ankur Tewari And His Music Of Change

He is a singer, songwriter, music composer and music supervisor, and has aced the game of future proofing his works by having the pulse on the present. After dropping his new album Akela a few months back, Ankur Tewari is now gearing up to charm the ears of his fans with the music for Zoya Akhtar’s The Archies, and then there is the second season of Coke Studio Bharat. We get the maverick musician to spill some tea over hot cups of Irani chai

Good Luck Café, a typical Mumbai-style Irani restaurant near Bandra’s historic Mehboob Studio, is a favourite haunt for Ankur Tewari. The informal seating and the anonymity here helps him enjoy sitting with strangers of various stripes, talking to them and listening in on their conversations. “If you go and have chai there, you can easily drop into these people’s conversations and hear so much,” he says excitedly. “You get exposed to so many lives. I like the idea that you can share your table with someone you don’t know. It’s very intimate when you sit across the table with someone, and that idea… it’s kind of in sync with my life.”  


Tewari lives in Bandra and much of what he does revolves around here (including the cover photography for this article was done on his building terrace) and Good Luck Café is an integral part of his life. It has provided him rich material for the many songs he has written for himself and others, and of course his work as a poet. Songs like   — Parwana, the opening track of his new album Akela — are drawn from his time here.   “I don’t know if it’s entirely true, but I remember vaguely a person talking about the love of their life and how they will go to any extent to be with their love. I don’t know if the whole song is from there, but one part of the emotion comes from a conversation I had at Good Luck,” he says.  


The psychedelic and brooding Akela with its eight tracks is Tewari’s first full-fledged album in more than a decade, notwithstanding an occasional EP or his work as a lyricist for other singers. It’s been a hectic period in his career where his new assignment as the “creative architect” of the re-launched and rebranded Coke Studio Bharat is only the latest in a long list of music-related digressions that has occupied him. The most prominent of which has been his work as ‘music supervisor’ for films and OTT shows. The term is a new one, signifying the evolutionary change underway in the near century-old history of Indian film music. The old-style, all-encompassing  music director, who composed every song in the movie  as well as the background score,  is slowly making way for the  ‘music supervisor’ whose job is essentially to curate a collection of independently produced songs by a diverse range of singers that fits in with the theme of the film.  




Tewari hit the big time as music supervisor with Zoya Akhtar’s critically acclaimed landmark film, Gully Boy, that not only catapulted the likes of  DIVINE, NaezySez on the Beat, MC Altaf, MC Tod Fod, Emiway Bantai, KR$NA, Brodha V into national superstars but also transformed Indian language hip-hop into arguably the most successful genre of music since the time in the 1980s when Biddu Appiah made  ‘indi-pop’ into a national craze in the 1980s and 90s with the likes of Nazia and Zoheb Hassan, Alisha Chinai and many others. 


The 2019 film proved to be a transformational film for Tewari. His friendship with Zoya Akhtar proved to be serendiptious. The film opened doors for him to work as music supervisor in a variety of films and OTT shows over the next few years, including  Modern Love: Mumbai, Gehraiyaan, A Suitable Boy, Yeh Ballet, Made in Heaven and others. As with Gully Boy, some of these like have proved to be career-making projects for musicians involved like Gehraiyaan, for example was the break-out film for composer-producer and vocalist-producer/composer duo OAFF and Savera. 


Tewari’s early success was of course with his own band, The Ghalat Family. Formed in 2009, they’ve gone beyond Hindi rock band cliches to become one of Indian indie’s most beloved bands with hits like  “Mohabbat Zindabad” and pull off spirited tunes like   “Sabse Peeche Hum Khade”. Currently, the band comprises multi-instrumentalist Sidd Coutto, bassist Johan Pais, guitarist Gaurav Gupta and drummer Vivaan Kapoor. Tewari as a bandleader with The Ghalat Family is most comfortable on stage, joking with the crowds while also goading them to sing along.  


His major musical digressions, however, started when the boundaries began to blur between India’s indie scene and mainstream music industry. From his stint at music channel Pepsi MTV Indies (which helped bring in artistes for Gully Boy) to co-founding poetry platform Kommune and now Coke Studio Bharat, his skill has been at finding the right artistes for the right song. “Even when I was in school, my dream has always been to be in a band and work with other musicians and Coke Studio Bharat puts me in a very interesting place where I can work with musicians I probably wouldn’t have collaborated with myself,” he says.  


It’s great for one’s personal growth, Tewari believes, to be surrounded by everyone, from folk musicians to singer-songwriters to electronic producers and hip-hop artistes, often in the same room, considering the scale and ambition of Coke Studio Bharat. From OAFF, Savera, Jasleen Royal, and Burrah kicking off with  “Udja” to seasonal songs like  “Holi Re Rasiya” with Ravi Kishan, Amaan, and Ayaan Ali Bangash and SeedheMaut, to  “Khalasi” with Aditya Gadhvi, Achint, and Dhruv Visvanath, and more, the collaborations were just stacked and avoided the pitfalls of having too many cooks in the kitchen.  


Historically, this is what has made Coke Studio in India hit or miss across seasons and showrunners, producers and curators in its initial three-year run between 2012 and 2015. The show was originally conceived in Brazil in 2007, but became a big part of Indian musical consciousness via the massive success of the Pakistani version produced by the redoubtable Rohail Hyatt, which Indian fans feasted on YouTube. So, it wasn’t surprising that Coke would launch a local version in India sooner than later. Composer-singer Leslie Lewis (from indi-pop act Colonial Cousins) was the curator and producer of the first season of the Indian. Since then, producers and curators have included the likes of A.R. Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Ram Sampath, Salim-Sulaiman, Clinton Cerejo, Amit Trivedi, Sachin-Jigar, etc.  


The four seasons that Coke Studio India ran, allowed indie artistes, underappreciated folk heroes, and Bollywood hitmakers to come together in a way that hadn’t been seen before. The Wadali Brothers, The Nooran Sisters, Kutle Khan, Mame Khan jammed with Papon, Kailash Kher, Sona Mohapatra, Raftaar, Vijay Prakash, Siddharth Basrur, Pentagram, Agam and Advaita, among scores of others, spurring powerful compositions that launched a few careers in the music industry. The producers and curators were at the center of it all, treating each song release like an all-star project.  


After a hiatus of eight years, the show made a comeback earlier this year, with a new home on YouTube (it was on MTV earlier) and re-branded as Coke Studio Bharat. Tewari, with his experience of working with cross-genre musicians, was in some ways the obvious choice as the curator.  “[It’s great] to just be a fly on the wall and see how people are operating, be part of the discussions when they create a song together,” says Tewari.  




Like Coke Studio Bharat, Tewari’s upcoming project as the music supervisor, lyricist and composer for Zoya Akhtar’s new film, The Archies, which is expected to release December 7 on Netflix is a collective endeavour. Based on the iconic Archies comics and directed by Zoya Akhtar, it is set in the year 1964 in an Anglo-Indian community. Tewari deep dived into the Anglo-Indian culture of that time to conceive the music for the film. “I kind of made huge playlists with that. I started researching about the music that was happening in India at that time, tried to find some recordings, tried to find bands, and interviewed those people. And the palette emerged from there and it’s very exciting,” he says.  


The Archies also provided him the opportunity to work with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy who have composed the main tracks for the film. He says he was “very nervous” about working with them (“Because I love their music so much”) but the ease they brought to the project melted away the anxiety.  “They never made me feel as lesser at any point. They made me feel like home and they are such good collaborators,” he adds. Tewari likens watching the trio in action in the studio and at composing sessions as “energy bunnies” just throwing ideas and collating them. There were a lot of non-verbal cues going on as well, which amazed Tewari. “I think three of them can really see into each other’s minds as well. There was some telepathic stuff happening between them,” he says with a laugh. 


Besides Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s presence, Tewari is credited as the music supervisor, lyricist, and composer as well for the many tracks he produced for the film. He put together a band called The Islanders featuring the likes of drummer Jehangir Jehangir, bassist Nathan Thomas, Zohran Miranda on guitars, saxophonist Rhys Sebastian, singer-songwriters Aria Nanji Tejas as vocalist.  “Tejas’ voice just matched Archies’s personality, played by Agastya [Nanda], while Shivam Mahadevan is the voice of Jughead. Overall, the soundtrack kind of reminisces about simpler times. It makes you feel easy, it makes you think about simpler times and easier days, especially with how the world is right now. It really feels like a warm hug.”  


For Tewari, his work on films started nearly 20 years ago, on a largely forgotten movie called  Let’s Enjoy in 2004.  “Sometimes in life, my biggest fear is being irrelevant as an artiste, which is an actual reality, because there is nobody who stays relevant forever. The idea is to try and keep up with the times, trying to understand what’s happening, and tell the story of now. Specifically, try and tell a story that is relatable now,” he says.  


Born in 1977 in Brussels to a father who is a metallurgist and engineer and a mother who came from a drama background, Tewari grew up in Roorkee and Bhopal before eventually working in hospitality in New Delhi and moving to Mumbai for music.  “To be very honest, I’m only very good at this and this is something that gives me a smile at the end of the day. I studied in the hotel industry, I tried to be a hotelier but I realised very early that I wouldn’t be a good hotelier and I’m not enjoying it more than anything else,” he recalls.  


He had his love for the arts seared right in when he saw his mother directing plays with students at the dramatics society at the university in Roorkee. In that atmosphere, he saw actors prep, rehearse, make their own costumes and stage sets and get on stage.  “That definitely was something very important for me to ever feel the urge to be on stage myself. I think it started there,” Tewari says. That itch to perform snowballed as he found his groove more in singing first, being part of a school choir.  


There was a passion, he says, that he saw growing up in both his parents and their friends’ circle that showed him the value of always feeling strongly about one’s subject.  “My father can talk for days about metal and corrosion. I remember one of my father’s friends telling me that calculus is life.  They’re looking at it in a different way, everyone’s creative in their own way,” Tewari adds.  


Today, Tewari stays just as excited about all his projects.  “I’m really having fun. It feels like   you’re in an amusement park and you’re taking this ride and that ride, and overall having fun. As long as that’s going, I’ll keep going.” The admission price to be at an amusement park, according to Tewari, is to “pay in patience”. He adds, “Sometimes you don’t get instant returns so you have to be very grounded, because the moment you fly, the next, you can come crashing down.  It’s full of thrills and things, so if you see it as a game, it can be exciting. If you take it seriously, then it can be very scary. So, I never try and take my career and things so seriously that I start getting nervous or be scared. I keep on reminding myself to keep on having fun with it and keep on enjoying it.”  


It’s something that’s paying off for long for Tewari. Coke Studio Bharat has spawned a few definitive hits as have several movie and OTT series projects, and Akela has earned several hundreds of thousands of streams for its erudite themes and The Archies is about take-over screens.  




Even though he can talk about styles with a keen interest, the overarching rule of thumb that Tewari follows with the music he works on is simple – he doesn’t like the idea of genres, ever. When asked about the stylistic choices that made Akela a psychedelic, sometimes dark trip that was rich in textures and ambient elements (helped by the likes of producer Rohan Ramanna), Tewari says his advice to singer-songwriters is just “follow the story”. He adds, “I don’t like to say I write these kinds of songs.’  Genres for me are made by people who sell music.” Tewari is quick to add at this point,   “It’s good that music needs to be sold, but when you’re approaching songwriting, you don’t think like you’re writing a singer-songwriter song, or you’re writing a ballad, or you’re writing a rock anthem, or an EDM track, you just write after you’ve felt the story.”  


He admits he’s bad at multi-tasking, so Tewari prefers to immerse himself into one particular project at a time, whether it’s his own material or working with other artistes for screen or otherwise. To that end, the next season of Coke Studio Bharat is under way and while Tewari doesn’t have any specific things he wants to share about what they’re tweaking and doing differently, he does say that they’re going to take a bit more time with it.  


The series – whose second season is slated to roll out early next year – intends to be definitive of the current generation of young India, in all its diversity.  “What we’re trying to do with Coke Studio Bharat is tell the story of the new, emerging India, which has the youngest people in the world. I feel that we need to talk about stories and pain points that the young are feeling, and yet have a dose of tradition in it,” he says. The goal is to make traditional music cool, but also write new stories in different forms that could become “folk music 2.0” according to Tewari. He adds,   “Bob Dylan was writing Blowing In The Wind when the Vietnam War was happening. I want to write about our times through our folk and with the voices of the young.”  


Originally published in RollingStone India 











contact us :
Follow US :
©2024 Creativeland Publishing Pvt. Ltd. All Rights Reserved