Portrait of an artist: Aqua Dominatrix.
Chembur is loud, and it is quiet.
On the Sion-Trombay road, it is loud: Mumbai, in full swing, at full tilt. Noise. Cars, and rickshaws and buses and vans, speeding in both directions, their motion dissolving into the dull, nasal roar of the open Indian road.
But one street away, a three-minute walk (south, then east), Chembur is quiet, and still. It is not Mumbai. It is Pune, somehow. It is peeling buildings and single-story bungalows, punctuated by the occasional modern office block.
On that quiet Chembur street, there is a building that looks just like a million others here in the Big Mango. You’ve seen it before, in every suburb, in Bandra and Khar and Santacruz and Kalina. A building that was once new, probably around 1972, a building with two floors and no lift.
And within that building, on the first floor, just up to the stairs and to the left, there is a door, a door that looks just like every other.
But the door doesn’t open into a home.
It opens into one man’s imagination.
It opens into a studio, full of strange machines and colourful walls, a studio full of buttons and pads and keys and knobs. It is a portal to the future, where futuristic music is made, music full of emotion but devoid of humanity, because that’s what its creator intends: to produce music that feels human without sounding human.
Akshay raises a mug of tea in greeting
In that studio, a man works, and sometimes sleeps, though his family, especially his grandfather, urges him not to. “Keep normal hours,” they tell him. “Do what you do, but keep normal hours.”
His home is just a stone’s throw away: a beautiful white bungalow. Inside lives a family of engineers, supported by three generations of intelligent, driven men who craft thermoplastics – polymers crucial to the economy, and to our lives: the stuff that water tanks are made of.
But he, the eldest son in the third generation, is not an engineer. He is a musician with kind eyes, a gentle manner, and an easy laugh.
Sometimes, he is Aqua Dominatrix, the keyboard fetishist, the explorer of sound. Sometimes, he’s Akshay Rajpurohit, the guitarist of Scribe, and Pangea. Sometimes, he’s the embarrassed composer of music that makes him cringe, music that’s used to sell products that he’d rather not talk about.
Aqua Dominatrix refusing to be photographed
Aqua Dominatrix launched his second album, Overthrowing Magnus, on Friday night. Underground, in that room of flickering lights and velvety colours, he unleashed an evocative, intensely liberating cocktail of moody synthesizers, slamming kick drugs, and nefarious overtones. I danced, together, and alone, with friends, and with strangers.
Electronic music can be mindless, sometimes – empty pleasure and unearned gratification. All style and no substance: all hardness, no heart. And while Aqua Dominatrix is no groove pilot – he’s not a DJ – his is the author of some of the most spectacularly exhilarating collective moments to be found on an Indian dancefloor.
At his best, he is profoundly liberating. We did things, and felt things, down there. All because of him.
The day before the gig, I spoke to the man called Aqua Dominatrix in a soundproofed room overlooking that quiet Chembur lane. His wit was sharp, but his words, recorded here in black and white, lack the self-deprecation that they do in person. With Akshay, it’s not just what he says: it’s how he says it.
The first synthesizer purchase
“I didn’t ever want to become a musician,” he told me. “My late mother sent me for guitar classes, because I wasn’t a very patient kid. She said: learn an instrument, chill out. I’m like my Dad: he’s impatient, he’s got an anger problem, he’s angry all the time. So of course, I mirrored some of those faults.
My mom would tell me: you’ve got to get out, learn some instruments, or do anything that doesn’t involve playing video games. I started learning guitar that way, for a week or two weeks, but I left those classes because I just wasn’t interested in class.
I loved the instrument, though, so to learn, I’d go to Furtado’s and pick up books. At that time, we didn’t have the Internet.”
His eyes lit up when he spoke about his gear, his equipment, and the endless possibilities they offer.
“I was a guitar player,” he said, “but I was always a tone chaser. I always wanted to know, what does the next sound feel like, what does the next feeling sound like?
Every time I buy a synthesizer or buy a guitar, I want to know: where does this go? What’s the limit of this instrument? What can it do? I’ve asked myself, too, a lot of times. What is my limit? Where do I think I can go? What can I do?”
Sitting with him in the studio, it’s easy to imagine him at work: reflecting, thinking, refining. Editing, creating, in minute, painstaking detail. This is where he labours with his craft, searching for sounds and for excellence.
But while the studio is where he belongs, it is on stage is where he feels most alive, though he struggles to describe the feeling.
“It’s difficult to explain, it’s almost like you’re a champion for a night. You’re uncool throughout the year, but for that one night, if you do your job well, maybe you can be a champion, or a hero? It’s like a simulation of what somebody would get as appreciation if they did something important, like you won the World Cup, people would be like yeaaaa! This guy! Chanting your name, or whatever, but all you’ve done is made some music.
So I guess it’s more like a simulation of appreciation, appreciation on such a big scale that it makes you feel overwhelmed, and it makes you feel that maybe this is what you want to do, and this is what you’ve been born to do.”
Despite his gentle demeanour and careful vocabulary, he isn’t afraid to speak his mind. When I asked him about the future of India’s independent music and festival culture, he didn’t hold back.
“How do I say this without pissing people off? Our scene, modelled after that American or European festival culture, I guess, I don’t think it’s working, at least in terms of the music.
I feel it’s doing nothing for the music. It might be doing things for artists, or promoters, it might be doing things for people. Why wouldn’t I love going to a party every weekend, having a few drinks with my friends, listening to some music, and coming back home?
You meet so many people who say, I like this artist, or I like that artist. But I feel the music needs to be pushed as much as we push a brand, like a band, or a promoter, or a club. The music needs to significantly take centre stage.
Take the Matrix, for example. If you just take it as a creative piece of work. And you ask a regular person on the road, who’s seen the movie: “Hey man, who directed the Matrix?” He probably won’t be able to tell you. He’ll know Keanu Reeves, but he probably won’t know who directed it. The creative work is way bigger than the people who made it.
I’m not against people making money or being successful. It’s not like the Wachowski Brothers are poor. They’re making their millions. But the creative work takes centre stage. The Matrix is bigger than the people who made it.”
In the modern musician’s world, social media is a serous responsibility. But when Aqua Dominatrix talks about marketing himself online, his words and manner are resigned but not resentful. He speaks with a wistful humour about the pressure to constantly self-promote.
“Everyone’s like: check me out, I play five nights a month. Or someone promotes a track saying: I’m playing here, I’m doing this, I’m Snapchatting my life. Check me out, check us out, this is what we do.
But there are less posts about: hey man, I wrote this song, and it’s about this. Nobody puts out their music and says: this is what I wrote.”
This is what separates Aqua Dominatrix from other contemporary electronic artists. He’s always thinking about his legacy – a legacy that will be defined by his product, not his persona.
“What is the audience going to remember you by?” he asked. “They won’t go back to your Facebook posts, and say, ‘that guy partied with me in 2010, that guy’s so radical, but he’s old now.’
The truth is: the music you do right now is going to dictate what you’re going to do, 20 years down the line. It’s inevitable. And I just want to be about the music.”
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Kunal Bambawale
Photographs by Kunal Bambawale