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A conversation with Ketan Bakrania

Ketan Bakrania plays bass in an instrumental, progressive rock band called Chai Baba, which he started five years ago with his brother Vijay. The South Side resident also paints largely abstract works, which are based on the "fundamentals of drumming,"

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What does the name of your band mean?
It's based on the name of a [Hindu] spiritual leader, Sai Baba, this guy with a big Afro, who has a huge, huge following. He performs miracles and materializes stuff. He's supposed to be an incarnation of God. This Indian kid was visiting me one day and I was making him some chai, and he was like, "You should name your band Chai Baba!" And I said, "I heard that!" It was funny. So we did it.

 

So you're not a believer then?

I don't pass judgment either way. I actually didn't know much about him at first, except his picture, which I saw in my mother's shrine. So I read a book and did some research. Sai means "love" and baba means "father" or "incarnation." So the translation is something like "the essence of love." And Chai Baba is like "the essence of chai."

 

You're clearly a believer in chai.

I'm a believer in craftsmanship, into putting my time and heart into things. After the initial joke, I did come to realize that chai is just one of the things I make that I care about. Basically, you just boil a bunch of spices in water -- cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, saffron. And tea bags. Then you add lots of milk. And when it boils, that's what makes it chai. That's when the transformation occurs. And that's what matters the most: how much attention you give it, how long you stir, and how slowly you do it. It makes a big difference. It's like my mother's cooking: I can follow the directions, but it doesn't come out the same. There's something else to it.

 

What is it?

Love. Or I don't know, something. Attention. Focus. It's like art: Most of the paintings I make might look beautiful and expressive and all that, but they require the same kind of attention. Nothing flows out of me. They're a real pain in the ass to make. They take time. But the point is it all comes together: the chai, the painting, the music. It's connected.

 

How?

I've developed a painting technique that's based on the drumming rudiments, on drumming patterns. I basically make a sine wave with the "right, left, right, left" rhythms I learned to make with a drumstick. And you can use others, like the paradiddle: "right, left, right, right, left, right left, left." That's the way you play it with your hands. I just apply this motion to the process of painting. I tried this out one day, made a bunch of wiggles and I saw something in it, something natural. So I kept doing it.

 

What do you mean by "something natural"?

Well, it goes back to my attitude about art. A piece of art should really speak for itself. Paintings shouldn't need a defense or explanation from the artist. I mean, there's nothing wrong with conceptual art work, if it's done right. You know that age-old story: Someone goes into a museum or gallery and they see some art and say, "Hey I could've done that. It's just a bunch of crap." Well, it can be true. People use intellectualizing as a crutch to make crap. I don't do that.

 

How would you describe your painting?

It borders on psychedelic. I don't bother with words for art. I'm not reacting to art history. I don't believe in expressing myself through my artwork. I'm just unleashing my creativity. I'm creating something totally new, something natural, when I paint.

 

Is that even possible?

I think so. For me.

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