A stretch on NH 47 in Kerala has become a synonym for great music. Meet Thaikkudam Bridge
Thaikkudam Bridge, a narrow corridor connecting the Vyttila-Alappuzha stretch along NH 47 in Ernakulam, Kerala, was known for accidents, traffic jams and lack of street lights until July 2013. That’s when a Malayalam TV channel, Kappa TV, telecast its show Music Mojo with songs performed by a bunch of young musicians who’d happened to come together to fulfil their passion for music. They had gathered in a rented room near the bridge for practice and had composed a few songs of their own, apart from doing some cover versions, spanning genres from heavy metal and melody to Carnatic and Hindustani. They had no plans to form a band and had no name either. But the reality show’s producers insisted on one, saying their music could not be aired without a band name. That is how they picked ‘Thaikkudam Bridge’.
Suddenly, the stretch between Vyttila and Aroor along NH 47 was known for music more than its traffic. The irony is that the name was chosen only after the shoot was over. “We all slept over it, but nothing worked out. It was Piyush Kapoor, a vocalist and guitarist of the band, who suggested this name. He is from Lucknow and Thaikkudam Bridge was the only place he knew in Kochi, hence he suggested the name of that place for the band. Initially it sounded funny,” says Peethambaran Menon, the only senior citizen in a band that has broken barriers and won hearts in Kerala with its music.
Thaikkudam Bridge is a 14-piece multilingual, multi-genre band with a unique blend of classical, rock, reggae, folk and Hindustani. It began as no more than an idea of making a sample track of a Rahman medley, and it was the singer cousins Siddharth Menon and Govind Menon who were keen on it. “Siddharth was so passionate about singing. He desperately wanted to become a singer. I have been a keyboard programmer and had no ambition to become a vocalist. We thus did a cover and sent it to the team of Music Mojo. They responded positively and asked us to do a few songs,” says Govind Menon. After they got an invitation from Kappa TV, Govind and Siddharth roped in a group of like-minded friends and colleagues in Mumbai, Chennai and Kochi. “In the beginning, we had no plans to form a band, we had never imagined that such a band would be born and would go viral as it does now,” says Govind, “We all gathered on a common theme, which is music, that everyone was fond of only for the reality show because everyone had their own careers in music.”
The team was asked to prepare 12 songs for the show, which at first seemed like a target too high to achieve. “We even thought of dropping the idea of performing for the reality show because we were not sure how many of our friends would be able to dedicate time for it, but all of them were excited about the show and were ready to spend time on it. All of them were either my friends or Siddu’s friends,” says Govind, who believes that their bonds of friendship and passion for music combined to give the band its success.
So far, Thaikkudam Bridge has performed on 64 stages in India and overseas. What is the USP of this Kerala-born band? Versatility. “We do all genres of music,” says Govind, “We have eight vocalists and most of our team members are multi- taskers. I believe that in itself is the strength of the band.” Rock and folk, Western and eastern, old Malayalam melodies and fast numbers—anything that makes for rousing music. No Malayalee can resist Fish Rock, for example. The lyrics of this song, composed in folk style, sound like a delicious list of a variety of fish. Then Nostalgia, composed for the reality show, is a fine package of the evergreen melodies that every Malayalee keeps close at heart. Thaikkudam Bridge’s remake of Michael Jackson’s Beat It, released last year on the late icon’s birth anniversary of 29 August, has had half a million hits on YouTube. Many of the Malayalam hits of the 80s and 90s have been resurrected. The band was careful not to ‘meddle’ in a way that would kill the soul of the original, though. Not-so- celebrated tracks, such as Haq Allah from the film Black and White, were performed too.
The band has musicians who are specialists in various genres of music. Mithun Raju, the lead guitarist, was a former member of the band Motherjane. Krishna Bongane and Nila Madhav Mohapatra, the star vocalists of the band, are originally from Mumbai and are disciples of Ustad Rashid Khan. Piyush Kapoor, the rock specialist and guitarist, is from Lucknow and has been a friend of Siddharth Menon. Ashok Nelson, who would have joined politics if he had not been a musician, plays the guitar. The only son of former minister and CPM politburo member MA Baby, he was encouraged by his father to take up music. “I started learning the guitar forced by my father. Later, I realised my passion for music, but even after that I had no plans of choosing music as a career.” Ashok pursued a degree in law and then migrated to Chennai to study sound engineering, where he had Govind as classmate. Vian Fernandez, a vocalist and guitarist who was a finalist on Sony TV’s X-Factor; Anish TN , a jazz player; and Vipin Lal and Christin Jose, vocalists, were among those who gathered in the room near the bridge in support of their friends Siddharth and Govind.
Despite the band’s success, Govind is modest about his own talent as a singer, saying he prefers to play the violin, programme the keyboard and compose music. “I do sing, but I know better than anyone else that I am not a good singer.” As the lead composer of songs that have gone viral, such as Fish Rock and Nostalgia—which he rendered as a vocalist as well— and Siva, Govind believes that he was born to be a music director. He said goodbye to formal education after class 10. “I had already informed my parents that I had no plans to study further. Then I joined a polytechnic for a diploma course, which I dropped in six months. I knew that I was not capable of doing anything other than music. Hence, I boarded a train to Chennai to study sound engineering.” Even that, he soon realised, was not exciting enough. “I lost interest, though I completed the course.”
Govind, who started his music career as a keyboard programmer, has been in the film industry for over seven years. Before the accidental birth of Kerala’s own multi-genre band, he had been busy composing songs and background score for movies. His long cherished dream was to get a career in film music direction. Today, he does not want to elaborate on the hard battles he fought to get an entry to the film industry and make space for himself. “It is the same old story of knocking each and every door, begging for an opportunity, being humiliated and hurt. Everyone in the industry may have such stories to tell.” Even the bitter experience of being slapped by a celebrity musician in a studio only gets a shrug from him. “He did not like my composition and slapped me in front of others; I was deeply hurt, but did not react. I only cried.”
Peethambaran Menon, Govind’s father, was once an engineer in the state irrigation department, but is so involved with music now that he can’t get enough of it post retirement, touring within and without the country with his son and his friends. At 58, his grey-haired presence in monotone shirts and a mundu and red head-band gives the band a special appeal that has captivated multiple generations of Malayalee music lovers across the world. “I am so lucky to have such an exciting retired life,” he says, having reclaimed a passion that he had kept buried deep in his heart for some 30 years while he went about his job trying to make ends meet.
When Govind received the channel’s invitation, the first name that came to his mind was his father’s. “I wanted him to sing,” he says, “I wanted him to come back to the world of music.” In the old days, he had won several district and state level music competitions as a student. He later joined Voice of Thrissur, one of the most popular music troupes in Kerala during the early 70s, and had been a lead singer. Music directors like the late Johnson and Ouseppachan were part of the team. Peethambaran Menon once even had an opportunity to share a stage with the famous KJ Yesudas. But he had to give it all up. “I found it hard to maintain my family and music together. [The latter] demanded extensive travel which was practically impossible for me. I had to choose. Rearing kids was more important than my love for music. I almost stopped stage performances after joining government service. I was very close to Johnson. He used to enquire whether I was still singing, going for gaana melas. I often lied to him that [my schedule] was packed with these, because it would sadden him to know that I had buried my passion for music.”
One among the 12 songs composed by Govind and his team for the reality show was a lullaby that his father used to sing for him when he was an infant. It was a song from a Malayalam movie of the 60s, rendered by Peethambara Menon in a distinct style. “Initially, I was slightly hesitant,” he says about joining the band, “I was not sure whether I would be able to meet the expectations of Govind and his friends. But I managed.” The songs he has sung, all have a folksy flavour and took no time in going viral along with the other old Malayalam melodies and rock numbers performed by other band members.
Who is the star attraction of the team? Govind has no doubt that it is none other than his cousin: “It is incredible to see the kind of madness expressed by girls for Siddharth.” The sparkling eyes, curly hair and innocent smile of the 25-year-old lead singer go well with his melancholy voice, especially while singing old melodies.
Born and brought up in Mumbai, Siddharth did a degree in commerce, for which he had never developed a passion. After his BCom, he too migrated to Chennai to study music where he met most of the band’s members. Now in the spotlight of popular attention, he wears his stardom lightly, admitting a fan following only when pressed with the evidence. “A girl used to call me very often. Now, I cannot attend all calls. She was madly in love with my songs and fell into a kind of depression when I ignored her calls. Surprisingly, she was a medical student. Once her mother called me and requested me to talk to her as she was not even eating and sleeping properly. I talked to her and tried to make her understand the reality. She does not call so frequently now, but often sends messages. I respond sometimes because I want her to be happy.” He has other such stories to tell. “Once I was deeply touched by a call. A girl told me that her mother had been bedridden for years as she was paralysed. She would often listen to our songs, especially melodies like Nostalgia, and had improved considerably. The girl told me that her mother looks happy and has started smiling.” Siddharth has carved out a niche for himself as a playback singer in the Malayalam film industry as well, and his songs are widely appreciated. He is also interested in having a go at acting and modelling if the chance arises. He has a few offers, but nothing has been finalised yet.
The story of Thaikkudam Bridge is not only one of bonding over music. It is also about the unconventional teaming up of a father and son. “When I stopped schooling by class 10, my father did not force me to continue. He stood by me in all my uncertainties. He supported me, even though I had no definite alternate plans other than a vague idea of living with music. He dropped music to rear my siblings and me. That’s why I want him to sing again,” says Govind. “I will sing as long as my son asks me to. He is God’s gift,” says the father. Peethambara Menon refused to measure his son’s success by the traditional yardsticks of a career, and it has worked out well for everyone. Not least, for Kerala’s music lovers.