Bluegrass Hindu


My dad pushed hard for me to be named after his father, Bhagat, but my mom insisted I be called "Scruggs." Dad was from Mumbai, but Mom grew up in Harper's Ferry and was a big fan of the bluegrass giant Earl Scruggs. I don't like the name all that much. It'd be okay with a different last name, but it looks strange next to Maharashtra. I did inherit my mother's love of bluegrass, however, and I've played it all my life. I'm the only working Minneapolis banjo player carrying an eastern Indian surname. It's tough to get gigs.

A bluegrass musician living in Uptown is strange all by itself. I never meant to move here. I was supposed to live with my cousin, Sunil, in West Virginia, but he got in trouble with the law and left for Costa Rica.

My aunt had an extra bedroom in her Hennepin Avenue condo, so I came here to live with her. She sells essential oils and has a side business as a psychic, specializing in weather divination. She helps couples with outdoor wedding planning.

She can't stand my music. She saw Yanni perform at the Taj Mahal in 1997 and now it's all she'll listen to. If I want to practice I have to pack up and head to the Homestead Pickin' Parlor in Richfield.

I have a friend, Nayanar, who says I should switch to country music. He calls bluegrass "box-office poison." But I hate country music. Its syrupy sentimentality and banjo-averse hybrid rock sound turns me off. Surround my banjo with mandolin and fiddle and you can keep your guitar. I'll take a primal bluegrass dirge about death over some twangy lamenting of her cheating heart.

The only thing that bothers me about bluegrass is that I'm Hindu, and too many people believe bluegrass is Christian hillbilly music. I wish those folks could hear my song "Dharma Washboard" or "Krishna County Farewell." Bluegrass is mountain music, and few places do mountains like India. Plus, I've always believed that Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, read the Bhagavad Gita late in life. You can tell by listening to some of his last recordings, including "Coming 'Round the Bend Again," which has to be about the transmigration of souls.

If I looked more like my mother instead of my dad people might take my bluegrass passion more seriously, but I look like a young Gandhi, so people expect a sitar to pop out of my case instead of a 1963 Pete Seeger-style Vega. Just to mess with cynics I sometimes place a turban on my head as I launch into "Rose of Old Kentucky." When the old-school boys start to question me, saying I'm a parody act, I whip out my 1923 Gibson F5 model Lloyd Loar mandolin and they damn near genuflect. That was the ax Monroe made famous.

I take my bluegrass seriously, but I'm seriously depressed about the bluegrass scene in Minneapolis. It's nonexistent. I'd have an easier time getting a gig singing Carrie Underwood in Sanskrit than I have playing these American classics. Frankly, I think I'd fare better playing bluegrass on the streets of India.

My brother, Rajkumar, moved back to Mumbai last summer, and he makes money playing on the street. He's a hip-hop artist who's been described as the perfect blend of Snoop Dogg and Ravi Shankar. He has one tune that sounds a lot like Snoop's "Pimpin' Ain't Ez." but it's more about some gangsta confrontation where two dudes from different castes come to see the world through the other person's eyes, convincing them both they're ultimately part of one non-dualistic cosmic consciousness.

Rajkumar is thinking about adopting some of my bluegrass stuff into his performance art. I convinced him that Snoop and Bill Monroe would have dug each other had they ever met up. He says had they met in India, they would have both become swamis. We like to imagine the religious chanting that might have ensued, and how fun it would have been to record it.

Yeah, as frustrating as it is trying to make it in music, I'm heartened by the way the musical world is blending together and how traditions are making room for one another. I think the music of the future is going to blow all of our minds. I think somewhere, way down the road, all music is going to ultimately blend into one single sweet and glorious note—one all-encompassing divine "Om," in F-sharp.

I want to be there to harmonize. 

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