Karan Joseph suicide: As theories swirl around the gifted pianist's death, a look back at his music, life

A yellow tape with the words 'Do Not Cross The Line' — sort of like the one you see on TV shows depicting police/crime procedurals — is stuck across one end of a keyboard. A musician — slight of build, dressed in a casual t-shirt and jeans, baseball cap on his head — takes his place behind it, and launches into a rendition of 'Giant Steps' by John Coltrane. He keeps his eyes closed through much of the performance, seemingly in another world, as he hits all the notes. The mood in the room — it's an intimate 'Sofar' gig — is the kind you associate with jazz music: laidback and intense all at once; people lost in the sound, nodding their heads along, making appreciative sounds when the keyboardist pulls off a particularly cool riff. The musician performs the jazz standard deftly, his fingers moving quicker and quicker over the keyboard, with the crowd — a pretty young one — clapping and hooting loudly at the end. You can tell that what you've witnessed is something special.

The gig took place in June 2016, in Mumbai. The musician was Karan Thomas Joseph, aka Madfingers — a moniker he was given for his mad skills with the keyboard — and in a little over a year, he would be dead.

***

Posted by Bengaluru producer and guitarist Premik Jolly at his Area 51 studio, this jam from 2012 offers listeners a 'spacey funk' vibe. The 10-minute jam between the metalhead-psychedelic music-maker Premik and the versatile Karan, shows just how trippy things can get:

***

In an incident that sent shock waves through the indie music scene in Mumbai (where Karan lived for the past few years) and Bengaluru (where he hailed from), the 29-year-old Berklee College of Music alum — considered one of India's finest pianists — reportedly leaped to his death from the 12th floor apartment of a friend, RAVE magazine publisher Rishi Shah, on the morning of 9 September. According to statements given by Shah and another friend who was present at the apartment at the time of Karan's death, the trio had been watching television and waiting for breakfast, when Karan suddenly rushed to the window and jumped.

The police registered an accidental death report, but a week after Karan's alleged suicide, theories about what led to it, continue to swirl.

***

In an evocative jam with one of the most soulful guitarists in the country, Floyd Fernandes, Karan lends gentle lilting texture to a two-man performance at Temple Tree, filling up empty spaces effortlessly, although physically playing just for each other in Bengauru in November 2012.

***

The musician's parents, who flew down from Bengaluru to claim his body, said that Karan had sent his mother text messages about being beaten and intimated by someone, prompting the Mumbai police to probe a possible abetment angle to the suicide. A friend who stayed at Karan's apartment in Mumbai last year for a while said that he seemed troubled, and 'wasn't in a happy state'. The content of messages and calls to a couple of friends made in the hours before his death seem distinctly odd in hindsight, and those who knew him have claimed that Karan had formed a cocaine habit, under Shah's influence. Meanwhile, a resident at Bandra's Concorde Apartments (where Karan jumped to his death) reportedly told the police that she saw someone matching the musician's description ('a bald and thin boy') dangling outside the window — by a rope tied to his trousers — a few days before the suicide.

The murky end seems a far cry from what Karan's life as a musician was all about.

***

Give a keyboardist his instrument of choice and he’s going to give you his best. Karan queues up a beat, sets the tempo and really takes Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ to another level, at his virtuosic, blazing best, playing like he was playing to thousands even when it was just at a house party in Bengaluru in 2013.

***

In a podcast with Mae Thomas, Karan described how he got hooked to music and then began playing the keyboard by the age of five. "When my mum was pregnant, she would put music to her stomach and sing to me," he said. Karan's grandmother had been a great pianist, and everyone had expected his mother to be good at the instrument too, but she never learnt. Instead, she ensured her son started lessons early on. "She told me, I know you love playing by ear, but you need to learn classical as well," Karan recounted.

Getting lost in the music he was playing was something that happened even when he was a child, Karan told Mae: "I used to play the piano a lot, 17-18 hours. From 9 in the morning to whenever...and my mom would be like, 'Don't you have to go to the bathroom, or study?'" He also spoke of how meeting musicians from all over the world while at Berklee was a life-changing experience.

In the last five years alone, Karan had become the go-to guy for everyone from jazz drummers like Adrian D’souza to experimentalist singer Suman Sridhar to blues rock favourites Soulmate. Karan was more than just a sessions artist, contributing to and breathing new life into every collaboration and performance on stage — whether it was with jazz vocalist Vasundhara Vee, drumming powerhouse Gino Banks or old-school electronic/hip hop turntablist DJ Uri.

***

Karan was part of the third season of MTV Unplugged, albeit behind the scenes. In this one-off taped performance, sat behind the piano for Pentagram, Karan adds a delicate but important mood-maker on their emotionally-wrecked ‘Nocturne’.

***

In a previous interview, his longtime friend and collaborator Carlton Braganza — who'd known Karan since the time the latter was a schoolboy — described encountering him as "a shy 14-year-old who was in his own bubble" and "just the same even now". Braganza and Karan bonded over their love for music, and Carlton's wife Gina took the shy teen under her wing, coaching him for his Class 10 exams, and feeding him at Opus (a coffee shop-cum-dance and music space that the Braganzas ran in Bengaluru).

***

Sometime in 2014, Floyd Fernandes and Karan teamed up once again, launching what eventually became Karan’s moniker Madfingers. At Pune venue High Spirits Café, Karan become an easy choice for Soulmate vocalist-guitarist Tipriti Kharbangar’s solo run of shows across the country, for adding sublime funky keyboard wizardry.

***

After returning to Bengaluru from Berklee, Karan became known for his genre-bending ability on keys. He played 'a host of styles, ranging from jazz, funk, rock and blues, with great skill and versatility,' notedRolling Stone, and became a well-known face on the Mumbai and Bengaluru indie scene. He was your best bet behind a Nord keyboard as well as a grand piano, in India. As for what fellow musicians thought of him personally, he was described variously as 'everyone's baby brother' and 'happy', to 'vulnerable' and 'needed taking care of'.

***

In 2016, New Delhi ska/reggae act The Ska Vengers enlisted Karan, as well as local musicians in the UK as part of their months-long Europe tour. In a cool swing version of their actually heavy song ‘011’, the band performed a special set at living room gig series Sofar in London, Karan matching the twang of guitarist Chaitanya Bhalla.

***

One of his latest projects and a mind-bending undertaking, the jams between Karan and Mumbai drummer Lindsay D’Mello (who helms electronic-rock project Dark Circle Factory) were easily next-level. In one of their recorded jams that runs up to 175 BPM, Karan had his hands full handling all rhythm, lead and otherworldly effects while Lindsay meddled with beats.

An album called It’s Only Music was in the works and a tour of South India was scheduled through September — both of which promised a display of more of Karan/Madfingers' forward-thinking artistry. On 9 September 2017, that possibility came crashing down. Along with Karan, what was extinguished was a musical talent that was expected to burn long and bright.


Published Date: Sep 16, 2017 11:14 am | Updated Date: Sep 16, 2017 05:50 pm