For London-based Sarod sensation, Soumik Datta, music means bringing people together. Roots are of paramount importance to him, but so is the act of bridging the gap between the traditional and the contemporary. He picked up the sarod at the age of 12 and thereafter has spent every summer in Kolkata under the guidance of Buddhadev Das Gupta. Soumik re-imagined the opera for a new generation in The Last Rainmaker, an ambitious project with the Royal Opera House in London, has re-scored music for an orchestra for Satyajit Ray’s 1969 cult classic. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, as a mix of contemporary orchestra and Indian classical and folk sounds, and more recently, he took to the road to find unrecognised tribal and folk musicians of India for his web-series in collaboraton with BBC called Rhythms of India.
In the series Soumik meets legendary names from contemporary classical music like Sitar maestro Shujaat Khan, Tabla master Bickram Ghosh, Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna, the first female Ghatam player in India, Sukanya Ramgopal and Veena virtuoso Jayanthi Kumaresh alongside Bollywood stalwarts like Javed Akhtar, playback singer Kavita Krishnamurthy, and young Indian icons like Nucleya, DIVINE and hip-hop producer Sez, among others.
In conversation with the musician.
What was it like to be a boy in London playing the sarod?
When I was growing up, there was a lot of scepticism about what I was doing because the sarod was not one of the very well known instruments. And when I was young, every time I left India, I felt like I was leaving something behind. I was leaving behind not just my mentor, but a level of acceptance for the instrument. The acceptance of other cultures within a metropolis like London was still debatable those days but I have tried hard to not be deterred by that. I have seen how people’s opinions have now changed and how they have become more accepting of the sarod, of other cultures and music that is not mainstream.
What sparked the idea of talking about the global environmental crisis through you rmusic?
London has been a hotbed for conversations around climate change. It’s all over the media and the facts are simply disturbing. Over the past 30 years our world has lost 1.3 million square kilometres of forest - a surface area bigger than the country of South Africa. We have endangered precious wildlife, from the Bengal tiger to the mighty Orangutang; we have displaced and marginalised human communities - some 250 million people who depend on forest and savannah areas for survival and their livelihood; and we have cut down 47 per cent of all existing trees, both adding greenhouse gases to the air and removing our most natural way of absorbing them. Eventually, I got to a point where I was haunted by these images in the news. I couldn’t think of anything else and my music couldn’t be free of it. I found that every song I was writing was somehow in response to the mindless wreckage of our planet. So I channeled it, distilling my anger and frustration into these tracks. It happened organically and not as part of any plan. I hope in some small way, people will hear the album, see the music video and be drawn towards this crisis. I hope that somewhere, someone responds to it and plants a tree.
How was the experience of shooting for nine long weeks on the streets of India?
Travelling across India to make Rhythms of India was perhaps one of the most exciting times of my life. One day I was exchanging notes with the rich and powerful of Mumbai’s society, the next I was deep in the forests of Kerala with endangered tribes immersed in ancient rituals. In a country, so diverse, so stretched, I discovered that there is only one language that brings it together, and that language is music. As a Londoner, I’m so excited to be working with the incredible team at BBC, telling this important story of music in India for viewers across the world. As an Indian though, I feel privileged to have dug deep into my roots, met with incredible musicians from all divisions of society and witnessed the sheer power of music that still impacts people across the nation today.
Tell us a little about your collaboration with Talvin Singh.
Talvin and I started working about 12 years ago when he was putting together a band for a tour. I was still in college when he offered me to tour with him. It was one of my first professional gigs. He was one of the pioneers in music as a British Asian...an inspirational figure to many. So I obviously had to do the collaboration. What I first learned from him was that there is this other world attached to music. Most of the times, musicians are obsessed about getting the rhythm correct and other things which are technical. But what he taught me was that music is an identity as well. He changed how music was received in the west in the 80s. He won the Mercury Award which was a huge achievement for Indian classical music in Britain. It meant a level of acceptance that was sort of unprecedented back in the day.
When was the first time Chris Purnell offered you to come on board for an orchestra.
This was when Glasgow was hosting the Commonwealth Games and as part of that I was commissioned by the Edinburgh Mela to rewrite the music for Satyajit Ray’s film, Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen, a cult classic about two superhero musicians who travel across India having adventures. It’s a film I saw as a kid. And then I re-watched it as an adult and then I realised that this film is incredibly relevant to our era because at the end of the film, they end up stopping a terrible war by singing. That message was very powerful. So I rewrote the music of this film for the orchestra with a sarod. The project was called The King of Ghosts based on one of the supernatural characters in the film. The project was so well accepted that we’ve been touring it around the world and is still continuing. We just released the album under the Shakespeare Globe record label.
You’ve been shuttling between Britain and India. Do you still feel at home here and have you ever thought of coming back and creating?
I really want to bring The King of Ghosts here because I feel it will resonate with people here but we’re still waiting for funds. Another project that has been bringing me to India is a six part documentary film series which was my first directorial debut, and it involved travelling to rural areas. It was my journey travelling to six states of India in search of underrecognised, incredibly talented folk and tribal musicians. It is called Tuning 2 you, Lost Musicians of India. We went to villages in Karnataka, in Goa, in Nagaland, Rajasthan, West Bengal, UP. It was a massive project and took about a year and a half to make. The film series released on one of the UK’s national television channel and it is coming to India this year.
How would you describe your sensibility?
Through my music I like to bring together people from different cultures to have meaningful collaborations and dialogue. We need to break down borders; we need to translate and engage with other cultures and empathise with people who are different from us. And music is a language through which we can do that as it overcomes the restrictions of language.
What are you working on currently and what’s next?
I’ve just finished a new commission which involves a new set of tracks for an incredible singer from Chennai, Aruna Sairam. She is very senior and has won a Padma Shri and is someone I’ve looked up to for many years. Her tradition is Carnatic music and I think there is still a divide between the north and Carnatic music. I wanted to take that divide out of context and place the conch and sarod—which is from South India, inside a cluster of instruments which are from other parts of the world. We will be travelling with it this year.
Text Hansika Lohani Mehtani