Soumik Datta: Musical stopovers

In bliss: Soumik Datta playing sarod on a ghat in Varanasi

In bliss: Soumik Datta playing sarod on a ghat in Varanasi  

Sarod exponent Soumik Datta on the experience of anchoring the BBC travelogue series, ‘Rhythms of India’

From popular classical musicians such as TM Krishna, Shujaat Khan, Bickram Ghosh and Jayanthi Kumaresh to Bollywood stalwarts like Kavita Krishnamurthy and Javed Akhtar; from traditional festivals and folk musicians to hip-hop producers, the upcoming travelogue, ‘Rhythms of India’ on BBC World News, traverses the diverse landscape of Indian music. The new television series, hosted by London-based musician, composer, and sarod player, Soumik Datta, is slated for its India première on January 25.

“It’s been an experience of a lifetime,” shares Datta after the nine-week shooting schedule. “I realised the unifying power of music when meeting folk musicians in rural Kerala or hip-hop artistes in the bristling-with-energy Mumbai.”

For Datta, the show is a journey that brought him back to his roots in India. “While on the move, I came across so many different kinds of musical genres. We keep talking about our country’s rich heritage; it’s truly overwehelming when you get to see it. I remembered being mesmerised by the singing of hymns by girls in an old church in Kerala.”

Honest account

The big challenge for the makers of the show was showcasing Indian music traditions with sensitivity and depth. Datta emphasises, “Quite early on in the series, the directorial team had discussed this and we decided not to turn this into a very rose-tinted vision of India. It should be an honest travelogue filled with contradictions, impartial to what we like and don’t like, and without any orientalism, in the way we show it.”

The first episode begins with an exploration of varied influences on Indian classical music, tracing its historical development. The eclectic influences on Indian music are brought out through the voices and ideas of musicians across genres. This premise frames the overall search for musical idioms within the series. “What does it mean —Indian music? The answer is as complex as the country itself. I want to dig into that and understand the country through its music with a sense of acceptance.”

Datta’s own foray into Indian music happened during his teenage years. The Kolkata-born musician had not trained in classical music during his childhood in India. It was only after moving to London with his family that his curiosity in the genre peaked. As a child, he was more attracted to rap and Bollywood. Facing a cultural shift in London, the youngster pined for a sound that would tie together his nostalgia and search for identity. “Away from India in a boarding school there, I began to miss my culture, friends and was searching for something to hold on to. The sound of the sarod became that anchor for me. When I plucked its strings, they seem to speak to me. It brought back memories and experiences of my childhood in India.”

Datta became a disciple of the legendary Pt Buddhadev Das Gupta, and would train with him during his vacations in India. He attempted to absorb as much as possible, returning and practising for the rest of the year. “ He taught with an incredible sense of passion but also the old-school discipline of a guru.”

Teaching process

He recalls the Sunday morning classes where the living room would be filled with students. “My guru would call out one person, who had to play in the centre of the room. There was a sense of competition, but also of community. We all learnt from what he was teaching others.” Datta fondly reminisces the long drives with his guru, where they would pick up the fish for dinner and stop for a bhutta (corn) on the street while revising a rhythmic pattern. “He was like a grandfather to me, I called him Dadu. He inspired me to make music a way of life.”

Crossover gigs

Back in London, Datta performed many crossover gigs with the likes of Beyonce and Jay-Z and also plugged into the British-Asian music community with icons like Nitin Sawhney, Talvin Singh, Akram Khan and Anoushka Shankar. In his recent EP, ‘Jangal’, he took up the theme of climate change, following an epiphany in a concert. “ I actually paused during a performance to think about this serious issue. The sarod that I had in my hand is a piece of wood carved out of some tree and I began wondering if the tree was cut for the purpose. So what is the sarod’s carbon footprint? What is my carbon footprint as a musician?”

Datta feels it is important to raise critical questions as an artiste. In the upcoming travelogue series, he seeks to investigate ideas of culture, music, and Indianness.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 8:00:50 AM |

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