The freedom within the discipline

Film is one of the best ways for a musician's work to be heard, says Niladri -- Photo: Sudhakara Jain

Film is one of the best ways for a musician's work to be heard, says Niladri -- Photo: Sudhakara Jain  

Young musical maverick Niladri Kumar has done it all -- played classical music with greats like his father Kartick Kumar, Zakir Hussain, and Pandit Jasraj, collaborated internationally with maestros like John McLaughlin. He's invented a five-stringed electric sitar called a zitar, cut private albums. He's played his instruments for Bollywood biggies like A.R. Rahman, Vishal Bhardwaj, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy on tracks in films like Dil To Pagal Hai, Bunty Aur Babli, Omkara, Dhoom 2, Bahubali. This fifth generation sitar player has taken the next step and turned music director.

He continues to innovate, with his maiden project. In the news is the track ‘Tere Bina’ for the Hindi film Shorgul where lawyer and former minister Kapil Sibal has penned lyrics, and underprivileged girls from Mumbai have sung the chorus for this Arijit Singh song. In Bengaluru to launch the music for Kannada film Niruttara, he chats with MetroPlus.


Whether it’s the sitar or zitar you’re playing, what does your music mean to you?

At different times, at different places, playing for different people, it means different things. I don’t know how I would feel if I didn’t have the medium of music to express myself to the listener. If I'm playing for myself, when I'm alone, that’s a different zone altogether. Lot of music lovers want to hear that zone. That's mostly difficult. The great Annapurna Devi-ji, daughter of the great Ustad Allauddin Khan Saheb, was once asked by someone if they can sit in on her riyaaz. She very bluntly and beautifully conveyed the message – she said riyaaz is like taking a bath. You're cleaning your dirt away. It's not a good thing to come and listen and see. I agree – it’s a very personal space. When you take that on stage, it’s a whole different approach. If you reach a level in life where audience and you are connected in such a way that you have the freedom to do what you want, play what you like, and you know they are with you -- that is the supreme stage of connectivity between a musician and his audience.

Why did you take up music direction in films?

This is the eventual path to reach, if you’re working in the field of film music. That’s where you have freedom to do what you want. I have worked as a musician (playing both the sitar and zitar), arranger, and ideator. My journey gave me the idea that you will always remain a musician at heart and you will think as a musician. But, it’s important in today’s time and age that you translate the music to reach out your voice through a medium to the masses. The best medium is films, fortunately or unfortunately. I didn’t have the time or the mental space to run behind someone to bag a project. Whatever work came by, I did it. My producers may have things to say about my ‘not-so-accommodating’ attitude – I’m not sure, maybe they are happy – there was that no-compromise attitude.

What was you experience composing for Apoorva Kasaravalli's Kannada film Niruttara?

I have to mention these two producers of Niruttara as out-of-the box producers. It's not easy to come by producers who give you space. And sometimes for a music director, just the glint in the producer’s eyes when they hear a song is impetus enough to take it somewhere. I got it in abundance in Bhavana and Arvind Ramanna. I treated each song individually and the album covers various genres – from hardcore classical to the metal-rock gamut in keeping with the characters in the film, who are musicians. There are seven songs, and each has a story to tell on its own, but also works as an album.

I hear you’ve done a rock version of the devotional song ‘Aigiri nandini…’

Yes, this song we discussed with the director. The song is picturised on the hero who has a rock band. He’s performing a rock theme and he sees his friend walk in – the second leading lady of the film. For him she’s a friend, but she has a bit of extra affection. He sees the devi or bhakti in her and he sings ‘Aigiri nandini…’ in his rock style. It’s set in a context and flows with the movie.

Your song ‘Tere Bina’ for the film Shorgul is making waves…

I was working on a project with underprivileged girls in Mumbai six months ago. I met Kapil Sibal saab. He’s one of the greatest lawyers we have and he doesn’t need to do anything else. But when I met him I felt our youth need to have the kind of passion and enthusiasm he has, for something which is not their zone. His passion was for lyrics. For almost three hours he recited what he’d written. Most people when they ‘arrive’ have a reluctance, an attitude. But when I saw him I wished I was half as enthusiastic as him when I reached his age. He penned the lyrics for Tere Bina, I did the tune and arranged it. These girls love watching films, are in awe of film stars, so we felt it will be their dream if they are the voice of the stars. So they have done the chorus, and they haven’t heard it yet. They weren’t comfortable in the studio environment, so we recorded them in their comfortable surroundings

Are there others playing the zitar?

Yes, but what happens in our country is that it's difficult for people to give credit. A lot of people are playing the electric instrument, which is essentially the zitar. When I started playing it, I received a lot of opposition. But more than that, they were stunned. I faced both reactions. Eventually it took a good 10 years to convince people that something is working in this route. It's great to see a lot of musicians picking this route. And they are rechristening them, but the essential principle is the same. I called mine the zitar for two reasons – the sitar can't get smaller than this, and it can't get any louder than this. The last alphabet is Z, and it's an inversion of the S.

Do you teach the zitar?

I don’t teach any instrument. Eventually I would like to. But teaching needs two things which I don’t have – discipline, with time. If a teacher is not disciplined, he can't expect the students to be disciplined.

You’ve collaborated with the likes of John McLaughlin. What do they come looking for in you when they seek a collaboration? Is it the Indian sound? Your musical capability?

With different people, different needs come. It’s not for the exotic nature of the Indian instrument. McLaughlin is probably the greatest ambassador for Indian music in the West, through his collaborative work, whether for the legendary bands Mahavishnu or Shakti. He probably is more deeply in love with Indian music than many Indian musicians. He understands the nuances. At the same time his perspective of Indian music will be very different because his exposure is different. When he looks at Indian musician, he’s probably not looking at anything – he’s open, firstly. If you’re looking at anything specific, it means you’re closed. I feel these great people come with an openness, and when they see a direction it's going in, they have the greatness to follow in that direction. They don’t have a pre-fixed notion in the philosophical sense. When collaborating practically, of course there is a certain structure and note-phrasing. But the philosophy behind the structure is fluid and open. Only great masters like them have shown the path on how to be open. It’s a little bit like our raaga music – it’s that freedom within the discipline.

You are starting up a restaurant called the Zitar in Mumbai…how did your passion for music and food come together?

Yes, it’s on the anvil. There are some legal permissions from the city corporation that we still need to get. A great city like Mumbai needs more avenues for people relating to music and art to showcase their talent. If this becomes a spot for them to release their creative juices, it will be great. I would like to provide them with the best sound. I’m associated with the world’s best sound company called Harman that’s partnering with us. What does a musician actually want? He wants a great audience, a great sound, and after a good performance you have good food! If these can be aligned, it’s a great place.

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Printable version | Mar 24, 2020 2:15:18 AM |

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