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From jamming to film composition

Handiwork:Niladri Kumar is credited with the creation of a five-stringed electric sitar, the zitar.

Handiwork:Niladri Kumar is credited with the creation of a five-stringed electric sitar, the zitar.  

Sitarist and inventor of the zitar, Niladri Kumar turns music director, composing for the Hindi film Shorgul and Niruttara in Kannada

Young musical maverick Niladri Kumar has done it all. He has played classical music with the greats: his father Kartick Kumar, Zakir Hussain, and Pandit Jasraj. He’s collaborated with maestros like John McLaughlin. He’s credited with the creation of a five-stringed electric sitar called a zitar. He’s worked with Bollywood biggies like A.R. Rahman, Vishal Bhardwaj, and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy on tracks in films like Dil To Pagal Hai , Bunty Aur Babli , Omkara , Dhoom 2 , Bahubali . Now, the fifth generation sitar player has turned music director. Edited excerpts from an interview:

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 could sit in on her riyaz . She very bluntly and beautifully conveyed the message: she said riyaz 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 the 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, arranger, and ideator. It’s important today 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 ?

The producers of Niruttara [are] out-of-the box. 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, but also works as an album.

Tell us more about your song ‘ Tere Bina ’ for the film Shorgul

I was working on a project with underprivileged girls in Mumbai six months ago. I met Kapil Sibal saab . 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. 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 who play 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 10 years to convince people that something is working.

It’s great to see a lot of musicians picking this [up]. [But] they are rechristening [it], 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. 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?

It’s not a question I’ve been asked before. 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. 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.

If you’re looking at anything specific, it means you’re closed. Only great masters like [McLaughlin] 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 a restaurant called 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.

What does a musician actually want? He wants a great audience, 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 31, 2020 5:09:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/From-jamming-to-film-composition/article14392601.ece

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