Sarod player Soumik Datta speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury about his discovery of Hindustani classical music, his upcoming BBC series on the history of Indian music, and his latest album.
London-based Soumik Datta is a sarod virtuoso of international eminence, and has collaborated with the likes of Beyonce, Jay-Z, Bill Bailey, Nitin Sawhney and Anoushka Shankar among many others. Known for seamlessly blending Indian classical and contemporary forms, the musician is now trying to highlight subjects close to his heart through music.
With his show Rhythms of India, set to premiere on 23 November on BBC, he aims to showcase and help preserve the traditional music of India. And his latest EP, Jangal, is a musical response to issues like deforestation and the climate crisis. He spoke to Guardian 20 about his passion for music, his musical education under the sarod legend Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta, and his latest projects.
Q. Can you walk us through your journey as a musician?
A. My mother has a beautiful voice. I have strong childhood memories of her singing in our apartment in Mumbai and sometimes my dad would accompany her on the violin. So I think music was always in my blood and in my senses from a very young age. I later had the chance of learning from the legendary sarod maestro Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta. And even later, I studied contemporary and electronic music at Trinity Laban in London. I guess the music I make today is the sum of all these parts.
Q. How was the experience of learning music under the tutelage of Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta?
A. I was 13 and had recently discovered the sarod—an heirloom stored among various bits of vintage items that had accompanied my family when we moved to London. There was something in that sound, a resonance that had completely captivated me. So during the winter holidays, my dad brought me to see guruji, Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta, who took me under his wing and promised to make a sarod player out of me. That was a wonderful feeling, like being in the shade of a giant oak tree—protected, warm and nurtured.
Q. You moved to London early in life and continued playing the sarod. Was it difficult to hold on to your apprenticeship outside India?
A. I often returned to India to continue learning from my guru. He had a very methodical way of teaching and ensured that while I was away I had enough material and homework to keep improving. I wanted to hold on to the sarod even while I was in London. Something about it made me feel like I was still in India. At that age, in a foreign country, surrounded by British and European faces, the sarod made me feel Indian. It still does. And it makes me feel proud to be Indian.
Q. What is the idea behind your latest EP, Jangal?
A. Conversations around climate change have hit an all-time high. 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 South Africa. We have endangered precious wildlife, from the Bengal tiger to the mighty orangutan. 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% 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 channelled it, distilling my anger and frustration into these tracks. It happened organically, emotionally and I’m quite surprised with the result. I hope in some small way, people will hear the album, see the music video and inspire others to also raise awareness of this crisis. I hope that somewhere, someone responds to it and plants a tree.
Q. Tell us about Rhythms of India. Do you think there’s a need to raise awareness of the traditional Indian arts, more so in India than internationally?
A. Rhythms of Indiais BBC’s new TV series documenting the role music plays in a country as diverse as India. I had the privilege of being cast as the presenter for this series. But more so, I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to travel the nation and meet musicians from all walks of life. The process of filming this series itself opened my eyes to the incredible array of musical styles that exist in India. Perhaps most of all, this journey, this pilgrimage made me realise that despite the myriad social, religious, caste and class divisions across the nation, if there was truly one thing that united India, it was music. It cut through economic divide and allowed communities to come together as one. After all the troubling news I saw on Indian TV, this was a reassuring and uplifting revelation.
Q. What kind of challenges have you faced in establishing yourself on the global stage?
A. The issue of genre is still problematic for me, especially the term “world music”. Somehow it feels like it has a silent “third” as a prefix. How else would you explain a category that at once contained the likes of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Salif Keita, Ravi Shankar, Manu Chou and Angélique Kidjo? These are all great artistes from disparate music-making traditions that deserve categories of their own. The continued musical apartheid within the industry is disturbing and I hope one day we just have one category that will be called music which is not divided by geography, instrument, class or race but one to unite them all.
Q. How do you view, and yourself approach, contemporary interpretations of India’s ancient music?
A. Indian classical music runs deep in my blood. And within the context of a classical concert, I would aspire never to break with tradition. However, Indian music is also an incredible tool, to learn ragas, ornamentation, improvisation and even mathematics. I use my study of Indian music to compose new works that blend ancient and digital, East and West, acoustic and electronic to address urgent, social and political issues that we face in our contemporary world. This fills me with a purpose and drive.
Q. Which musicians have inspired and influenced you?
A. I’ve been deeply influenced by Ustad Zakir Hussain, Shakti, A.R. Rahman, Radiohead, Boards of Canada and Brian Eno. But of late, I’ve found myself tearing through Spotify, searching for new inspiring artists and musicians. I also love serendipitous meetings with incredible musicians who are in completely different fields. This year I’ve had the joy of getting to know the Indian actress Nithya Menen, who in fact has a stunning, husky, bluesy voice. So we’re planning a new collaboration in 2020 which we can release and take on tour.