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Watch Sarod Artist Soumik Datta Explore Indian Music History in New Series ‘Rhythms of India’

Divided into three episodes, the BBC show features artists such as T.M. Krishna, rock band Parvaaz, sitar maestro Shujaat Khan and more

Anurag Tagat Jan 26, 2020

Brit-Indian sarod artist Soumik Datta in Varanasi for BBC's 'Rhythms of India' T.V. series. Photo: Courtesy of BBC

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If you had to look for something that ties together all three hour-long episodes of the BBC’s new T.V. series Rhythms of India, it might just be host Soumik Datta’s trusty sarod. The Brit-Indian artist started filming the show in the latter half of 2018 and it was perhaps the sarod that helped me establish a connection with the musicians he interviewed.

Datta says, “When we were embarking on the journey, we thought that sarod in its case has to almost be a character in Rhythms of India and it would come with me.” Whether it was with ghatam exponent Sukanya Ramgopal or the rappers of Khirkee Collective in New Delhi, Datta and his sarod made him less of an “intruder with a mic” and more of a fellow musician. He adds, “I found that what that does is it creates a sort of space that allows you in immediately. You’re very welcome into the space.” Premiering on BBC Four in May last year, Rhythms of India got its global premiere on BBC World News on January 25th.

Interviewing the likes of sitarist Shujaat Khan, rapper DIVINE, bass king Nucleya, lyricist Javed Akhtar and more, Rhythms of India explores how music has evolved in India. Datta says they never had a particular demographic in mind as they went around making “quick pitstops” in different parts of the country. In an interview with Rolling Stone India, Datta talks about shooting the series, his learnings and always coming back to India. Excerpts:

What was it like coming back to India to shoot Rhythms of India and making it a continual, ever-updating research project of sorts?

Now I’m 35 years old and there are so many things that are just pulling me back [to India] and of course I keep returning to the UK, but for me, India is this magnetic force that keeps pulling me back.

What was it like planning the on-camera performances with musicians? Or was it not that planned as such?

(Laughs) I wish there was planning but often there wasn’t any planning. I was happy, I didn’t mind. I like throwing myself into the deep end sometimes. It sort of creates some excitement as well – you know the artist and their work but of course you’re there to do an interview with them. But all of a sudden you start collaborating with them. They don’t know what to perform, you don’t know what to perform. In a very short space of time, with all that time pressure, you end up doing something quite out of the box.

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For example, with Kaushiki [Chakraborty, classical vocalist] on the banks, I don’t think it’d have worked if we planned it. I know her from before, but if we’d planned what we were going to play, it just wouldn’t have the same energy. Similarly with Sukanya [Ramgopal] ji, it was just a question of sitting down and offering something and seeing where it goes.

I can imagine it’s a bit daunting and sometimes you run a risk of simplifying or compacting certain knowledge while making the series. What were the challenges in that?

That was literally what so many of our conversations with the directors were like – I think I was saying it a lot. It’s a very valid question, because it doesn’t deserve to be dumbed down and you can’t dumb it down. You’re putting it out there for hundreds of thousands of people to watch, so it can’t be super technical otherwise they won’t watch it.

One of the things I’m most proud about with this series, somewhere along the way with conversations, we’ve managed to strike the balance between ‘here’s the surface and we’re only giving you the surface’ and ‘we’ll dip into something that may feel a little strange for you but just come along and you might like it.’

So many people who watched it earlier this year said that they had no idea about… With folk music for example, that was the hardest thing to get right. There have been so many films about different kinds of folk music styles across eras. It’s doable. Contemporary music is talked about in the news as well.

So it was really the first episode we were worried about and I really think the response was amazing. I’ve never been able to go into conversations about classical music without losing the grip of what people are talking about.

Were there some things you really wanted to explore at the outset but had to drop as the narrative changed?

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No, I don’t think the narrative changed that much, because we had a clear view of what we wanted to do. of course, we shot a lot more, a whole sequence on the drupad. I wanted to do a whole thing on Thumri. Suddenly, you realize that if you’re trying to make an encyclopedia, you can’t drop those things. But this is mostly a show that you want people sitting there on their sofas to be gripped by, and come on that journey without feeling like they’re losing the thread. Inevitably, you have to shelve a few things to make the journey well-balanced.

How did you react to someone like T.M. Krishna telling you, “classical music as a term is bunkum”? I assume it would have shocked any classically trained musician.

It was really refreshing to hear him say that. Living in London, for the past few years I’ve been quite vocal about the fact that… Indian classical music is a very small genre here but the bigger genre it fits within is called World Music. I’ve been really vocal about the fact that we should lose this term ‘world music’ because there’s this third [person perspective] that’s attached to it.

There was a golden era where Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan were coming out with folk classical, fusion happened and Womad [festival] happened and it really blossomed in the Eighties, but in the context that it now lives, it’s just racist to bund together Indian music, Pakistani music, Brazilian music, Cuban music… it makes no sense whatsoever. Of course I believe these genres and terms are completely bunkum.

Zooming in to classical music, I hundred percent agree with T.M. Krishna, because all it does is reinforce class and everything that is wrong with ‘classical’ as a term. It allows people to adopt music, but it isn’t their music, it’s everyone’s music. There’s something wrong with the term that allows people to use it as a status symbol and ostracize others from it. After that shoot, I had to go and just be with myself for a while, because I was so moved by what he said. I’m glad there are people like him in India who are fighting the fight.

Stay tuned for the web premiere of Rhythms of India here.

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