Pitch perfect: Soumik & Souvid Datta's 'Tuning 2 U' chronicles India's music

Music for a musician is the exponent of his or her life. And for all its diversity and cultural vistas India loves to boast of, little has been done to preserve either its music or the lives behind them. By music, we do not mean the ramp-rush, buckle-toggling mimes that have come to represent an age in the growing up of our musical tastes. It is perhaps, only ironic, that under the fading sky of a land, so pompous in its own appreciation of the myriad cultures it could once boast of, two Bengali boys living in London have taken up the unenviable task of documenting the vanishing musicians in India.

Unenviable only because they have been pretty much doing it on their own. “I hate the word ‘folk’ music because it is just music that people play. Adding that term only makes is sound a lesser kind of music, which it is not,” says Soumik Datta. Almost everyone considers music a hobby, important enough to list it on their resumes, but for many people, most of them unknown and downtrodden, for one reason or the other, it is a way of life and has been so for generations in the family. And that way of life is what brothers Soumik and Souvid Datta are endeavouring to capture.

Souvid (L) and Soumik Datta, the makers of 'Tuning 2 U'

Souvid (L) and Soumik Datta, the makers of 'Tuning 2 U'

Soumik was born in Kolkata in 1984. By 1994, the year when he moved to London with his family, he was already over parsing his fingers through the 19 strings of the sarod, under the tutelage of Buddhadev Das Gupta (a stalwart of the Senia Shahjahanpur gharan). While in London Soumik became a sort of child prodigy, performing regularly, and soon around established names like Anoushka Shankar, Nitin Sawhney and even with the likes of Jay-Z and Beyoncé recently. Circle of Sound, as it came to be known, was a group of musicians operating in what can now be loosely termed as the British underground Asian music scene, where Soumik toured, performed and released albums alongside the likes of Nitin Soni and Talvin Singh. “Music in Europe is mostly contemporary with a drum-and-guitar image to follow. I wanted to start something that was classical, and aesthetically the exact opposite of what the contemporary scene is like in Europe,” he says.

What then lead to the idea behind a film documenting what we may soon call our musical heritage, because it is fast disappearing, Soumik says, was pretty simple. “Once you’ve played long enough and have tried to bridge contemporary with classical, at some point, you’ll want to get away from all of that and go back to the roots. My brother and I talked about how musicians would practice without all the paraphernalia attached to it. So we looked at videos did some research and decided to take the trip to see for ourselves.” But for a process of documentation, dipped in a particular spirit on inquiry as this film promises to be, there has to be an eye behind the lens to compensate for the nuance the material requires. In steps, Soumik’s younger brother, Souvid. A documentarian and a journalistic photographer by profession Souvid’s work has been showcased in the likes of TIME and Guardian. And for such a project, Souvid’s journalistic sense showers across the swathes of scenes that make up the trailer of the film.

“The production value is important. We didn’t want to just capture the music and the sound. Most of these people live in remote areas and so the kind of food they eat, the land they live on also informs the music that they play. So to me, it was as much an exercise in knowing their lives as much as their music,” he says. But as with any form of art in the country, music too, has a history soaked in the biases of caste and religion that have become a sort of uniformity overarching our rationale for things most natural and undivided. Most of the people that the Datta brothers have met during the filming of the first part of the documentary, feel threatened by the mere attention of the camera’s focused gaze. These are tribes, usually identified with a certain social role, in most cases through their music. And with most of these traditions being oral, documentation is not as easy as it may seem even in the age of multimedia. So how does one approach these people?

View the gorgeous images from Soumik and Souvid's musical journey here:

Tuning 2 You - The Vanishing Musical Tribes of India

“One of the most important things we decided upon was to be respectful. These people come from lean backgrounds, and their devotion to the music they create deserves our respect. It was important, therefore that we talked in a way that did not make them feel like we were taking something from them. We took our time, and eventually they opened up about their lives. It is as simple as meeting someone on the street for whom your intentions are genuine. Plus, once we started playing, music being the universal language that it is we were able to interact,” says Souvid.

Of the six states the brothers have visited so far and documented, there are probably thousands of stories to tell. But Soumik remembers one from Bengal which touched his heart. “We went out to this village near Kolkata where a man lived alone under a broken roof. Probably in his 80s, he is one of the last people who sings Jhumur songs, which a genre within Bengali music. He would usually sing when he would be out in the fields. And from across the river, a woman in another field from another village would start singing along and they would end up singing a duet," he says. Imagine the glass-wall transparency of a musical tradition that required not the stage or a studio but the longing in two hearts to sing together from across two different sides of a river. “He was one of the most magnetic people I have met. And he lives under a broken roof. When I asked what happens when it rains, he just said ‘it rains’,” says Soumik.

Such musical traditions are what India has failed to protect and preserve and both the brothers share their opinion about it. “In the last few years, what I’ve witnessed is the rise of a celebrity-driven culture. Music created and written by well-known names is what gets recognised in India. These people may not have the names or faces but they, I think, make music just as important. Just because these are not objects found in museums or showcased in a glass box does not make them any less important,” says Soumik.

For now the Datta brothers are content with coming out with the first part of the documentary later this year. To cover post-production costs, they will be launching a crowd-funding campaign, the future of which will decide whether a Tuning 2 You, part 2, will ever happen. Of course, it is impossible to expect the film to be a wholesome document of India’s musical tribes that might soon be extinct. And that is to say something about the size of the task faced here. And we refer to them generally, as tribes, because they have lived perennially in the wilderness, and while no approach might ever be complete, this film, looks set to at least draw the first pair of hands in their direction.

Watch the trailer here:

This project was supported by the Bagri Foundation and Soumik Datta Arts

Updated Date: Jul 04, 2016 14:04 PM

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