Soumik Datta: The Dishoom Interview

Rain is beating down on the glass ceiling of King’s Cross’ Westside Canopy. Hard. After a week of stifling heat, the cool respite is most welcome. While the rain roars, a large group of people sit spellbound by the sounds of a sarod weaving amidst those of the tabla, keys and violin. Passers by spill out from the shadows to see what’s going on. All are welcome.

Soumik Datta and his band have guests entranced. Listeners are gently swaying to the music and others look as if they’ve perhaps been transported to a faraway place in their mind. Whatever it is, the music brings much happiness and a sense of togetherness in the moment despite the somberness of the evening.

 In August, we held a series of events to commemorate 75 Years of Indian Independence and the creation of Pakistan. Before the events took place, we were delighted to sit down with Soumik, a super-talented musician, composer and sarod player, who composed the musical score to accompany the 75 Years series. It was a real pleasure to discuss music, identity and inclusivity, amongst many other topics. We invite you to read on to learn more about how he created such a joyous atmosphere at our events.

Could you tell us a little about yourself, Soumik?

I'm a musician at heart. I was trained in India on the 19-stringed Indian instrument called the sarod. I would go out and meet my guru every year. And simultaneously, I was also dabbling with a lot of electronica, progressive music and band cultures while living in London. Those worlds, eventually, collided and the music that I started making was sort of a coming together of those forces. Over the last few years, the essence of my work has become a little bit more channelled towards raising awareness about things that I care about: climate issues, ocean pollution and the refugee crisis, which is something quite close to me. The last two big projects were Songs of the Earth' for COP 26, a British Council commission to create a climate suite of songs, and the other one was a Southbank Centre Artists Residency, where we worked with refugees to incorporate their stories into new music, a project called Hope Notes.

Your music isn't solely for entertainment, it's about creating awareness about things that matter to you. How did you go about approaching the 75th anniversary of Independence and all the nuance around it? 

Well, I think this is personal to me, and it's not everyone’s experience. I wasn't there but my Great Grandmother was. I remember when she was still alive that we had chats about this, and she never fully told me everything because I was a kid. But I remember the look in her eyes as she recalled it, reimagined it and brought it back from memory. That look will never go away. And yet, she never spoke badly of the event of the time and she didn't regret certain things that happened back then. I think that has subconsciously translated into how I feel about that time: you can draw lines in the sand and divide nations, but actually the things that you can't divide are things such as sense of identity and music. And actually, it's the same with food. When the conversation with Shamil (co-founder of Dishoom) started, we realised these are two elements that are undetachable from identity and politics, and they belong to the people. It's empowering. I want to celebrate the things that can't be fragmented; I want to celebrate the rhythms of Qawwali; I want to celebrate Sufi melodies; equally, I want to celebrate the folk music of Bengal, different folk rhythms, Indian classical music. And because those things are still alive, Partition didn't really impact them. I'd like to think that it's a really wonderful event for people to come to and be part of indestructible things like music and food from South Asia.

We’re so looking forward  to hearing the music especially as the intention with your work is to try to catalogue chaos through creativity. How are you hoping to do this with your music? 

I think what's important to me is talking about inclusivity which is about opportunities, acceptance and tolerance – they're the sort of cornerstones of harmony. And actually they’re the cornerstones of musical harmony in the way I make music as well, as you can have things that clash but without an acceptance of the other: things don't sit, things don't harmonise. And in society, I think it's a similar kind of thing, with walls coming up and doors closing, we still need to welcome people who are seeking sanctuary and vulnerable people. In the same way that we do that in the present, we also have to do that for things that are historical and not carry sort of a bitterness. So, of course, the events of 1947 were absolutely horrendous and atrocious but there has to be a sense of moving on, of healing. And healing can only happen through coming together. And music brings people together as does food. I'm really excited about this project and to be able to just be myself within it, embody the journeys of my family and my ancestors, but also be here in Britain as a British Bengali man and say, “I'm home”.

“75 years” came about to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Partition and also because Kavita Puri and Shamil felt that the events of Partition weren't fully understood or talked about enough. During the composition and process of the music, what have you learned about Partition? 

Earlier on in the year, I received a commission from the BBC Singers to write a piece to address Partition so the wheels have been turning for a while. When this project came along, I realised that this is my journey for the year: to try and go inwards and find what this means to me, to my family, to my community. I think as South Asians, we're really bad at talking about stuff: talking about mental health, talking about our feelings, talking about our past, talking about history. We're really bad historians as a group. Partition isn't talked about in the same way as the Second World War and genocide is talked about – why not? Because there's so much shame attached to it, there's so much guilt as well as a sense of confusion. This is an event that has clearly got an heaviness attached to it but what I want to do is remind people of the incredible wealth of musical culture from this apparently broken region. And, despite all the trauma, there's this real sense of energy that I hope I can bring to the shows. 

We’re excited to see it all together. Could you tell us a little bit about the composition process – where do you even begin to start with creating music for an event like this?

It's a really good question. Well, I started with Kavita’s book and the testimonials within. Compositionally, it's always about the starting point. Sometimes it's the lyrics, sometimes it's the rhythm or maybe it’s a melody. But with this I wanted to look at where some of these voices are from and the kind of music that would have existed in those places. What is the folk music of Punjab? What is the defining rhythm from Punjab? What are the links from Bengali folk music? Bengal had two partitions really so that's a different story. I wanted to look at regions so I consulted with a few friends in India and Pakistan, as well as here, to try to get an understanding of what the seminal Qawwali tracks are as the sense of trance this music can bring is healing.

There's also a lot of space for improvisation as I felt it necessary because improvisation is so seminal to Indian music and Pakistani music, to Qawwali music and there's just a sense of the philosophy of Sufism. There's the sense of space and you can't access that space if you're playing things that are set. There’s a lot of that coming in and out of improvisation as well as a sort of a modern sound that I love to do. I'll have pedals and bring synth subs underneath suddenly, and later on, maybe there are warm pads just enveloping the audience as finishers and things like that.

The events aren’t solely about Independence, they’re also about Partition and all sides of the story, which you’re covering with your musical influences. How would you like the speakers and guests to respond emotionally to this music?

I want them to be happy, happy to be there. I'm hoping these events are going to be a real coming together of different kinds of people and seeking a sense of oneness and family, which I know Dishoom does so well. I'm just really honoured and privileged to be part of this.

It’s been a real joy speaking with you, Soumik. What else is coming up for you this year? It sounds like you've got a lot on!

BBC Singers is the big commission for this autumn, so I’ll be at the Barbican on the 21st October. I'm really excited about the Hope Notes project as well, which we've been launching digitally. We’ll be going on tour and playing a number of shows across the UK, again in October and November. Again in October, November. So I'm really excited to take that and carry these incredible stories of survival and hope from refugees with us through the production to all these places around the country. 

We’re deeply grateful to our friend Soumik for not only his time but also bringing such joy to our events with his music and wonderful band. If you wish to listen to more of his work (which we think is very good), be sure to take a look at his website and Instagram

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