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Soumik Datta in Borderland - Interview

Acclaimed sarod player and composer Soumik Datta speaks about his passion for music and Tagore to Radha Spratt (courtesy of

Borderland is the translated title of one of Tagore’s poems. Through music and performance poetry, the show explores the various “borders” in modern life today. Duality is a fascinating subject and Tagore writes extensively on the dual themes of nature and modernity, God and man, tradition and progress, life and death. This show is quite a personal piece, combining contemporary elements with original text.

How does this piece fit in with your existing repertoire of music?

My passions lie in art, live performance, film making and music composition. Over the last year, my company Baithak has begun creating a catalogue of live stage shows: merging music, art, film, lighting and story, these shows look and feel completely different to generic music concerts. The collaborative essence of these pieces, uniting storytelling with world class musicians and projected film, will give audiences a new kind of theatrical experience. Circle of Sound was the first in this series, which was developed during my artist residency at the Southbank Centre; Borderland comes next. I am also working on a third show, Sounds of Bengal, which tours India in December 2011. This catalogue continues my dream of bridging the worlds of Indian music and contemporary theatre.

What role has Tagore played in your life, both professionally and personally?

My mum, Sangeeta Datta, is a recognised authority on Tagore, and home was filled with Tagore’s books and tapes. Like a lot of Bengali kids I grew up on a staple diet of Rabindrasangeet (Tagore songs). To be honest, I used to fall asleep in most concerts. It wasn’t until much later that I began to appreciate the original Bengali text and discover why Yeats and Pound became such ardent admirers of this man. Meanwhile, I had discovered the sarod and, finding an instrument that could truly voice my thoughts and emotions, I moved away from Tagore, collaborating with artists from various fields, learning about technical approaches and artistic styles: Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney, Akram Khan, Bill Bailey, Beyonce. However, I knew in my heart that I had to come back and do a piece on Tagore, addressing a buried side of me. In 2010 I began this at the National Theatre, but now thanks to SALF I can complete the journey.

What will this piece incorporate?

Borderland needs to balance between a traditional sound and a more modern edgy one. Layering Indian classical and Tagore’s original songs with blues, soul, electronica and performance poetry are a team of some of the UK’s finest crossover musicians on guitar, vocals and percussion. The piece will also see the world premiere of my custom-built electric sarod, Edorsa.

You have said that cities each inspire unique sounds. Which cities would you say your music is most influenced by?

Each city has something new to offer. I find the dreamy, metallic silence of London fascinating and hope to do a piece on it someday. For now, I’m drawn to Kolkata and am touring Sounds of Bengal in India at the end of the year. The story follows two musicians travelling through Bengal recording people, sounds, nature, music. The show itself will layer live music and performance with documented film and interviews with farmers, fishermen, rickshaw drivers, actors, singers and industrialists, exploring how sound/music/frequencies/timbres trigger memory, create nostalgia and add new depths to our own cultural awareness.

Is invigorating traditional music and taking it to a younger audience your passion?

Indian classical music is varied, colourful, dynamic and capable of taking a listener on breathtaking, soul-enriching journeys. However, a listener needs to be at the right point in life to appreciate this; most young people are not. They are angry, impatient and anti-establishment. I am definitely interested in taking Indian music to younger audiences and showing them that this – albeit ancient – art form does have something to offer: peace.

By Radha Spratt