Interviewed by the Bagri Foundation’s Project Manager, Halime Özdemir as part of our 30 Artists, 30 Years project.
Halime Özdemir: In the blink of an eye, it is hard to believe that 2014 was the year in which you lead a fiery group of improvisers in what one can describe as a highly energised, genre-breaking performance: Fretless Nomad. We have since seen the realisation of the Tuning 2 You series in 2017 and Back to the Blues in 2018. We wondered how you felt about these presentations, and how the Foundation’s support has aided your practice since our first unique, and special presentation together?
Soumik Datta: I first met Alka Bagri on a sunny afternoon at her home in London. Immediately, I knew that I was in the presence of someone deeply immersed and passionate about the arts. Right away, Alka made me feel at home and encouraged me to open the doors to creative possibility. That afternoon, we spent several hours brainstorming ideas, with Alka pushing me to dream big! It was this initial conversation that led to our stage production ‘Fretless Nomad’ and later to our six part television series ‘Tuning 2 You’.
Both these projects were seminal to my growth as an artist. They taught me to collaborate, push beyond limitations, visualise narrative and manage teams internationally. Beyond that they taught me to make mistakes and learn from them. I came away with experiences I could not have acquired in any arts college or apprenticeship. For that opportunity and trust, I will always be deeply grateful to Alka and the Bagri Foundation.
HÖ: You’ve collaborated very often since, how do you find your solo practice differs?
SD: My career, has been nothing more than a meandering through wild terrain led only by a curiosity to explore the edges of the unknown. Through no strategy or career design, I’ve always been led, by inspiration or circumstance, towards the peripheries of art forms where they begin to merge into new ones. These grey areas, often unexplored marshes, have always fascinated me. When does sound become visual? When does movement become dance? How do abstract fragments of sounds and sights unleash memories and stories? What is the full scope of the human sensory experience and have we explored it all? This daily inquiry into the unknown is my true solo practice. Not scales on the sarod. Not composing or directing. With each project, ‘Back to the Blues’, ‘Tuning 2 You’, ‘Rhythms of India’, ’King of Ghosts’ ‘Jangal’ and beyond, I’ve realised how little I know about the great mysteries of the arts. It makes me appreciate a life that is constantly surrounded and haunted by creativity.
HÖ: It is not only a pleasure to observe your extraordinary journey, but also, as a foundation, to be instrumental in supporting exemplary talent such as yourself. We would like to hear about your future plans as you further yourself along your career path. Who is your audience – are they the next generation of classical Indian music lovers? What’s next for them, for you and the world of the Sarod?
SD: Over the last few years I have been guided by my guru Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta, my parents who are artists in their own right and my mentor Sir David Green. I have had the good fortune to be supported by the Bagri Foundation and other international bodies. And luck, for the most part, has always been by my side, opening doors, smiling and encouraging me.
But this journey has also shown me the darker corridors of the arts world. It has brought me face to face with immensely talented artists, musicians, writers, far more gifted than myself, with little or no opportunity. Often they retreat from society, chipping away at their craft, hoping that luck will someday open a door or two. Sometimes this never happens. And the burden of a plateaued career in the arts is an especially heavy one to carry. Many take to the nearest bottle or develop mental health issues, which in turn sets them on a path of burning self-destruction. As a society we have also romanticised and fetishised the image of the tormented artist. While this is an attractive myth, it is also a dangerous one that I no longer believe in.
Through my Arts charity, Soumik Datta Arts, we want to create opportunities for under-recognised artists, especially those from Indian and South Asian communities where this stigma is culturally amplified. Over the next two years, we are partnering with charities, universities and foundations to create new programmes and festivals, both digital and physical to raise awareness about mental health issues, champion new talent and create equal opportunities for those in creative spheres.
In parallel, and because this is more of an internal journey, I will continue to play sarod, score, compose, present shows and direct projects that I am inspired by.
HÖ: Finally, given the current state of the world, what advice would you give to musicians who are starting out and seeking to create new projects and presentations, both in collaboration, and as a solo performer?
SD: I would not presume to impart advice on any artist, especially during a time that is changing the course of human history. Never has the human race come together so quickly and so fast to fight an enemy so microscopic. Uncertainty looms over our skies. Anxiety crouches in the corners of our quarantine. And we have all jointly felt the peaks and drops of this emotional roller coaster.
In these uncertain times, it is useful to have an anchor. Here’s something I found, in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert who tells us: ‘Resilience is our shared genetic inheritance‘.
Perhaps we can draw comfort from the fact that our ancestors got through worse and survived and that somehow we have benefited from that evolutionary experience. And if that feels too high flung or abstract, find the thing you love the most and squeeze it with all your heart. For me, that is a nineteen stringed, chunk of wood. My compass. My lighthouse. Its sound is ancient and powerful and a reminder that come what may — rain, storm or thunder, all we need to do is trust and endure.
Soumik Datta is an award-winning musician, composer and television presenter. He plays the 19 stringed sarod and connects his Indian classical roots with colourful electronica and musical styles from around the world.
‘One of biggest new music talents in Britain’ (Vogue), Soumik has collaborated with Beyonce, Jay-Z, Bill Bailey, Nitin Sawhney, Talvin Singh, Joss Stone, Anoushka Shankar, Akram Khan, Shankar Mahadevan, Farhan Akhtar, London Philharmonic Orchestra and City of London Sinfonia to name a few.
Datta’s 2019 highlights include performances on Glastonbury, Womad, BBC Proms and the launch of his album ‘Jangal’ a musical protest against deforestation and the climate change crisis. For his arts activism, Soumik was made an Artist For The Earth by Earth Day Network, who partnered with to release his latest single ‘Tiger Tiger’ (out on Apple Music and Spotify).
Soumik has also presented TV programmes, including the BBC 4 series ‘Rhythms of India’. The travelogue which follows Soumik’s journey off the beaten path exploring folk, classical and pop Indian music, was later repeated on BBC World News to an audience of millions. Previously in 2016, Soumik collaborated with his brother Souvid Datta, a film-maker, to create ‘Tuning 2 You’ (co-produced by the Bagri Foundation) a six part music series that broadcast on Channel 4, Discovery, Sky and Sony BBC Earth.
In May 2020, BBC Arts and The Space commissioned Soumik to create new work for their Culture in Quarantine programme. Soumik is the Artistic Director of Soumik Datta Arts (SDA), a UK arts charity, that was granted the Elevate award by Arts Council England for making a significant contribution to the creative case for diversity. SDA has launched its latest digital project ‘Hope Notes’. Discover more on Instagram @soumikdatta & @ourhopenotes
Official Website: www.soumikdatta.com