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Datta leapt at the chance to collaborate with Satyajit Ray beyond the grave. This led to the conceptualisation of King Of Ghosts, first commissioned and toured by the Edinburgh Mela in 2014.

King of the strings

Nov 25, 2016 5:50 AM

WHEN sarod artist Soumik Datta first came across the fantasy adventure film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne by Satyajit Ray, he was all of four years old, and filled with wonder at the mystical elements like teleportation, magical kingdoms and wizards contained within it. Then, by chance, he came upon the movie on YouTube as a fully-grown adult, and realised that the film was much more than he'd initially imagined.

He explains, during a phone interview from the UK where he is based: "The film is so much more than just a childrens' fantasy. Ray was trying to talk about independence, the caste system, and even the role of music as a vehicle for change and that resonated deeply with me."

Datta, 32, leapt at the chance to work with Ray beyond the grave, following collaborations with artists like Beyonce, Anoushka Shankar and Joss Stone. This led to the conceptualisation of King Of Ghosts, first commissioned and toured by the Edinburgh Mela in 2014. He says: "The film already had an amazing score but it was quite dated. I wanted to see if I could recreate a new score that would tell the contemporary story, if the film had been made today."

The new score will be played live in front of the original film projected on a large screen as part of the Kalaa Utsavam festival at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Nov 25.

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Datta's first encounter with the sarod, a stringed instrument of the lute family, was a happy accident.

He recalls: "My family and I moved to London from India when I was 10, and our moving boxes were scattered all over the house. My younger brother and I decided to play some indoor cricket because it was pouring outside and I ended up hitting the ball into one of those boxes, and heard a twanging sound. Being a curious child, I looked inside and found a moth-eaten velvet cloth which was holding my grandmother's sarod in it."

Once he expressed an interest in learning to play it, his father introduced him to Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta, a renowned Indian classical musician who lived in Kolkata. During school holidays, the Harrow boy would travel there to live and play with Dasgupta (whom he still affectionately calls "grandfather") for three to four weeks at a time.

"It required a real spiritual and physical discipline, almost like a form of martial arts," shares Datta. "I was living and breathing the music for almost 15 hours a day. Living with my guru also taught me that music isn't just a skill, and for me, it's like meditation now."

But unlike most other classical Indian musicians, Datta has had other influences on his music. He notes: "Returning to London, which is an amazing place filled with curious musicians from all over, meant that I got to jam with such an eclectic bunch of people. I was playing at reggae parties and Cuban nights, and that inspired my love of collaborations, and it also helped me develop new material and a new language for the instrument."

The King of Ghosts tour will conclude in Singapore, but that isn't all he's been doing recently. Datta also founded a charity in London, and along with his brother, is using his platform to create a six-part documentary series which will be premiering in the spring of 2017 to showcase more than 100 rural artists over six states in India.

Datta explains: "We wanted to document the stories and music of the fading musicians of India whose traditions are getting left behind. They have no marketing ability of their own, but have so much to offer, and they deserve a much-better platform than what they're getting now. This is just a small attempt to meet them, play with them, and film their stories."

  • Soumik Datta's King of Ghosts will take place as part of the Kalaa Utsavam - Indian Festival of Arts held by the Esplanade at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Nov 25 at 7.30pm. Tickets start at S$18. For more information, please visit esplanade.com