By Saloni Saraf
Often the best stories come from a need to discover more, be it about yourself, or where you come from. Soumik and Souvid Datta, two brothers originally from Kolkata, raised in London, and well known artists in their own fields sat together after the premiere of Soumik’s new album, knowing something was still missing from their lives.
Having momentarily lost sight of their roots and their route home, they decided they needed to go back to where they came from. The seed was planted and the duo set off on a six month journey discovering the ‘lost musicians of India’ and creating “Tuning 2 You”: a six part documentary showing us a vast spectrum of musicians and music styles across the country.
The series begins in West Bengal and covers Rajasthan, Nagaland, Goa, Karnataka and ends on the banks of Benares. We’re shown music from Bengals’s Baul singers to Fado on the beaches of Goa, from Qawwali at Ajmer Sharif to Harvest songs from rural Nagaland. Episode by episode your ears and eyes are blown away by the sumptuous sounds and the dazzling frames of Souvid’s photography.
Throughout the series, we see Soumik wandering through quiet streets, busy markets, and into people’s homes. An intentional rusty hold on the handheld camera makes us feel like we’re walking with him, rushing through the crowds to keep up. The entire time Soumik carries his trusty sarod, playing alongside almost every musician we meet, making every interview a musical collaboration.
Soumik explains how, “communities welcomed me more when I took out my Sarod, sat in their courtyard and played” forming a mutual bond through music and sound. He was given another level of access into these musicians lives, access that he may not have gotten had he not been a musician himself.
The first episode introduces us to Tarak Das Baul, who remains one of Soumik’s favourite musicians from the show. We sit with the team under a banyan tree in the district of Bhirbum, a few hours away from Kolkata. “He was an incredible, enigmatic, powerful performer.” Tarak Das Baul’s connection to his roots, his land, and his culture through his music was exactly what the Datta brothers set out in hope to find. With no mic at hand, Datta describes how his charisma brought the banyan tree alive and how his raw voice had the ability to hold everyone in the palm of his hand.
Each episode shows us a different world within the same country. When trying to figure out which one stands out as a favourite, Soumik eventually lands upon their adventures in Nagaland. He explains that as a viewer, the episode stands out just because its so different. “It’s intrinsically not the India you expect to see. The people look different, they talk different, they play music that is not what you expect people in India to sound like. There’s a real tribal culture over there, which I really connected to somehow.” And just like Tarak Das Baul, we see that the musicians are connected with their land, and their music is rooted into the landscape.
But why these particular states for the first season? Soumik explains how he was trying to find styles that were vastly different to each other, “so as you’re watching the show, you get this vast sonic experience of Indian traditional music which is both surprising and uplifting. You’ve got Fado, Kajri, Tappa, Baul and you have all these drumming traditions and so much of it is inspired by folk theatre, nature, seasons, love.” All of them, deeply rooted within the landscapes of their own country.
You’d think that trying to fit the entirety of India’s ‘lost music’ into just 6 episodes would be impossible. The Datta brothers agree with you. Which is why they’ve started planning their second season. During the filming of Tuning 2 You, Soumik describes how he found himself battling two sides of his brain every time he found a new musician, or a new home. On one side he knew this was work and he had to consider budgets and times. On the other hand, he found himself really tuning into these musicians lives. Whether he was sitting on the floor in their house having lunch, or playing with them for an hour, talking about what it’s like to live under the poverty line in breaks. “Every time I left, I always felt like I had just scraped the surface of something that has so much unknown depth.”
Getting slightly more candid, Soumik describes one of the most memorable moments. A few hours away from Kolkata, in Purulia: a dusty district by the border of Bihar, the brothers met a Jhumur singer called Amulya Kumar. He had invited them to his house: a run down shack where he lived without electricity and a broken roof. Soumik played with him, and sat with him, and asked him what happens to his house during the monsoon seasons. The man told them that the water comes through, flooding his house and submerging his precious harmonium. He then leaves it out in the sun the next day to dry. “We think we have problems, and when you meet people like this you learn what resilience actually is. What it is to have a thick skin, and what it is to put your faith in something far greater than just the physical. These people put their faith in sound and in song, and witnessing that definitely plucked some strings inside.”
Datta delves into their plans for their second season. How they think they’re going to tackle the rest of the country with their camera. He seems particularly interested in the topic of borders. With a season of experience on his sleeve, he knows where he wants to go next. “Even though there is so much more music left all over the country, the point of the next season is to look beyond that. One thing we found while filming was that people talked about music not just as a set of notes, or as a song, but as a lifelong experience of growth.” His curiosity has found itself pursuing those that live in hardship and what music can mean to them. How families that have been living in division, along the borders of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, seek spirituality through music. “All of these areas, deep in their valleys, there is so much music and so many musicians live there, I wonder what it’s like to practice the art of music while living daily under the threat of war.”
Just like every true traveller, it wouldn’t be a journey without spending majority of your time lost. Soumik explains how each state was different, and after a few days spent in each you get used to the climate, the language and the warmth of the people. Just as you’ve acclimatised to your surroundings, it’s time to leave and go to a place that has a completely different set of rules, and you have no other choice but to tune in. “The show is about how musicians can tune into themselves, their instruments, and their surroundings. But for me, I was attempting to tune into these communities as an outsider, communities that were connected to music in a way that I wanted to be connected to. They were tuned into the earth, and the electricity that bounced off them, through their fingers and in their voice, I was trying to tune into what that was.”
Six months around India, with thousands of stories, Datta digs out a specific evening along the banks of Benares that will remain with him forever. As they finished filming, instead of taking the road back through the city, the crew took a boat. They floated along candlelit ghats, and slowly started to notice the smell of burning flesh. With everyone silent, the team passed a series of carts where they were cremating bodies. “There was something about that, it wasn’t sad, there was a sense of renewal, a feeling that things continue even through death. You could hear the pandits chanting, and it was a comforting feeling knowing that maybe all these different musical styles that we were recording and filming, weren’t lost, they weren’t vanishing, they’ll always exist as they always have, maybe not in the mainstream, but in some form they will always exist.”
Tarak Das Baul, who we met in the first episode, sadly passed away very recently. Soumik wonders how many people really knew about him, and know that he is now no more. He remains grateful that he got the chance to meet him while he was still around. Locking in these thoughts with that final evening on the boat, Datta leaves us craving what magic him and his brother will weave next.
(The series was premiered on Channel 4 (U.K National Television) and is currently available to watch on 4OD and the Channel 4 digital app. It was produced by Bagri Foundation, Soumik Datta Arts, and Weavers Studio Centre for the Arts. The series raised funds for post-production on Kickstarter by backers around the world including supporters Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi and Farhan Akhtar. For more info on the series and to follow the development of season 2, visit soumikdatta.com.)