Asian Music and Dance

Akram Khan and Nitin Sawhney – Makers & Shakers, the mould-breakers

At Sadler’s Wells this November musician Nitin Sawhney and dancer Akram Khan premier a retrospective of their ten-year journey as artists and collaborators. Confluence, meaning the joining of rivers, is the title of the new show. But what are its sources? Sanjoy Roy finds out in conversation with the duo.

Nitin Sawhney is a composer and musician. Akram Khan, a dancer and choreographer. In their respective fields, they have become world-class artists, internationally acclaimed for their adventurous, pioneering creations. Sawhney and Khan first worked together ten years ago, on a dance solo called Fix, and right from the start, they saw eye to eye. Both British-born Asians, they both had classical training and contemporary minds. They both drew on and questioned their backgrounds, crossing borders as well as charting new territory. Naturally, they chose to work together again, and went on to collaborate on the critically-acclaimed Kaash (2002), zero degrees (2005) and bahok (2008).

Currently, they are working on a different kind of project: jointly curating Svapnagata (see side bar panel on page 11) a major festival of Indian music and dance to be shown at London’s prestigious Sadler’s Wells in November 2009. Svapnagata climaxes with a new evening of work by Sawhney and Khan themselves, a kind of retrospective of their past collaborations, mixed in with newly-created material. Aptly, it’s called Confluence

I caught up with them during early rehearsals for that piece. They spoke about working together on Svapnagata but I was also interested in their own backgrounds. They’ve called their new piece Confluence – the joining of rivers – but where were the sources? Where had they come from? I asked them about their formative influences and inspirations – and found a lot of common ground.

Akram Khan

My first inspiration was actually my mother. She started teaching me Bengali folk dance when I was three. I practised a lot, but not because I loved doing it: it was more that she was the law, and there was no choice about it. Then she saw me really get into Michael Jackson – I used to imitate him, and I even won disco competitions – and she felt that I should have a more disciplined training rather than just copying people. So she put me into kathak class, when I was seven. She had seen my guruji Pratap Pawar, and also Nahid Siddiqui. She was hugely moved by Nahidji, but felt with a guru I would find it easier to relate to a man.

 He was very generous because he would always include students in his shows. To see him perform and then perform with him was one of the most important experiences I’ve had. It gave me confidence, and the experience of how it feels to be on stage. Then in 1984, when I was ten, I took part in Adventures of Mowgli, which was the first major production by the Akademi, the Academy of Indian Dance as it was known then. There were some great people in that: the Dhananjayans, Shobana Jeyasingh, Pushkala Gopal, as well as Pratap and Priya Pawar. Ravi Shankar came along to witness the whole experience and give feedback. That was my first encounter with him and his daughter Anoushka. She was younger than me but we used to play a lot together. 

“There were a lot of RADA boys auditioning, but I got in.”

While in Mowgli, I was spotted by a scout of the theatre director Peter Brook, who asked me to audition for his Mahabharata. There were a lot of RADA boys auditioning, but I got in. I think Peter Brook wanted someone who had no schooling in acting, so he felt he could mould me. We toured internationally. I was thirteen, and that production was a real turning point for me in terms of performance. 

In terms of classical dance a big inspiration was Durga Lal. He was a phenomenal force in the kathak world, on a par with Birju Maharaj. He was from the Jaipur gharana but I loved how he created his own style. It was kind of a fusion between Lucknow and Jaipur, but the whole presentation and execution belonged to him. Nobody else could do it. The other classical dancer was Nahid Siddiqui: for me, she is still the most phenomenal female kathak dancer I have ever seen. I remember going to a show when I was quite young and Nahidji danced continuously over two hours, without stopping. I was just blown away. 

“But first, get your degree.”

As for me, I studied A-level dance and AS theatre, but I didn’t finish them because at that time I had a lot of family issues. And I was in limbo for about two years, living at home and doing nothing, just practising. I wanted to dance, but I was only performing every once in a while. My parents were really frustrated, I was really frustrated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Again, my mother was insistent. She said: you go to university then afterwards you decide what you want to do. But first, get your degree. You know – like every Indian parent! 

So I looked towards a dance degree. I didn’t dare try Middlesex University, because it was too close to home. I really needed to get away from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the classical world I was in, and to do that I had to get out of London. Even though my guruji was wonderful with me, the whole guru-shishya relationship was becoming tough for me because of being born and brought up here, with different morals. I could appreciate it, but I couldn’t live it. 

So I went to De Montfort University in Leicester. It was a big discovery. Right before the audition I went to their library and picked out a couple of videos to watch, because I thought I should prepare a bit in case they asked me questions about contemporary dance. One was by DV8 Physical Theatre, and the other was Pina Bausch. Watching them, I felt so enraged: why was this not introduced to me earlier? Why did I not even know about this work? After the audition the teacher did ask if we’d seen any contemporary dance. I said yes: just now! So she asked me what I thought of it. And I was quite shaken by that because I wasn’t used to being allowed to question people. But I felt this moment mattered, so I found a strength in my voice and told her how enraged I was that these doors had opened that I never knew existed. Then, instead of giving more observations I ended up just asking more questions!

 I got in, and started to see and do more contemporary dance. At De Montfort we were allowed to be very creative, improvising and asking questions all the time. But afterwards I went to Northern School of Contemporary Dance, and that’s when I became a dancer. If you really want to explore contemporary dance, you have to delve into it, and I spent two years training in contemporary technique and ballet. Ballet was fascinating, but a nightmare. For the first three weeks, every day I would have some excuse about the leotard: oh, my parents have sent it from London but it got lost in the post. By the third week the ballet teacher came up to me in class and whispered in my ear: if you’re not in your leotard tomorrow, you will be dancing naked. Next day I was in my black leotard. I felt humiliated because my body shape is nothing like a ballet dancer’s. But it was a good experience: everyone was just concentrating on themselves, and the teachers just needed to see the muscles working. I could see the logic. 

The first major influence after leaving was choreographer Jonathan Burrows, who had trained in ballet but was doing contemporary work. I met him at a choreographers and composers exchange, and I discovered a whole new way of thinking. And after that I started doing my own work. The first piece I made was called Loose in Flight, which I originally did to a recording by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with Michael Brook. 

“I get a lot of inspiration from art forms other than dance.”

Today, I’d say that I get a lot inspiration of from art forms other than dance. More and more as I get older, it comes from film: directors such as Wong Kar-wai, Pedro Almodóvar to a certain extent, Gerald Kaufman, Alejandro González Iñárritu. I like how they tell a story. They don’t present it in a linear form, they present it in a way that is much more entangled. Which is more realistic in a way: things are never neat like a-b-c-d, it’s more like c-d-f-h-z. I’m fascinated by that, not just the visual narrative of film, but narrative itself. 

I think we should be allowed to delve into other forms. Too much definition is restrictive. That’s why collaborating has always been very important to me: it’s an exchange. It’s one of the reasons I work really well with Nitin. 

Nitin Sawhney

I started music when I was five years old. I trained as a classical pianist, but I was very inspired by a lot of different music I was hearing at home. My mother was a bharatanatyam dancer, so we had a lot of Indian classical music in the house. At the same time she would tell me stories from India, from the Mahabharata and the Vedas. So I really got a sense of narrative being associated with music. 

Meanwhile my dad would play a lot of different styles – a lot of jazz, such as Miles Davis and bebop artists, as well as flamenco and a lot of Latin music. At the same time my brothers would be playing Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea. So I was into a whole range of different styles. 

I suppose that’s why I was always looking at music as a language, because there are so many different ways of expressing yourself through music. And the thing that connected everything together for me was the idea of narrative. You use music as a language, not just to communicate but to express feelings. Actually, when I was young I spent much more time playing music than I did speaking. It was a more natural language for me. It only occurred to me much later, looking back, that I only really felt comfortable when I had a musical instrument around. 

“I found connections between Bach’s Two-Part Inventions and the raga kirwani.”

I was a classically-trained pianist but one of the things that happened at school made me bring in a lot of Indian influences. The National Front were very strong in my area, and I had a bad experience at school with a National Front music teacher. It made me determined to bring in a lot of Indian influences, influences from different aspects of my heritage as well as from my context. I think that was very important for me. I would play around and find connections between classical Western music and classical Indian music. For example, I used to listen to a lot of Bach, and I found connections between Bach’s Two-Part Inventions and the raga kirwani. My Dad had the album East West, by Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin, which had some really lovely compositions, and I was very interested in that way of seeing things. So of course later I was interested in musicians such as John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussein, bands like Shakti. 

As time went on, film music really began to interest me a great deal, because it was again about narrative and emotion and moods, and how that works with visuals. So I was inspired by composers such as Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann, but also just generally by the art of creating music for film. 

As for my career, I actually studied law at Liverpool University and then qualified as an accountant of all things. I ended up as the financial controller of a hotel. But I felt I didn’t know what I was doing there, and eventually I walked out of the job. For a while I went on tour with the James Taylor Quartet – Taylor was an old friend of mine – which was an acid jazz type of band. Then I got together with Talvin Singh and we formed the Tihai Trio, which was mainly mixing Indian classical influences with jazz. 

A little later, after Talvin and I split, we both got more into club music. There was a lot of experimentation at that time in the mid-90s, with trying to break out of conventional boundaries and expectation. It was something that excited a lot of young Asians. Outcaste Records was a young and very exciting record company to be with. Bands like Massive Attack were a big influence, particularly with things like their remix of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, then later with songs like Protection and Karmacoma. Actually, anything with Nusrat always fascinated me because his voice was so universal. American guitarist Jeff Buckley did a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan song, and the film Dead Man Walking had a soundtrack with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam. 

It was a very interesting time, but the downside was that a lot of people got lumped together, defined as a kind of movement. As a result it became partly treated like a fad or a fashion, as opposed to something that was more ingrained in the subconscious of our dynamic country. I was lucky, but a lot of Asians who were very talented got dropped by record companies: one moment they were very popular and cool, the next they were treated as last year’s thing. 

“…the music was more sophisticated, because it wasn’t trying so hard.” 

Looking back at that time personally, I think I was too conscious of trying to find ways to blend Indian classical techniques with Western techniques. Later on I found that just being myself and finding what I wanted to say led me to use all kinds of techniques anyway, and in a much less self-conscious way. And as a result the music was more sophisticated, because it wasn’t trying so hard. 

I think Beyond Skin (1999) marked a change. I felt imprisoned by perceptions of me during that time. I mean, the album was very well received and had some fantastic reviews, but ironically some of the responses from journalists seemed to be missing the point. I felt that they were trying to place it as part of that Asian underground movement. It seemed that people used that album to try to pigeonhole me more, whereas the whole point of Beyond Skin was to try to examine the hypocrisies and paradoxes of nationality and religion. That’s a constant struggle for any artist, to be seen for who you are and not for what other people project onto you. 

I made Prophesy deliberately to get out of feeling imprisoned. It’s more about a global journey. And 9/11, in the same year, caused a lot of parochial thinking, it imprisoned a lot of people’s thinking about the world. And I became determined to look at music in a much wider perspective. Rather than thinking about context and heritage I started to think of the world being like a palette through which I painted emotional pictures with music. So I no longer felt restricted by thinking I’ve got to find a way to reference my heritage. I let go of that and thought: I just need to make music, it feels right. If you listen to any track on Beyond Skin there is some reference to my heritage and context. But it was the last time I did that. 

Since then I’ve had many highlights, worked in lots of different projects. I’ve really enjoyed making the album London Undersound last year. I’ve also done music for games (Sony Playstation) and film. Recently I did the music for a film about Jean Charles de Menezes, which felt like a really important film to work with. Then working with orchestras has been fantastic. I composed an orchestral score for A Throw of Dice, an Indian silent film from 1929, and I’m now writing the music for a Japanese silent movie with the London Symphony Orchestra. Oh, and of course working with Akram has definitely been a high point.

Akram and Nitin

NS: I’d heard of Akram before I met him. I was always interested in what was going on at the Bhavan Centre in London, where I heard his name mentioned many times, with so many kathak dancers saying this guy is incredible. So I saw him in performance there before he ever met me. 

AK: We actually met outside the Asian Music Circuit. I had been in a meeting and we just bumped into each other. Nitin started talking about the 10-beat time cycle, and I was completely blown away with this guy who played piano and guitar and also understood Indian mathematics. And I was thinking about a solo that I would love to involve him in – and the result was Fix

NS: I wouldn’t say we have a particular way of working, because that shifts every time depending on what we’re doing. But we do have a way of communicating. We trust each other a lot, because we have a lot of similarities in our aesthetic judgements. That’s more important than the technical judgement. There are a lot of people you meet who are really interesting technically, but not so many that you empathise with artistically. 

AK: Nitin comes along to my studio and I love spending time in his studio as well. The collaboration isn’t about him making music and me making dance, then trying to force it together. It has to happen organically, throughout the process. The details about rhythms and so on come later on in that process. The ideas come first.

NS: That’s right. We both consider music and dance as languages. So you have to have something to say before you open your mouth or start to move. 

AK: The idea for the Svapnagata festival first came from Alistair Spalding, director of Sadler’s Wells. He spoke to me a few years back about doing a kind of Indian dance festival, but I was really not up for the idea at the time. Still, he planted the thought in my head and every year he would ask me about it, until eventually I said look, why don’t I do something with Nitin? With our relationship and our shared history, that sounded much more exciting.

NS: One of the main themes is the idea of the past, the present and the future. So we looked for artists with a strong awareness of their context, but who could look at their art form with a fresh perspective. 

AK: Shantala Shivalingappa is a good example. She’s a young classical dancer, very refined in her form. But she’s also worked with Peter Brook and Pina Bausch. Now, to get into Pina Bausch as an Indian classical dancer is no easy feat. You audition for Pina Bausch once in your life and that’s it: you’re not allowed to audition again, no matter how good you become. And Shantala got in. She’s not a contemporary dancer but she brings that contemporary sensibility into a classical art form. That’s very much an example of the kind of vision that we wanted to invite. 

But I don’t want to highlight anyone in particular, there are many different dancers, such as Akaash Odedra and Yuko Inoue, two young kathak dancers from this country. Then there’s Priyadarshini Govind from India, who is a phenomenal bharatanatyam dancer, deeply rooted in a traditional art form, but with her own interpretation. 

NS: On the music side there’s Anoushka Shankar. I was a huge fan of her dad’s of course, and I think she has a lot of his spirit. She can reference the past but has her own personality, with a lot to say herself. And U Shrinivas, he plays what people call a mandolin but is actually a kind of miniature electric guitar – which we really don’t associate with Indian classical music in any way. I should also mention Trilok Gurtu, who’s an incredible innovator and inspired me and people like Talvin Singh when we were young. 

I’d really like to mention Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, who doesn’t come from dance or music but is one of the most brilliant theatrical directors. Deepa Mehta uses her to work with her actors for her films. I went specifically to India to find her after I saw her production of Lorca’s Yerma at the Tricycle Theatre, which she did purely in Punjabi. She’s full of surprises and I’m fascinated to see what she brings. 

AK: And our joint piece is partly retrospective, because we have built a history behind us. But it’s also about finding new things. 

NS: It’s about how you create and trying to find yourself within the way you’re perceived. We have a commonality in how we confront those issues. 



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