Two of Britain’s most exciting Indian classical musicians, Talvin Singh and Roopa Panesar, recently crossed paths in Bombay Talkies, a unique project that injected a contemporary score to an old classic film. In the process each artist learned something new about themselves.
With a move from the smoggy city to scenic Suffolk, a bristling beard and now an OBE, Talvin Singh seems to be becoming quite the British gentleman. But the multi-faceted percussionist, tabla maverick and Asian electronica pioneer isn’t so sure what to make of the grand award just yet. “It’s growing on me,” he says, “I haven’t completely realised what it really means.”
Growing up in London, Talvin became a disciple of his guru, Acharya Pandit Laxman Singh of the Punjab gharana, during his teenage years. Since then he’s been back and forth from India, gathering a diverse range of influences in spite of a very traditional training regime. After winning the Mercury Prize for his debut album OK in 1999, Talvin felt a suffocating pressure to constantly come up with something new. “In the position I was, I got sick of the demand. Every artist loves demand but we also enjoy the freedom to do what we want to do. I’m not in this game for claustrophobia. That’s why I move around and do different things so that it makes it hard to pigeonhole me.”
So he threw himself into numerous ventures, one of which was Bombay Talkies. Curated by the Alchemy Festival 2012 at the Southbank Centre, the project centred around the idea of scoring new, live music to a classic film of Indian cinema. While catching a flight to India, Talvin was listening to the soothing strains of rising sitarist Roopa Panesar in her debut album Khoj and quickly contacted her to propose the idea of collaboration. Thus marked the beginning of a musical conversation. “Roopa helped me realise that stillness is always there, and she really helped me realise my melodic sensibilities.” As an experimental and adventurous percussionist, Talvin found that Roopa was able to ground his ideas but also encouraged him to explore melodic frameworks that played off his rhythms too. In one instance, Talvin introduced a Punjabi dhammar taal or time cycle that is specific to his gharana or learning lineage and sketched a melodic composition around it. Roopa picked up the melody and materialised it so beautifully that Talvin was instantly blown away.
The compositions were inspired by the stark imagery of Satyajit Ray’s Devi and its original score by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan Sahib; a film that Talvin and Roopa both chose together. After a successful tour, the project received positive critical acclaim as a new way to explore the relationship between classical music and the moving image. The duo, along with string players Meg Hamilton and Francesca Ter-Berg, are now a tight unit and no one is replaceable, just like the cast of a film. Jaswinder Singh from Asian Arts Agency based in Bristol saw the potential of Bombay Talkies at Alchemy 2012, and has gone on to tour it in the UK at various venues and festivals. Talvin hopes that Bombay Talkies becomes a conceptual basis for other composers to explore with different films too. As it happens, Soumik Datta has done just that in collaboration with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, creating a soundscore for another Satyajit Ray film, Gopi Gayan Baga Bayan.
But where do Talvin’s own hopes lie for the future? “I feel now I’m at a really good pace. I’m just strolling in the most beautiful place and realising all my projects and how I can make them work so that I can share them with not necessarily a larger audience, but the right audience.” Now his focus is on bringing the music back home. With talks of setting up his own label, releasing archived recordings and creating YouTube videos that de-mystify complex compositions for younger generations, he’s naturally always bursting with ambitious and infectious ideas. But which ones will come to fruition? Only time will tell.
Crystalline tone, depth of expression, technical precision and a rich understanding make Roopa Panesar not only one of the most sought-after sitarists in the UK but a prominent role model for the next generation. From the age of 7, Roopa showed signs of promise. Whether it’s a sold-out concert hall or a bustling classroom, her dedication and devotion to music are sincerely evident in all that she does.
When a phone call arrived from Talvin, Roopa wasn’t quite sure what the project would involve. But gradually, as ideas developed in musical exchanges, she soon found her freedom. “He’s got this really great intuition of where things will work. It was just seeing his freedom and how he comes out of the closed mindset that we have in Indian classical music. He’d say ‘You know it really doesn’t matter. We’re not in a classical concert so just go for it.’” Where Roopa provided the stability for Talvin to realise his ideas, Talvin gave Roopa the space to experiment and break out of her comfort zone. But Roopa still felt that the concept was within her artistic interests, especially since the inspiration for the project came from a soundtrack that featured one of her biggest musical icons, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. “This kind of collaboration was really beautiful because we were able to keep our original sound, be true to ourselves and yet utilise other forms of music and other instruments along with the whole sound and visual aspect.”
Roopa plans on continuing to collaborate and experiment with new pathways in Indian classical music, but solo performance is very much at the heart of her career plan. “I love solo playing… it comes from your own yearning and search for music and that’s still going on.” But it’s not about fame or ego, recognition or fortune. Instead, when I ask Roopa what she makes music for, she replies that it is an act of service. “I want to be a channel for something else to work through me and to give people an experience of something divine. So ultimately that’s not going to be coming from me, it’s going to be coming from somewhere else.”
Among planning for a new album, touring and teaching in the community, the future looks bright for Roopa. “I want to do the best I can. I want to feel that there’s always something new happening and that some sort of growth can be seen.” With a pure heart and clear intentions, Roopa is sure to climb from strength to strength and is definitely one to watch in the years to come.