Asian Music and Dance

The King of Ghosts

For me, the Queen Elizabeth Hall has always resembled the interior of a vast spaceship. And tonight the audience was transported not to outer space but to a kind of parallel universe where shadowy ghosts from the forests of Bengal dance to the rhythm of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. 

At the age of just 30, London-raised Soumik Datta has already made a name for himself as Britain’s sarod maestro. He has worked with collaborators such as Nitin Sawhney and Beyoncé and has brought a fresh, modern sound to traditional sarod-playing that is all his own.  

Datta’s rescoring of classic 1969 Satyajit Ray children’s film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne was originally performed as part of the Edinburgh Mela. The Alchemy Festival feels a fitting venue to showcase this piece that is an extraordinary fusion of film and music, east and west, old and new. 

At centre stage with his sarod was Soumik Datta himself, who told the audience how he came to love this film as a child in the 80s, watching it on an old VCR with his family. His warm nostalgia was evident: tonight was not only an homage to a great filmmaker and artist of Bengal but a personal exploration of history, fantasy and childhood.

I had never seen Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne before and although there are certainly films more demonstrative of Ray’s creative genius, the film has a light-hearted charm that is endearing. Goopy and Bagha are wandering musicians who are not very accomplished at their craft until they meet the King of Ghosts. He offers them three wishes, gives them fantastic musical ability and changes their lives forever. It is a simple, universal story that is beautifully reinterpreted through the new score. 

Composed by Soumik Datta, Cormac Byrne and Johannes Berauer, the score is by turns haunting and exhilarating. Byrne’s outstanding percussion brought life to the forest ghosts and a wonderful touch of humour to a scene with a sleepy maharaja. Berauer and the London Philharmonic Orchestra interplayed with the other musicians seamlessly. Datta’s superb sarod-playing evoked both the ethereal mystery of Ray’s fantastical world and its playfulness. The music was more than an accompaniment; rather a second storyteller.

As the audience arrived, a pencil sketch was projected onto the screen. Presumably one of Satyajit Ray’s preliminary sketches for the film, it depicted a row of five dancing ghosts that would later feature in the most pivotal and surreal sequence of the film. It made me wonder if this was what drew Datta to this project in the first place: the idea of wishing for musical talent from a supernatural being. Tonight’s magical performance suggests that Datta needn’t worry ‒ it seems that wish has already been granted by the King of Ghosts.



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