Mann ki Baat has a retro ’70s feel to it, smoothed along by lush banks of strings. Acche Din is a dirge powered by a bluesy harmonium and an elegiac santoor. Electronic temple bells and gongs resound through Mandir.
These are among the tunes on Superpower 2020, the latest album by LIFAFA, the stage name of 34-year-old Delhi musician Surakant Sawhney. It was released earlier this month.
The title is an ironic nod to former President APJ Abdul Kalam’s prediction that India would become a superpower by 2020.
The album, Sawhney said, is his attempt at a “sort of social commentary on how I feel about what’s going on in India”.
He explained: “The past few years have been pretty overwhelming in the experiment that is India. This work is the result of that.”
It’s an experiment whose results Sawhney has tried to play a small part in influencing. In February 2020, as thousands of people gathered in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, Sawhney was among the musicians who participated in performances there under the banner Artists Against Communalism.
“I think an artist holds up a mirror to society, and he should be willing to speak through his art about what affects him – as long as he lives within a regime which allows him to, and protests when it does not,” said Sawhney.
If the titles of some songs on Superpower 2020 reflect catchphrases popularised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that isn’t a coincidence. Sawhney said he believed Modi’s “knack for marketing has resulted in phrases that parody themselves”.
The lyrics of the songs are suffused with Sawhney’s instinct for protest. On the second track Wahin ka Wahin, he sings, “Tere desh mei toh/ Pyaar gunah hai” (In your country, love is a crime). Mann Ki Baat ends with the slogan “Inquilab zindabad”, Long live the revolution.
Despite this, Sawhhey said he did not try to be overtly political since the nature of politics was too complicated to be expressed in an eight-track album. He simply found himself “naturally writing words which had the strange desire to express themselves in this dry, almost mocking tone”.
This the third solo album by Sawhney, who is also the frontman for Delhi indie band Peter Cat Recording Co. founded in 2009. He started his solo project as LIFAFA in 2012. Venturing into electronic music for the first time, he released his first solo album LIFAFA the next year.
His second album Jaago released in 2019 helped Sawhney solidify his presence in the independent music scene in India. Blending eccentric percussion and harmonica-based electronic music, topped with his rich baritone, Jaago came from “an unexplored space in all of time and history”, said Sawhney.
Even though India is currently going through a period of turmoil, Sawhey says he remains optimistic. “India is an experiment that continues to surprise,” he said. “As a people, we have never stopped changing and striving to transform despite everything. Despite my love/hate relationship with India, it can still move me to tears and it does.”