music

Blending Indian and Estonian music and myth, a Delhi-based ensemble creates a unique sound

NaadVõim brings together Estonian folk singer Anna Hints, Indian classical musicians and a dancer.

“In Estonian myth, the greatest singers are like wizards, they are creators, they could call upon all forces with song,” said Anna Hints, a singer from Taartu, Estonia, as she explained the legacy of Estonian runic music.

Trained in the tradition from an early age, Hints got most of her cultural clues from her grandmothers and mother whom she calls her “foremothers”. “They always sang, especially when we went into the forest. Then it seemed like their songs came to life with everything around us.”

Hints is one half of NaadVõim, a musical collaboration between her and Trippy Sama, a 12-member ensemble of Indian classical musicians. Engaged to Tushar Prakash, the curator and producer of NaadVõim, Hints visits India twice a year for a few months, and during that time she plans, rehearses and performs with the band.

Genesis of idea

It was Prakash who brought Trippy Sama and Hints together in 2016 – “I was always obsessed with classical music, but I never trained in it. When I met Trippy Sama, they were so welcoming of me, and I thought about Anna and how they must meet.”

“At Trippy Sama, we were already playing together, living together, busking together — we already had made grounds for some sort of free play,” said Hemant Chakravarty, the band’s drummer. “Meeting Anna meant we could take that a step further, streamline what we had into her music.”

“It’s more than a band, it’s a theatre, it’s a play of all kinds of genres, instruments, and music combined into one,” said Prakash. “There’s so many instruments, outlooks involved, it’s difficult to lock them all in in a linear kind of format.”

NaadVõim’s members are Anna Hints, Armaan Alireza Dehlvi, Amulya Shastri, Azaan Khan, Kartikeya Vashist, Hemant Chakraborty, Jayant Paradhsar, Hemant Chakravarty, Azaan Khan, Vaishnavi Mannava and Tushar Prakash. Between them they play the flute, string instruments such as the guitar and sitar, and percussion such as drums, dholaks and the djamble. Vocals combine the runic, Dhrupad and Caranatic styles.

Choosing to play at diverse venues and drawing up concise plans for each performance, NaadVõim aims to bring people together and present different kinds of musical forms, creating music born out of rigour but devoid of clichés. Its members draw from music cultures of India, Estonia and even Indonesia, bringing hymns, ballads and chants together to form a memorable sound.

The band is also unique in featuring a dancer, bringing physicality to each performance they create. “When we began, I moved to their rhythms, I choreographed according to them” said Vaishnavi Mannava, the dancer. “Now I want to carve my own space in this scheme, use props, maybe take the lead on some parts of a composition.”

Courtesy: NaadVõim
Courtesy: NaadVõim

Beat of their own

Before they compose, the band holds meetings, in which they discuss what needs to be composed and played.

“It is exhilarating to collaborate with people who have been trained in such different ways,” said Azaan Khan, the band’s guitarist. “As classical musicians, we are taught to carry ourselves into everything we do. But at NaadVõim, we are taught to let the same things go.”

“One time, Armaan and I were singing impromptu and later we found we were singing about the same things, the same emotions,” said Hints. “It is these kinds of instances that make the music happen. You have to leave that little space in the middle for it to take form by itself.”

This incident, she explained, led to the composition of A Love Story, one of the band’s favourite performances. Based on Estonian runic songs, it begins with whistles, wind sounds made by the flute and Hints’ chanting of the runic myth it pays homage to. The music then progresses with the guitar, Dhrupad singing, percussion and the flute.

A Love Story is a song about a man that goes for a walk in the forests and meets two sisters, between whom he tries to choose,” said Prakash. “In the end, he gets a sign from God that better things are in store, and he walks away. Our songs come from narratives like these – which we embody through various elements. Vaishnavi does a shadow dance in the beginning symbolising the forest, and there is a part with the flute, which symbolises the voice of god.”

“Each performance comes with lots of rehearsal, more than two or three weeks” said Hints.” But we also leave space for improvisation – that’s where the magic happens.”

Courtesy: NaadVõim
Courtesy: NaadVõim

In each of their compositions, NaadVõim builds on a movement of seemingly different sounds, which eventually come together harmonically. They are unafraid to experiment with instruments, but also use what they call “DIY sounds” – clapping and sounds mixed on a computer that are fused with others.

“In another song called The Swing Song, we use the Ragafone, an instrument made by a French musician,” said Chakraborty. “A new instrument for us means a new layer to our performance, which is very exciting.”

Finding audiences

Even though they don’t perform often, the band talks about each performance fondly.

“Our first one was at OddBird, an independent theatre in Delhi with a clientele focused on the arts. So it was easy, people were open-minded and polite,” said Mannava. The real challenge, they say, is in performing for an audience that does not know what to expect.

“Once we played at a cancer research foundation in Delhi,” said Prakash. “It was a challenge, because the crowd wasn’t the usual liberal, open-minded, hip, city crowd. But when we were done, they loved it, and it made it even the more special.”

They don’t translate their lyrics from Estonian, or Sanskrit, or oversimplify their process. They want to focus on performing, rather than recording an album. “We want to record performances and put them online for people to stream,” said Prakash. “Use new technologies to our best potential.”

The band believes it is getting braver with each performance and sees the unique nature of its set-up going a long way with audiences. “I think I am finally making the music I want to be doing,” said Chakraborty. “Now all those styles can mix into one – I don’t have to choose that I want to be this or that, I can allow my training to take its own course.

Khan said their music was greater than the sum of the parts. “I think that’s what we’re trying to do. I think that’s it, that’s what it’s like with this band.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.