We don’t hear as much of Sneha Khanwalkar as we would want to. There’s the odd song here and there, and sometimes in the strangest of places, such as the animated film Hanuman: Da’ Damdaar (2017). The phenomenally talented music composer is back with four whole songs for Nandita Das’s biopic Manto. Starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Urdu writer Saadat Hassan Manto, the movie will be released on September 21.
The brief that Das gave Khanwalkar was to weave songs out of the poetry that existed in the 1940s, during which Manto wrote some of his best-loved stories. Meeraji’s Nagri Nagri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Bol Ke Lab Azad Tere and Seema Akbarabadi’s Ab Kya Bataun Main were the chosen ones. A fourth song, Bann Titli, sung by Rekha Bhardwaj, was made by Khanwalkar a decade ago for a scrapped Dibakar Banerjee film.
Both Nagri Nagri, sung by Shankar Mahadevan, and Bol Ke Lab Azad Tere, sung by Vidya Shah and Rashid Khan, evoke the classical singing styles of Shamshad Begum and KL Saigal. But even as the tunes take us back in time, the music is contemporary, in keeping with Khanwalkar’s approach. “There’s a lot within the songs that’s not old-style imitation,” she pointed out. “Nagri Nagri’s simplicity comes from the lyrics but then it has a quirky, no, an interesting beat.”
“Interesting”, rather than great, good or beautiful – this is a word Khanwalkar frequently uses to describe sound and music. Why was Rekha Jha handpicked from Patna for O Womaniya? Because she had an “interesting” voice. Why did Khanwalkar raise the octaves of a tune played on the rubab during an interlude in Kaala Re? Again, it sounded “interesting”.
Khanwalkar’s admirers are usually driven to greater eloquence about her eclectic and wide-ranging style, which, while reflecting a movie’s universe, carries the unique stamp of its composer. Her efforts for Anurag Kashyap’s two-part gangster saga Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), resulting in 27 songs that clock 108 minutes, is one of the finest examples of her ability to channel folk music traditions and create a sound that is both traditional and anachronistic.
Just as 35-year-old Khanwalkar went to Haryana and Punjab and tuned into Ragini folk competitions to find the right singer for Tu Raja Ki Raj Dulari in Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), she travelled through Bihar and Jharkhand to find the voices and ambient sounds that would reflect the film’s backdrop – the coal mining industry. Just one instance: the sound of a pickaxe hitting coal in the beginning of Kaala Re, which is actually the jangling of metal chains from a factory.
After Gangs of Wasseypur, could anything else be as fresh and exciting? “Why sit in a studio and get lots of money to get top singers and musicians and make what everyone is making?” Khanwalkar wondered. “Better to go out and do something special.”
Khanwalkar’s output for Hindi films has been lean since 2012, and some of it has to do with her reluctance to churn out tunes. “I just didn’t feel like working at the time,” she said. “Or maybe, the good films weren’t coming to me.” After Manto, she is composing for another upcoming Anurag Kashyap film. There’s also another project about which all she will say is that it allows her to explore an unexplored genre of music.
Khanwalkar hasn’t always found it easy to convince filmmakers of her idiosyncratic vision. For Baal Khade from Khoobsurat (2014), she had envisioned a detuned “lazy, Haryanvi, Udham Singh” type voice. The ultimate choice was Sunidhi Chauhan, which, while hardly inadequate, led to the final mix being “20% of the original song”, Khanwalkar pointed out.
“It’s better to stay off and not do anything than fuck up good songs,” she said. “Why fuck up your own music? Lot of times, directors and producers don’t get your point. It’s not their fault – maybe a little – but it’s your job to shove it down their throats. So, it’s important to be careful about who you are working with or at least be assertive.”
Khanwalkar has also been wary of repeating herself. After the success of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, she was inundated with offers to make Punjabi soundtracks. She waited for two years and did Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), which had an eclectic mix of styles. After Gangs of Wasseypur, she kept getting offers to do music in the Bhojpuri space.
Instead, Khanwalkar travelled across India, recording sounds from cities, towns and villages for MTV’s short-lived television series Sound Trippin. In each episode of season one, everyday sounds became samples, and countless samples were stacked atop one another to create music – sneezing, coughing, grunting, the cranking of a sugarcane juice-making machine, the chugging of a local train.
Khanwalkar’s interest in the musicality inherent in routine human and inanimate sounds goes back to her childhood in Indore. While her granduncle Vamanrao Rajurkar, who belonged to the Gwalior gharana, conducted musical sessions in his room with Khanwalkar and her cousins, her mind strayed to the “drum ‘n’ bass” sounds of her father’s spring washer factory nearby.
Her interest in sampling began in earnest in the early 2000s, when she was an intern on the sets of Ken Ghosh’s Ishq Vishk (2003). One day, a DJ played her a short sample of a tune played on a shehnai. “I instantly loved it, there was just something in it,” Khanwalkar recalled.
Three years later, she heard the same sample again, this time slowed down and re-recorded for the title track of a movie composed by one of India’s biggest composers. “One needs immense skill and foresight to use a sample in such a way, by slowing it down,” she said.
Another important lesson for Khanwalkar around this time was the soundtrack of Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), in which the movie’s lead actress, composer and singer Bjork sampled sounds, such as those of a steam locomotive, to produce beats.
Since then, Khanwalkar’s use of samples has become a distinctive signature of her work. The joys of discovering music in random places is often unplanned. For example, when, in the middle of the recording of Bhoos Ke Dher for Gangs of Wasseypur, the singer Munna answered his cellphone and said “Haylo”, it made its way into the opening bars of the song Hunter.
In Khanwalkar’s world, everything and everybody is musical. In an episode in the second season of Sound Trippin, she got contemporary and b-boy dancers to create music with their body movements. This resulted in Nain Matakka. In TED Talks India: Nayi Soch last year, Khanwalkar demonstrated a live demo of creating music out of thin air without any instruments.
In the Sound Trippin episode as well as the TED talk, Khanwalkar and her sound engineers used the depth-and-motion-sensing technology of Microsoft’s Kinect. The software was originally developed for Xbox games that can be played without using a physical controller.
“The depth sensor detects your position in the X, Y and Z axis in a particular space which is programmed to produce music,” Khanwalkar explained. “Your hand is the cursor and each body movement produces a trigger that creates change in music and rhythm.” In the Sound Trippin episode, this device allowed the dancers to move in any which direction they felt like, which created beats in sync with their movements.
Khanwalkar has already moved on to new technology. She is part of the creative team of HoloSuit, a full-body motion capture suit that allows the user to remotely operate a three-dimensional avatar or a robot in real time. As the “Chief Ideas Generator” of the project, she is providing the developing team with her “ideas as an artist”.
Khanwalkar is also developing an interest in live-coded music, which is produced live through computer algorithms, and she intends to perform publicly once she feels she is trained.
Clearly, Khanwalkar’s interests and aesthetic lie in areas far removed from traditional Hindi film composition. “I don’t really have to be or aspire to be a hotshot Bollywood composer to make the music I want to make,” she said. “I just don’t feel like acquiring many films to show I have arrived or I am prolific or successful.”
While Hindi films have provided her the playground to execute her sonic experiments, her passion is too cross-directional to be boxed by the constraints of show business. Thus, she says, she feels stuck sometimes.
“Whenever that happens, my gut feeling is that there is something new happening somewhere I don’t know.” And then she is back on the road.