A week in Kolkata is like homecoming for British-Indian sarod player Soumik Datta. He was born in Mumbai, and moved with his family to the United Kingdom when he was 14. Every winter, Datta travelled to Kolkata to take sarod lessons from Buddhadev Das Gupta before returning to London and practising on the 19-string instrument by himself for the rest of the year. These crash course sessions would sometimes last for 16 hours a day, which was “normal”, Datta insisted.

“Nobody forced a sarod in my hands, otherwise many people leave the instrument midway,” Datta told Scroll.in at a South Kolkata cafe one evening. “At that age, studying in a very old and very white British boarding school, I was looking for something to hold on to, and the sarod became a tool of self-expression for me in that environment.”

Indian viewers will learn more about Datta in Rhythms of India, a three-episode music travelogue that will be telecast on the BBC World News channel on January 25. The episodes follow Datta talking music with sitarist Shujaat Khan, Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna, tabla player Bickram Ghosh, veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh, and India’s first ghatam player Sukanya Ramgopal.

Datta also spends time with artists from Mumbai’s mainstream music industry, such as Javed Akhtar, Kavita Krishnamoorthy, Nucleya, DIVINE, Sez on the Beat, and members of T-Series, India’s largest music company. The series includes local music practices such as Kerala’s percussion ensemble Panchari Melam and Maharashtra’s brass band groups.

Datta has performed across genres with the likes of Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney, Anoushka Shankar, Joss Stone, Jay-Z and Beyonce. The 36-year-old artist fuses Indian classical music with pop, rock, and electronica, as is evident in his recently released EP Jangal, inspired by the havoc caused by climate change, global warming, and wanton deforestation. Datta’s works include composing music for Sandhya Suri’s documentary Around India With a Movie Camera and re-scoring Satyajit Ray’s film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne for a series of cine-concerts. Excerpts from the interview.

‘Rhythms of India’ includes musicians from across genres and cultures. How different is their approach to music?
A lot of this difference has to do with who their audience is and their method of performance. Kavita Krishnamurthy told me how, in the early days, she would practise a song relentlessly before delivering a single take in the studio alongside a live orchestra for a playback session. Now, a singer can give as many takes as they want, and the session musicians record their tracks separately.

The folk drummers from Kerala in the show perform for 10 hours straight. That requires a lot of strength, stamina, and surrender until it becomes a spiritual experience. Their performance is a cultural, religious matter, and that has an effect on their approach.

Panchari Melam is indeed a very intense performance.
Definitely – ten hours of drumming, walking around in a sanctum, with thousands of people following them. One discussion I had with the drummers was, what do they do when they are not drumming. Is drumming economically sustainable? Sadly, no. They either give up entirely and take up jobs that pay, or they modify their music and advance it in a way they feel is right so as to find a wider audience.

Fusion music for someone like me is a matter of what I want to do, but for them, it’s an economic necessity. Artists like Rajasthan’s Kutle Khan does it. Fusion is the same thing, but in the shell of something else. How an ever-changing society and avenues of economy are related to the practice of art is interesting.

Doesn’t that mean the slow death of indigenous musical practices as they succumb to the need to become market-friendly?
It’s easy to say nothing should change, the form should remain intact, and a changing world shouldn’t affect you. But the truth is that it does affect you. It means less work. I have met musicians who have said they won’t dilute their music, but then that’s their call.

Nothing stays stagnant in culture. A new raag is born out of someone mixing one raag with another. Amjad Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar did it.

You once said that Indian classical music, as we know it, wouldn’t exist without the Mughals.
North Indian classical music, actually. The concept of raag comes from South India, and it’s rigid there. Because of the Mughal influence in North India, many new raags came up. But the way a raag would sound in one part of North India would not be how it sounds in others. In the North, the concept of a finite number of raags doesn’t exist.

Now, whether the classical music community gives a thumbs up to a new raag and accepts it as canon is a different question. But the truth is that without Mughals, North Indian classical music wouldn’t be the way it is, and raags get made all the time.

Soumik Datta featuring Aruna Sairam.

You do not perform at solo sarod concerts as much as you do fusion. Is the reason economic?
Very talented solo sarod players are performing across the globe all the time. Pure Indian classical music has survived for a thousand years, and it won’t ever die, since it’s a niche.

While it is true that fusion gives you a larger audience, since you don’t need to understand classical music for it, and you can tap your feet to it or hum to the melody, I do what I do, because of who I am. Growing up in London, I had very few friends I could talk to about taal or raag. So I grew up with Shakti or Zakir Hussain on one side, and Pink Floyd and Radiohead on another. I also grew up around the time the Asian Underground was coming up.

I would rather spend a day jamming with a couple of musicians coming up with maybe only 30 seconds of original music than travelling somewhere and playing the sarod alone. Those 30 seconds of music, after all, is you, and as an artist, if you are not making something 100% unique to you, even if it’s just one track in your life, you better do something else.

The King of Ghosts (2017) by Soumik Datta.

You are yet to tour or perform in India.
For many years, I’d been asked, when will you tour here? I always felt that if I have to perform here, I should do it when I have something to say. I think the fight against global warming and climate change is one that’s worth fighting, given what’s happening in Australia and Brazil. It has obliterated the age-old questions of identity. Jangal is the first project that I want to bring to India.

How has ‘Jangal’ been inspired by climate change?
Climate change affects me on a political and human level, but it’s also personal. My instrument is made of wood, for which trees are cut. It is made of sheepskin, for which animals are killed. Steel is tempered for it. I wonder what is the carbon footprint of me and my instrument as I travel around the world to perform.

I was struggling with these thoughts, doing my research on it, attending protests like Extinction Rebellion and Earth Day. Every single thing led to music because that’s how I express. So I’d find out which forest is in danger. The Amazon is, so I got bombo from there, which you hear in the beginning of Jangal. Similarly, there’s bamhum from Nagaland.

Jangal (2019) by Soumik Datta.