It’s better to be a musician whose compositions get five million page views on YouTube instead of 200 million, because then the musician is not condemned to repeat his hit work and can experiment as he pleases.
This is what Anurag Saikia believes. He says he has been fortunate never to have composed a superhit song. This freedom from the pressure of success has allowed the 30-year-old composer to create tunes for a range of films and web series in both Hindi and his first language, Assamese, without compromising on his creative integrity. His credits include the Hindi films Karwaan (2018) and Thappad (2020) and Assamese productions, including the short film Yugadrashta, which got him a National Award for Best Music Direction in the non-fiction category in 2013.
Saikia’s latest effort is The Viral Fever series Panchayat, which is being streamed on Amazon Prime Video. Panchayat follows Abhishek (Jeetendra Kumar), a young man from a big city who struggles with fulfilling his duties as a low-level government bureaucrat in a village in Uttar Pradesh. Despite being set in a rural North Indian milieu, Saikia’s score evokes the sonicscape of Yann Tiersen and Gustavo Santaolalla. The background score and songs include the use of acoustic guitars, pianica, accordion and the kora.
Panchayat director Deepak Kumar Mishra, writer Chandan Kumar, and creative producer Abhijeet Singh Parmar wanted “anything but the usual music”, Saikia told Scroll.in. “So we initially tried symphony, then rock, even jazz. The music for episode one took a month or two to be locked in. Once that was in place, we decided to keep the music acoustic and minimalist.”
Among the tricky bits was the episode about a haunted tree, which needed to have an “ambient sort of music”, and a beer-drinking scene, which featured a bit of rock. The biggest challenge was the fact that most of the score for Panchayat featured only acoustic instruments.
“When an entire score for a scene got chucked, I had to bring the musicians back to the studio, and they often played for the same scene thrice a week,” Saikia said. “This happened with the theme that is used to introduce the village pradhan’s husband.”
Despite being a sprawling score, made for 280 minutes of visuals, the score doesn’t have any prominent recurring motifs. “That’s because there’s always a new challenge for the protagonist, a new story in each episode,” Saikia said. “Also, we did not want to repeat any score anywhere.”
Among the songs that stands out is Hiya Tho, a soulful tune with gibberish lyrics. The only intelligible word in Saikia’s dummy lyrics is “Hiya”, which means heart in Assamese.
“The song is inspired by the chants we have grown up hearing in monasteries in the North East,” Saikia said. He recruited fellow Assamese singer Shankuraj Konwar for vocal duties since he would understand the song’s Assamese roots.
Saikia’s early exposure was to Assamese folk music and Western classical music. The composer is the son of All India Radio singer Dipali Saikia and academic Anil Saikia, who is known in Assam for his extensive collection of gramophone records and players. Anurag Saikia’s initiation took place at his home in Moran itself. “I never knew a world outside music because music was playing constantly at our house from morning to night,” he said.
Saikia later travelled from Moran to Dibrugarh to study Western classical music from AIR artist Syed Sadullah and then moved to Guwahati to assist Assamese pop sensation Zubeen Garg, among others. Saikia also studied jazz and blues at the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in Chennai.
He had his first taste of mini-stardom with the release of his first Assamese pop album, Tup Tup, in 2008. The National Film Award in 2013 took Saikia to Mumbai. Among the jury members for the award was Assamese music programmer-arranger Dhrubajyoti Phukan, who introduced Saikia to the music composer Pritam.
Saikia spent the early part of the 2010s programming music for Pritam. Saikia was introduced by Pritam to Anurag Basu, and was signed up to as the composer on Basu’s television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015). Working with Basu led to a meeting with filmmaker Akarsh Khurana. Saikia created tunes for Khurana’s 2018 films High Jack and Karwaan. Saikia also composed the background score for The Viral Fever’s Gullak.
Saikia’s Assamese songs have been very popular in his home state. Among his favourite Assamese compositions are the Tup Tup title track, Ekajoli Maan, Gumutha Dawore (sung by Arijit Singh), Sila, and Kalor Asur (sung by Zubeen Garg).
Saikia has entered the music scene at a time when there are fewer complete and remix-free movie soundtracks than before. “When one door is closed, multiple others open,” Saikia reasoned. “Thankfully, independent music is growing, and there are web series as well.”
Apart from commercial projects, he has been working on producing Assamese devotional songs, called borgeet, with a Western classical orchestra. The initiative, Project Borgeet, kept getting delayed until funds were secured in 2018. Saikia got an 85-piece Macedonian orchestra and a choir group from Shillong to produce the song Are Kompito.
Borgeet were composed by Srimanta Sankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva in the 15th and 16th centuries keeping certain ragas in mind, and are similar to Carnatic music or Hindustani music, Saikia explained. The Sangeet Natak Akademi is yet to recognise the songs as a classical Indian art form.
“When I realised that borgeet is classical music just like Western symphony, I wondered what borgeet would sound like if Sankardeva met Beethoven and collaborated like artists from the East and the West do,” Saikia said. “My purpose for this project is to bring borgeet to new listeners, so even if one of the 85 musicians in Macedonia hums a borgeet tune 10 years later, I will feel my job has been done.”