Watch: The Indian ‘Von Trapps’ Preserve Rural India’s Dying Musical Traditions

Watch: The Indian ‘Von Trapps’ Preserve Rural India’s Dying Musical Traditions
Soumik & Souvid Datta via Kickstarter

“India has a myriad of these jewels too, be it ayurveda, yoga, meditation or music - the list is endless. These are our national treasures. Sure, you can’t put them in a museum but they are treasures nonetheless, ones that have the potential to reveal infinite possibilities. All we have to do is tune in and listen.”

In a country as large and diverse in its landscape, cultures and traditions as India, there exists countless forms of artistic expressions coming out of different regions, each as unique and mystifying as the other. Growing up in a very artistic household, brothers Souvid And Soumik Datta’s friends would often jokingly refer to them as the ‘Indian Von Trapps.’ Spending their formative years in India and the UK, currently Souvid works as a multimedia journalist and filmmaker with big names such as TIME, The Guardian and VICE already under his belt. Soumik, on the other hand, is a Sarod maestro and composer who was trained by the legendary Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta and has collaborated with powerhouses like Beyonce, Jay Z, Nitin Sawhney, Anoushka Shankar to name a few on a long and growing list of musicians. Although the two brothers embarked on two different career paths, they both always maintained a strong connection with their Indian roots--the classical and folk music traditions they lived and breathed as children.

“Over the past decade though, wrapped up in increasingly commercial concerns and aims in our work, we became aware of how nostalgic we both were about the effect Indian music had on us,” Souvid tells us. After a long talk one afternoon late last summer, they both realised they wanted to rediscover the curiosity and creativity that music had sparked in them as children, and Souvid tells us, together they “set out into rural India with the hope that experiencing the nation’s artistic scene firsthand, off the beaten path” might inspire them. What this expedition resulted in is a documentary film titled Tuning 2 U - Lost Musicians of India,’ a visual documentation of rustic musical communities in the wilds of rural India, across deserts, valleys, jungles and endless fields. You can watch the documentary below and follow it up with our interview with both brothers.

HG: The project was conceived and filming began in November 2015, but documenting numerous musical tribes in a country as vast as ours could not have been easy, especially tracking them all down. How did you find all of them? Can you tell us a bit about the entire process.

“We spent 6 months preparing, researching and planning the shoot. Of course, I also wanted us to leave room for an element of chance - unexpected encounters along the road - and there were quite a few of those! Word of mouth is still a powerful tool and when you’re in remote areas, you hear a lot of ‘I know a guy in that village’ or ‘come with me. There’s someone you should meet.’ So the process was a balance between structured shoots and unplanned encounters - which is what gives the footage an edge, I think,” says Soumik. “A lot of friends and well wishers helped us track down the musician communities. You need a small but dedicated team of friends to do a project like this. We travelled and shot in 6 states: West Bengal, Rajasthan, Nagaland, Karnataka, Goa and Uttar Pradesh. We travelled through mountains, seasides, valleys, through a host of different climates and heard how the language changes every 100 kilometres.”

HG: Not everyone is comfortable in front of the camera, more so someone who isn’t accustomed to being around such equipment. How did people respond to being filmed?

“In terms of access, physically getting ourselves to the right place at the right times proved a challenge: imagine us comically lugging heaped carts of camera equipment over mountain tops, under waterfalls and through cliffside jungles. And there were deeper issues regarding our treatment of more reclusive tribes—or those being persecuted due to their craft,” says Souvid.

“What ran through everything, though, was a genuine sense of curiosity and respect in our ethos. We were truly in awe of every one of these artists and their individual histories and struggles. I think this is what helped our subjects see that all we wanted to do was experience their craft and collaborate with them as fellow artists. Even in broken clay houses within rural villages we were treated with incredible warmth and hospitality - by people who generously shared their lives and crafts with us. The process of collaboration wasn’t always easy but trying left us challenged and inspired—and that’s part of the positive outlook we’re hoping to communicate through the films.”

HG: You’ve met and visually documented so many people, their stories and music. Is there any person that really stood out to you in your journey across the country?

“Almost everyone we met was a personality. You could take any one of them and make an entire film on just that one person. There was a young girl, a daughter of a music teacher in Shantiniketan who wasn’t even supposed to be part of the shoot. I saw her hanging out by the well drawing water while we were almost wrapping up. When I requested her to sing, we couldn’t believe the sound that came out of her! There was also a farmer in a village in Uttar Pradesh who we had contacted a few months ago. Since then, he had been paralysed on his left side. But he was adamant on making the appointment. A friend carried his harmonium and even bellowed it for him, while he pressed the keys and sang powerful renditions of rare Chaita songs,” says Soumik.

HG: In your opinion, what can/should the government be doing to protect these vanishing musical traditions?

“I think it’s up to the government to preserve fading sub-cultures in the same way as they would preserve heritage landmarks or national parks. Artists need funding and platforms to showcase their work, they need support to adapt to the Indian music industry’s changing demands and formats. But more importantly than the government’s role, I think the public need to look more towards India’s incredibly rich and vibrant musical scenes beyond the commercial mainstream, beyond Bollywood,” comments Souvid. Further adding, “There’s a huge opportunity to captivate young people both in India and globally with the fading yet completely relevant and engaging music of rural, folk India. That’s part of our series hopes to contribute to, and through spurring mass interest we hope that these cultures won’t be forgotten but rather showcased and championed anew.”

HG: If you could, what would you say to the younger generation, that has drifted towards pop-culture and western music, about why they need to recognise and appreciate the sounds coming out of their own country?

“Of course younger generations will be drawn to Western cultures. This is a byproduct of the powerful American marketing engine which has effected us globally. On one hand, I believe its important to embrace contemporary culture and re-approach some of our traditions with a more accepting attitude. However, at the same time, I believe we as Indians, could take a page out the Japanese book. Today, the Japanese are incredibly modern in their outlook. But despite the futuristic advances that Japan is known for, they wear their tradition with pride. And with that comes a deep understanding of an ancient value system that enables them to know how to mould their identity and also respect the true ‘jewels’ of their nation. India has a myriad of these jewels too, be it ayurveda, yoga, meditation, music--the list is endless. These are our national treasures. Sure, you can’t put them in a museum but they are treasures none the less--ones that have the potential to reveal infinite possibility. All we have to do is tune in and listen,” muses Soumik.


With the help of three organisations - Bagri Foundation, Soumik Datta Arts and Weavers Studio Centre for the Arts - the Datta brothers have wrapped up their filming, but now, need your help with post-production. “Post-production and marketing are essential and often extensive arts of the film production process. Quality productions depend on painstaking editing and sound engineering in a studio. Then, to get a film to audiences--whether a cinema, TV or tablet screen--requires persistent promotion,” they write on their Kickstarter campaign page to raise funds for their incredible project. From what we’ve seen of the film, its extraordinary people, dynamic visuals and thundering soundtrack of voices from across the nation needs to be watched, heard and experienced. We can do our little bit to ensure that this remarkable film that’s aiming to preserve and encapsulate our rich yet fading musical traditions. For more information on how you can contribute, visit Soumik and Souvid’s Kickstarter campaign page here. You can also follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

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