Nitin Sawhney is an enigma. You can see him spinning dance tracks in a smoke-and-laser club, and conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. You can hear his music if you watch BBC One’s British Academy of Film and Television Arts, or BAFTA-winning Human Planet , or while slashing through blood and gore in the video game Heavenly Sword . In 2007, he scored the soundtrack for a musical production of the 1929 silent film A Throw of Dice . And he’s now working on the soundtrack for Deepa Mehta’s screen adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children . Prolific in his output, Sawhney has just released his ninth studio album Last Days of Meaning.
The Indian-origin British musician, composer, DJ, producer, and playwright has won awards by the dozen for his albums, scores and soundtracks. He’s had a colourful trajectory, turning down an Order of the British Empire in 2007 because of UK’s involvement in the Iraq war, collaborating with artistes as wide-ranging as Sir Paul McCartney, Sting, Brian Eno and Madonna, and most recently, hosting a genre-breaking radio show for BBC’s Radio 2 in the UK, Nitin Sawhney Spins the Globe, where he plays a no-holds-barred mix of music from around the world.
Sawhney spoke to Lounge over the phone just before his first live tour of India. Edited excerpts:
Your first tour of India—is there more to it than just the excitement of playing in a new place?
Oh, of course, this is a fantastic thing for me. I feel a great affinity with India, and I cannot tell you how much it means to me. This is where my cultural roots are. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m really glad that it has finally been possible to get my band here. I look forward to meeting my relatives, musicians here, and maybe, if I get the time, I’ll go around the vineyards at the SulaFest (Nashik). I’ve heard that it’s a lovely area.
Common ground: Nitin Sawhney is touring India for the first time.
How did you come up with the concept for ‘Last Days of Meaning’?
The idea came to me while watching the last general elections in the UK. Every single time there is an election, they blame the immigrants, especially from India, for a variety of problems. So I created a character that thinks in this way, who has a parochial “Little Britain” mentality—scared of the outside world. It just started off as something I was writing while travelling on the Tube, an excuse to address racist thinking, and then it felt comfortable for me to turn it into an album. In the album, the central character, played by John Hurt (an acclaimed British actor who also narrated the Human Planet), is an embittered old man who sits in a room raging against society, immigrants, and his childhood memories, and listens to a tape sent to him by his estranged wife, and the songs on that tape slowly change him. I’ve never heard of anything like this—to take one character and build an album around him—it’s almost a small play, but it’s not a musical, it’s a proper album.
Will the recent controversy in India where Salman Rushdie was stopped from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival, have any bearing on your score for ‘Midnight’s Children’?
No, but I feel it’s bizarre—we should all be proud of the fact that he is such a phenomenal writer. Unfortunately, we live in a world where we can accept someone like George Bush, who is a very dangerous man with a brain the size of a pea, but we can’t accept a great author. The reason Rushdie is such a controversial figure is because he is so damn good at what he does. Deepa (Mehta) is also controversial for the same reason—they know what they are doing with their art form, and that scares a lot of people.
Almost all your albums have political or social themes, and you put in a lot of work for social causes; you are a patron of the British government’s Access-to-Music programme…why?
I only have one way of thinking—everyone is equally valuable. My parents married out of their castes, they were the first from their families to do that, and they have an egalitarian way of looking at the world. Too many people use nationality as an excuse to ignore the plight of other people in the world. We are very, very insular in the way we look at our people and our own lives, and I feel the need to speak out against that. The very fact that I’ve got a BBC Radio 2 show of my own makes me believe that I’m making a difference. This is a mainstream radio station in England, one of the biggest in the world, and they’ve never done anything like my show. I’m playing Nusrat (Fateh Ali Khan) and Ali Farka Touré alongside Radiohead and Coldplay—I don’t differentiate between music from around the world. The response has been phenomenal. I wanted to do something that’s free. That’s how music works for me.
Cover of his ninth and latest studio album.
You’ve written music for films, video games, albums, theatre productions…how do you juggle these various forms?
I always start from emotion. What moves me is important...I trust my aesthetics. Everything I do is equally valuable. If you are creating a DJ set, you have to think of how to draw the audience in, those who come to listen to that is no different from those who will come to listen to a classical concert. A DJ set is not just for you to move to. It’s a structure, a sense of a journey, an emotional feeling of development. It’s a bit like the way you speak differently to different people, you build an awareness and knowledge of each of these people, so you build ways of communicating with them.
I have spent more time listening to and playing music than speaking, so music is my language, and it allows me to cross boundaries. The Natya Shastra way back in 200 BC talks about commonalities, about the connections between things. It’s about understanding the meeting points of different art forms, about enjoying the language of music and its possibilities.
Do you get any time at all to take a break from music?
Well, I’m running a triathlon this year. I like kick-boxing. I like reading about theoretical physics and Hindi philosophy. Right now, I’m teaching myself some electronics. Learning interests me, I like learning.
Sawhney performed in Delhi on Friday. He is scheduled to perform at the SulaFest in Nashik on 5 February and at blueFROG in Mumbai on 7 February.