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Music critic

'Music is an incredible passport'


There's very little that escapes Nitin Sawhney's eyes and ears. Don't be fooled by the extremely soft tone. Behind that genteel exterior lurks a multitasking perfectionist, a virtuoso, and a man whose brain never stops ticking. A consummate collaborator, Sawhney has spent the last 25 years earning the loyalty and support of some of the world's leading musicians and vocalists and has just come off from a stint at BBC2 Radio where he hosted the well-received show Nitin Sawhney Spins The Globe.

Over the years, Sawhney has released nine studio albums, each garnering critical acclaim and new fans with every listen. His credits across the worlds of theatre and dance are equally extensive, featuring scores for multiple Olivier-award-winning productions such as Complicite's A Disappearing Number and Akram Khan's Zero Degrees. And in the world of film and television, he has scored over 40 films including Mira Nair's internationally acclaimed adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel Namesake.

Currently busy with creating the score for the film Midnight's Children directed by Deepa Mehta, Sawhney travels to India next week for his first ever live performance in the motherland of his parents. No stranger to India - he has plenty of family in Delhi - or Indian music - he learnt the sitar and tabla as a child. In fact, the London resident liberally and proudly infuses his music with Indian influences.

"My idols include people like Ravi Shankar and Nustrat Fateh Ali Khan, and I love Indian classical music and qawali. These are all part of my heritage and the Indian culture has influenced me greatly, " explains the 47-year-old. Among the rare souls who can both play dubstep and recognise Deepchandi, Sawhney's name has been associated with many prestigious South Asian projects like performing a live score to the 1929 black-and-white silent film A Throw of Dice in front of 15, 000 people in the middle of Trafalgar Square with the London Symphony Orchestra. Or working with Akram Khan on Zero Degrees.

"I understand Indian classical music and I've a very fortunate music history with being able to play the flamenco guitar and classical piano, " he says. "I feel I can cross over boundaries that perhaps others aren't lucky enough to. "

Sawhney isn't afraid to let his music speak his mind. Though he has professed no desire to be a leader or spokesperson for anything - "Words don't interest me half as much as music" - his work reflects his thoughts on multiculturalism and is brimming with subtle but unmissable political undertones. Bullied and picked at in school in Rochester for being brown, Sawhney turned to music. He started learning piano at the age of 5, and suddenly the young Nitin knew that he had found his voice. His earlier works, Migration and Beyond Skin are the oral rendition of emotional diaries.

"Every experience affects you but perhaps it's less direct than it used to be, " Sawhney, who has worked with artists like Paul McCartney, Sting and Shakira, says in a measured way. "My earlier music was about race but my recent projects celebrate diversity and humanity. It's more celebration than a reconciliation with the past. "

He flirted briefly with law and studied to be a chartered accountant for two years before he realised that the mathematical progression of raags was his life and not balance sheets. "It wasn't really like that, honestly, " he begins. "I did all those things while I was a musician and during a time when there was no concept of an Indian person living off music. Music wasn't a path, it was the only road. I just wandered around the scenery sometimes, " he laughs.
Allergic to labels - he hates the term 'world music' - Sawhney is widely known as the force behind Asian Underground but he shuns all attempts to put him into tiny neat boxes. "Music is an incredible passport and I don't like being boxed into one genre or sphere. "

"Some of my heroes like Rabindranath Tagore and Leonardo da Vinci were great artists, philosophers, painters. " He continues, "Tagore hated the concept of nationality and it's ironical that his song is the Indian national anthem. I understand that labels are for convenience but for me they're restrictive. "

If Sawhney is effusive in his appreciation of Indian classical music, the contemporary Indian 'music scene' hasn't really impressed him. "You have to be very, very, very good at production to impress me, " he states. "I'm not being arrogant here but most stuff at the pop level I can do in my sleep. I have all the plug-ins and I can duplicate something within minutes of hearing it. The scene doesn't impress me. "

Nitin Sawhney will perform at blueFROG, New Delhi on Feb 3 and Mumbai on Feb 7, and at the Sula Fest on Feb 5

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