There is a recognizable hunger in Sarathy Korwar when meeting him or seeing him play live. It is a hunger of the kind you see in someone who wants to correct or restore something that has gone wrong in the world. In Cicadas, his last commissioned work for zerOclassikal, he was eager to re-address the hierarchy of the tabla, placing it centrally amongst the stringed instruments of a sarod and santoor – and having a rotating mirror ball placed pivoting next to him. The creative boldness of that work, consistent with his own solo album – My East is Your West – has led to a new zerOclassikal commission – Mother Tongue. We talk to him about the hunger of placing his music outside expectation and normal habitat…
So where did it start, when was the first tap of your finger on a tabla? What made you do it? What was the feeling?
I genuinely don’t remember. I was too young. It’s a question that I have asked my parents before, did I naturally gravitate towards the tabla and if so why? I can only say that I was attracted to rhythmic instruments from an early age and have wanted to play drums of any sort, since I can remember.
When did you first started feeling what you were doing was limited, like tabla is just an accompaniment or at least perceived as such?
In my creative pursuits I have consistently gone through phases of feeling inspired followed by a period of boredom or limitation. After having played tabla in a conventional setup (as an accompanist) for a couple of years and really enjoying the musicality associated with that role, I started to feel limited as a musician. The setup did not allow for me to be as expressive as I wanted to be. It did not allow for genuine interaction between musicians to take place on stage. I felt all the spontaneity that made improvised music so beloved to me go away and that’s when I knew I had to find ways to make playing tabla exciting for myself again.
What was your reaction to your creativity, like did you feel it was something already part of you? Or was it a discovery?
I grew up in a very creative environment at home and at school. I was always encouraged to be expressive. Having said that I’m also not a very self assured person so until I actually started making music and putting it out I wasn’t sure if I was actually on to something or not. Over the course of the last five years I have gained a lot of confidence and self-belief in my own creative abilities. So overall, I always felt like I was creative but needed a large amount of gratification from the outside to believe it completely.
And how did it reconcile or equate with what you were doing or what was expected, like I came across a kid from Mumbai who wanted to be a rapper (a wannabe Apache Indian). He was a son of some multi-millionaire diamond dealer, his parents had given him just one year to prove himself – to make it as a rapper or be suited and booted back to the family trade.. I never heard of another Apache , so he’s probably back selling diamonds, just hope they are not the blood kind out of anger. Hope that journey wasn’t yours?
Ha that sounds brutal! My family never pushed me to do anything and I have been supportive from the get go. I never felt any pressure or expectation from them. When I decided I wanted to study music in London they helped me without any hesitation. I’m very lucky to have the kind of support network that I do and probably wouldn’t be in the position I am without them.
You came to the UK as an artist in your 20’s, a place where we (black /Asian sector arts sector people) are constantly negotiating the “black burden” — that is if you are from a diverse heritage your subject of your work has an expectation to be of that world. How do you cope with that? Considering most black art is political in this country since it is funded by the Govt, did you fall into that? Or is that an expectation you’d want to shy away from?
There’s this great quote from a jazz pianist I really admire called Vijay Iyer (who is Indian American) ; “ …ethnicity becomes a way to imagine and reinforce separateness. Most power in the music industry is concentrated among white people–primarily white men–and there are these ideas about ethnicity, and how your ethnic identity is somehow expressing your essence. That’s something that’s imposed from the outside and it’s basically stereotyping people based on their surface attributes rather than really genuinely trying to connect with them. So, the kinds of responses or reactions you tend to get are usually an indication that someone is not really listening carefully or closely.”
This is the reality we face as minorities making art in the west.Any expectation of diversity is a very Eurocentric perspective that I try and avoid. I make the work I am interested in and then try to influence how it gets portrayed or ‘sold’ in public as much as possible.
But, that’s the thing, what is that ‘I am interested in’ when you are already thrown in a pigeon hole? Like, are you kind of shaping your landscape or are you being shaped by your landscape?
It’s both. I believe all black art is political and would extend that to all BAME art makers. Living in this country and being a minority means that whatever you do is going to be political, then it depends on whether you want to tackle it head-on and use you voice to influence the predominant narrative or try and stay ‘apolitical’. I choose to tackle it. Through my music, in making albums that feature fierce, defiant young brown voices that question what ‘British Indian music sounds like’ or reworking songs from the past that have helped oriental’s Indian music I believe I am working towards contributing to shaping the landscape, but no doubt I am also making this work because I am affected by the current landscape.
In Cicadas there was a theme to want to balance the hierarchy in Indian classical music that comes across archaic, and you used a digital mirror ball as a prop for audience to pay attention to your instrument, was that your intention?
Yes, my intention was to visually distort what one is used to seeing at a indian classical concert i.e. with the ‘lead’ musician placed centre stage with the other ‘less important’ musicians surrounding this one person. Setting up in a triangle and placing the light in the centre hopefully drew audience’s attention towards not any one performer and also brought to peoples attention the inherent visual hierarchy that exists without much questioning in indian classical music performance settings.
It’s been an easy situation to ‘fuse’ elements of classical structure with jazz, largely due to the supposedly improv nature of both, and there is a kind of re-surgence of a new wave of that, but new work in classical structure is also emerging from young artists.. Where are you placing your new commission Mother Tongue ?
Words like ‘tradition’ and ‘classical’ work towards building this idea of music that is stuck in time or timeless (but not in a good way!). What needs to remembered is that music, regardless of genre is constantly evolving and building shaped by new artists that choose to play it. Indian classical music today sounds very different to what it sounded like 20-30 years ago, let alone in the courts of the Mughal emperors 200-300 years ago! Some people have not been able to let go of this notion and expect a certain visual and aural experience with Indian classical music that is never going to be the same.
My new commission navigates a space between indian classical, modern western classical and jazz music. It’s then up to the listener to enjoy and experience it without boxing it in too much!
Mother Tongue will work with an ensemble of Indian classical musicians developing a new framework of group improvisation pushing the musicians out of their comfort zone and rethink what spontaneous musical interaction can sound like within a contemporary classical space. Borrowing from new classical (western) techniques such as Butch Morris – ‘Conduction’ and Karl Berger’s ”Improviser’s Orchestra”, the conductor in this case – me – will give musical direction to the ensemble through a variety of visual gestures that determine musical parameters like rhythm, melody, harmony, form/structure, articulation, phrasing, and meter.
The intention is to stimulate a way of making and thinking about music that can expand the concept of musicianship, improvisation, musicality and a musician’s role within an ensemble.
Photography : Ayesha Begum