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‘Lanka’: Soumik Datta brings the Ramayana into the Digital Age

A medieval country home built for the brother of a Plantagenet king, and set in a particularly bucolic part of the west of England may seem a slightly odd place to stage a very 21st Century re-boot of an ancient Hindu epic.

But then Sarod maestro Soumik Datta has a bit of a reputation for pushing the envelope.

The supremely gifted 29-year-old British Indian artist has created many a weird, wonderful and bold production in his brief and acclaimed career, collaborating with an eclectic range of artists, from Beyonce to Akram Khan, Raghu Dixit to Javed Akhtar. 

On June 29, Datta will bring his most ambitious collaboration yet to the historic Dartington Hall in rustic, rural Devon.

‘Lanka’ is a re-imagining of the Ramayana; an electric piece of musical theatre inspired by the 2500-year-old Indian text about human relationships, marrying Datta’s exquisite Sarod skills with storytelling, animation as well as lighting and sound straight out of a Dead Mouse concert. 

The production – a collaboration between Datta, theatre director Natalie Abrahami, Dutch visual artist Sander Loonen and sound engineer Nick Atkins – will be held as part of the Dartington Trusts’ Tagore Festival which will also feature Nitin Sawhney, Lord Desai and Vayu Naidu, among others.

The UKAsian  caught up with Datta as he put the finishing touches on his latest sensory treat.

Tells us about what ‘Lanka’ is and how the idea came about.

The show is a theatre piece and a music gig rolled into one with two story strands; one is the Ramayana, or parts of that epic, and the second made up of events that have taken place in my life since the age of 14.  The stories run parallel to each other and as they unfold you begin to find links between the two before they finally merge at the end.  It’s a very personal, autobiographical production.  I had initially wanted to bring in more collaborators but as I worked on it, it became so personal that it made sense for the production to just involve me.  A solo show is very challenging.  I’ve always been into collaborations and I love the energy and the ability to bounce off people.  Here I’m my own collaborator in a sense. 

The story itself was inspired by your grandmother…

 The structure of the piece is based on tapes that my grandmother used to send me when I was at boarding school.  Each cassette had her voice and a recording of a particular segment of this myth.  I was always fascinated by this very strange, fairytale-like story.  Boarding school was quite a difficult time for me and the tapes became a thing that I could hold on to and definitely shaped my understanding of the world. 

I remember once where I was so immersed in my Sarod that my father came and took it away and demanded that I study.  It felt like the thing that was dearest to me had been kidnapped, in a way, much like Rama’s wife is kidnapped in the Ramayana.  Looking back now, there have been so many similar episodes that have happened in my life that have coincided with the stories that I would receive.  There were instances later on in life where I could refer back to those stories as well.  Not just with me but people I have known.  So, in ‘Lanka’ you see history and mythology and my personal life becoming entwined. 

This increasing complexity of production, marrying so many different elements, seems to be in vogue at the moment…

 Well it sounds complex but I don’t think it necessarily is.  I don’t think I want people to exit the hall thinking that it is complicated.  They should have an overall experience and all the elements should add to that experience.  We live in the digital age and that in itself is an incredibly complex world.  If you take cinema for instance, that is an immensely complex medium with the visuals and the acting and writing and music and songs and all of that put together.  Before, books were very influential, then sound, and songs and so on.  I think cinema is such a direct and quite influential thing on a lot of us nowadays.  Our thought process was why not marry all of those elements of cinema in a theatre production?

And this is the first time you’ll be taking centre stage as an actor…

 There have been questions as to how someone who is mainly known for music jump into theatre.  I suppose I’ve always been in theatre.   In my background at least.  Because of my mother (writer and director Sangeeta Datta) theatre has always been a big part of my life. I used to do lots of acting right up until I went to music school.  It’s a passion.  Then it got to a point of my life where I began asking why theatre wasn’t a part of my repertoire.  I began asking myself why I hadn’t engineered something that is less seen or visual in the industry.  There is a preconception in the industry where if you’re a musician, you’re a musician.  If you’re an actor then that’s it.  If you have an artistic voice there are many ways of telling a story.  I guess I’ve always wanted to explore different things and push the boundaries.  That has always been something that’s driven me.  Moving into the world of theatre.  I don’t know what’s going to happen next!

‘Lanka’ and the Tagore Festival is part funded by the Arts Council at a time when funding for a lot of similar events is drying up.  How has the age of austerity affected artists like you?

 I think people like myself have somehow benefited from this dip in the economy because suddenly there is a space for emerging artists to have their voices heard because venues have less money because of the cuts.  So venues are looking at “second-tier” artists because they can’t afford the top-graders.  It’s actually reinforced my belief that I don’t need to change what I’m doing and the direction I’m going creatively because the opportunities are there.  You just need to keep working and pushing yourself.  For example, when we released Circle of Sound last year the response was amazing because there was a space in the world for it to be accepted. 

Looking ahead, the second ‘Circle of Sound’ album is expected later on this year…tell us about that and what more to expect from you in the coming months?
We are first going to be releasing the music from ‘Lanka’ as an album towards the end of the year.  It’s quite an interesting album because it references so many different parts of my life.  For instance, I was a huge Game Boy fan when I growing up so we have sounds that are based on that 8-bit Nintendo soundtrack married with Sarod and Indian music.  It’s really interesting to see how different styles gel. 

We will be releasing the second Circle of Sound album, which will feature Anushka Shankhar and Nitin Sawhney apart from Bernard (percussionist Bernard Schimpelsberger) and myself.  We are hoping to have a live performance in London next Spring.  I’ve done the music for the National Theatre’s London-inspired production of Romeo and Juliet.  The music for that is heavily influenced by the music of London with lots of eastern music.  The interesting thing is that the music will be partly live and partly recorded.  That’s at the National Theatre in July. 

‘Lanka’ is part of the Tagore Festival at The Dartington Hall in Devon.  For tickets and information, visit  www.dartington.org

Picture Credit: Alchemy

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