“To see God in a wooden instrument—not a small matter!” Tarok Das told Soumik Dutta while standing in the midst of a field in rural West Bengal. Das is a Baul singer, a wandering minstrel who roams the state’s sleepy villages and bustling cities singing songs fused with Vaishnav, Sufi, Tantric and Buddhist tenets. He is one of the (many) fascinating subjects of Soumik’s new project, Tuning 2 You, a six-part documentary series on folk and tribal music in India.
For the past year and a half, Soumik, a sarod player, has been criss-crossing the country in search of these vanishing musical traditions, along with his photojournalist brother, Souvid Dutta. They’ve met over 100 artists, including mandolin players in Goa, Rengma tribal dancers in Nagaland, and the drumming, dancing dollu kunitha performers of Karnataka.
In the face of such diversity, communication wasn’t always easy. “There were many places where we couldn’t speak the language,” Soumik told National Geographic Traveller India, “But the minute I played a few notes on the sarod, I could see the barriers breaking.” As Soumik worked on understanding the musicians’ craft and collaborating with them, Souvid captured their interactions on photo and video.
In India, and around the world, musical traditions play a significant role in community gatherings like marriages, births, and deaths. There are songs for the celebration of a child, or a bountiful harvest, and there are others to mourn the loss of a mother, or a husband. In India, many of these traditions are passed down orally from one generation to the next; some have never been archived. “Faced with globalization and urban migration,” Souvid says, “the most vibrant cultural practices of India’s villages are beginning to fade.”
The brothers planned their trips so they could be in each state at a particular time—Goa during Christmas, Nagaland during the tribal gatherings at the Hornbill Festival, and West Bengal during the Poush Mela in Shantiniketan. And while they had done a lot of research, each visit still brought its own discoveries. In Goa, one of the last states to join independent India, Soumik met “an old, eccentric violinist who was very pro-Portuguese, and all for Goan autonomy,” he said, “The struggle between a colonial past and an ever-changing future came through in his music.”
Click through for a glimpse of India’s lesser-known music and dance masters.
Kamakshi Ayyar is a former member of NGT India's digital team. She is partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.