During an interview with music composer Shantanu Moitra, strains of afternoon azan filter in through the phone. Minutes later, he talks about the beauty and power of everyday sounds, and how they give a place its defining character.
After an hour’s conversation involving clairvoyant musicians and the glory of pickled meat, I am willing to bet that for the 52-year-old, places are as important as musical notations. Moitra’s body of work includes roaring hits like Parineeta (2005), Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) and 3 Idiots (2009) and gently-aging gems like Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005); and true to his nomadic self, scores steeped in location, like that of Yahaan (2005). His travel journal, on the other hand, logs 100 days in the Himalayas, from Ladakh to Arunchal Pradesh, for the eponymous travel-and-music project in 2016. “You don’t have to rush to Switzerland for the sublime. It’s all right here in India,” insists the man who has trekked to the Everest Base Camp four times.
Edited excerpts from a rolling conversation with the World Wildlife Fund India ambassador and travel author:
How do music and travel intersect in your life?
Twenty-seven years ago, I left my job with a bank because I wanted to travel. And I wanted to travel without having to ask a bunch of grumpy people for holidays. So what else could I do, where I could earn money but also didn’t have to ask for leaves? The answer was (ad) jingles. Independent music was the way to fulfil my dream of travelling, and suddenly I was free. Before that, I was far away from the world of music, just another good Bengali middle-class boy trying to make his parents proud. In that way, my love for travel led me to my love for music.
Did this new ecosystem (of advertising) accelerate your journey towards independent music, and thus, independent travel?
I was in client servicing, not creative. But it put me in close proximity to a lot of wonderful, talented people. Pradeep Sarkar, who later on went on to direct Parineeta, Jaideep Sahni, who wrote Chak De! India, and Dibakar Banerji, who’s directed movies like Khosla ka Ghosla!, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!. We had dreams of doing movies one day, but back there in Delhi, it was a faraway dream. We were happy in our own little world. But then I jumped the boat.
Like I said, my focus was travelling, not music. Music was a stepping stone. For me, each day gone was a place not seen. But once music brought me here (Mumbai), and things started working out, starting with my first album Ab Ke Savan (1999), what excuse did I have not to do music professionally? How could I fight it? So I married the two, and thus began the next part of my life.
Quitting without a back-up, spending 100 days in the Himalayas—you have quite the adventurous streak.
I have always done these things in life. The idea for 100 Days in the Himalayas formed during 3 idiots, but I left right after PK. Here was a huge hit, and then my phone was off for about a 100 days. That’s suicide in Bollywood! But somebody who truly understands travel will know that there is no substitute for the lure of smelling a new land, of learning a couple of words in a new language, sharing a cup of tea with strangers in a whole new temperature. For me, travel is an internal journey. I transcend internally when I travel.
I loved the folk-with-a-funky-edge score of Gulabo Sitabo. Rooted in the soil, but fresh. Do you find a lot of creative inspiration on your escapades?
Let me tell you a crazy story. When I was a kid, I would make a trip to Chanakyapuri (Delhi) every Sunday. There, in front of the U.S. embassy, a Sunday bazaar would be set up—this was early 1990s. Diplomats would move in and out of the area and Sunday was the day some of their discarded personal belongings would be sold off. I would go there to buy records. Records in various languages—Spanish, French, Swahili. I’d go to great lengths to earn this record money; sell off the odd thing, or serve as an usher in concerts. But that’s not the crazy part.
I was buying the records, but I did not have a record player. Instead, I would hold these records, splashed with photographs from Hawaii or Africa or Italy, close to my ears, and try to imagine what could be inside. I would fantasise that one day I’ll have the money to travel to these places. Just the idea of travel made my imagination so strong. That imagination has become the cornerstone of what I do today.
You have a lockdown series of digital addas (conversations) with friends from inside and outside the music industry.
The idea of these talks too, came from travel. Many years back, I was trekking through Uttarakhand and made a pit stop at a remote mountain village. At around 7-7.30 p.m. the resident caretaker of the place where I’d put up came to me, saying he’ll be busy for the next one hour, so if I needed anything, I could tell him now.
Soon, five-six other men came around, and this group of villagers settled down in front of a transistor. At exactly 8, our man switches the radio on, and rapt silence takes over the group. For half an hour, they listened to a Vividh Bharti programme called Hawa Mahal, and for the next half an hour, they discussed it passionately. In a place that’s cut off from the rest of the world, with limited means of communication, talking to each other becomes all the more important.
Right now, the lockdown is that place of restricted access. So we have to keep finding new, safe ways to visit each other’s stories. This is where the digital talks come in, where we can all journey into the memories of these interesting people whom I admire, maybe even find some inspiration.
Going back to your big obsession, mountains, you’ve had a brush with a near fatal avalanche…
Another surreal story. This was one of my first trips to the Everest base camp. Just before the base camp, there is a place called Goarkshet, pretty much the final resting point before you reach the base camp. I had overestimated the number of kilometres I could take on each day. I had separated from my porter. Of all the days, that was the one where I’d given him my water bottle. I was dehydrated, but I kept walking. At some point, I felt the ground shaking, and an avalanche came tumbling down. All I remember is the sound, 10 times louder than the loudest sound you’ve heard. I got caved into a depression. In that cold pit, there was another person, a foreigner, roughly 10 feet from me. He had a bottle of water. I asked, “Can I have some?” He didn’t reply. The sequence is hazy hereafter. When my porter found me, and I came around, I realised the guy I’d asked for water had been dead five years.
That does sound surreal. As does travelling to a desert city in search of an ancient string instrument.
I was in college when I started having these recurring dreams of sounds from this string instrument called Ravanhatta. I had seen a documentary on the shamans of Mongolia, and was feeling irrationally adventurous. I thought my time to travel is now. And so I did. Took a train to Jodhpur, and from there to Jaisalmer. The train was late and I reached the Jaisalmer station at around two in the night. It was dark, desert-night dark. I decided I’ll sit through the next few hours and hop onto the first train in the morning. I was curled up on a bench when I first heard a cough. And then, a voice. “Ghar se bhaag ke aaye ho?” (Have you run away from home?) Second sentence: “Ravanhatta ke khoj mein aaye ho?” (You have come in search of the Ravanhatta). When this stranger asked to hand him a potli (bag), it was not a request, but a command. I obliged. For the next few hours, until daylight broke, this gentleman played the instrument and I listened, mesmerised. Come morning, I saw him, in cuffs and chains, and I saw that the station was dotted with police. Turns out, the accomplished Ravanhatta player, this clairvoyant, was also a convict on his way to Tihar Jail. Before the train came, this person told me not to loiter around too long, and that my mother is worried. He stuffed a cloth bag in my hands, containing about Rs2,500. I didn’t question him.
In travel, sometimes you go through experiences you cannot explain. This was one such unearthly experience.
Speaking of unearthly, you have also dabbled in fusing celestial sounds in your music.
When Chandrayan-2 lost contact very close to the surface of the moon, I was impressed with how a country of billion-plus people never cribbed about the supposed failure. I wanted to celebrate the spirit of endeavour, so I decided to host a concert in NCPA, Mumbai, for the scientific fraternity. That’s where I began experimenting with what you call celestial sounds. The first time I heard the sound of wind on Mars, recorded while blowing across NASA’s InSight lander—goose bumps.
In parts of our beautiful, big country, sounds are much more than that. I was in Ladakh, by the Tso Kar lake—in December, 14,860 feet, -25° Celsius. My companion, photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee, and I stopped at the peculiar whistle of shepherd tending to a herd of yaks. A strange tune, unlike any other herding whistle. I walked up to him and asked him if he knew any other (tunes). He looked at me blankly. “I only whistle for my livelihood,” he said. He explained that the frequency of his whistle is sensed by the yaks, who go grazing in the foggy landscape that ends in a cliff. When there is a change in frequency, if the whistle becomes faint or stops, the animals know to turn back. They have been trained for it. A whistle, in this part of the Himalayas, works as a sonar radar. Isn’t that some perspective? Travel gives you that perspective. They don’t teach that in classrooms.
You must have met a lot of interesting people, travelling through this ‘other’ India.
Oh yes. A driver in Kurseong, with a gifted voice and a curious repertoire of songs. He picked up these songs by requesting passengers to play their different playlists. Language, dialect, style; Mariah Carey to Prateek Kuhad, driving around his small town, he’d picked it all up.
Then there was a woman called Nani, in Arunachal Pradesh, the last leg of my Himalayan journey. Her one dream was to have children, but she kept suffering complications. So Nani started taking in homeless kids around her village. In the beginning, she would almost collect them by fibbing about her “boarding school” to the parents. She did go on to give these kids education—all 120 of them—but back when she started, there was no money, no building, no plan. Only willpower. By the time I reached, the entire village had come together to support her.
Would you say you associate places with their characteristic sounds? What about your boyhood city, Delhi, and your current home, Mumbai?
Absolutely. When I think of Delhi, I think of morning birds. I have not seen any metro with this kind of bird culture. Old Delhi, where I spent a lot of my time rummaging through cassettes and books, brings back the sound of azan. In Chittaranjan Park, where I lived, there were the temple bells, from the Kali bari. Conductors in old mini-buses, rattling out the names of bus stops, almost like a rap song—Ajmeri Gate, Ajmeri Gate, ‘meri Gate, ‘meri Gate. The conductor tapping along on the bus’s tin roof makes me think of the beats to “We Will Rock You” (Queen). In Patel Nagar, where I also lived, the sound of the chole bhaturewallahs karchi (ladle) going ting-ting-ting against his steel ware marked evenings.
In Mumbai, I recognise the lack of silence. There is always some sound. Where I live, sometimes that sound can be of the sea, still new to my Delhi brain after 18 years. My lane is called the Visarjan Lane, so throughout the year there is some religious procession going through for the final immersion. Different seasons, different chants.
So in cities you collect sounds, in mountains you soak up the silence. Do you also star-gaze?
I love star-gazing. I know Gulzar saab, a keen astronomer, through star-gazing, and not music. The greatest night spots, for me, have been in the Northeast. Especially North Sikkim, by the Gurudongmar Lake. I have never seen such dazzling skies, where the Milky Way seems as close as the back of your hand. And we were talking about the celestial, so let me tell you that under these incredible skies, I’ve heard the Gurudongmar Lake groan. The lake’s top is frozen, but underneath, the water is still liquid, so there are basically two surfaces. The surface tension causes the lake to produce what sounds like large whispers and groans—the sound of nature twisting and turning. One more thing I love about the Northeast.
What else do you love about the Northeast?
I love the food, especially from Nagaland. I love their black bean sauce, the way they prepare pork, even the pungent soya bean sauce. Once you get over the smell of fermentation, the taste is mind-blowing. Then there’s the dried meat. Northeast is also the storehouse of non-veg achar. In Lucknow, where I was born, and Delhi, where I grew up, pickles are always made with vegetables. So this was a big discovery for me. I must also mention the dish that binds the Himalayas together, the simple dal-bhaat (dal-rice), tastier with the gorgeous views of the region.
Where would you wish to travel, once the pandemic wanes?
It’s been very bad timing for my last travel plan. Just before the pandemic, I was supposed to cycle along the course of the Ganga. So as soon as it is safe to do so, depending on the time of the year, I will try to resume my plans. Gangotri to the Bay of Bengal, that’s the plan.
Travel wisdom from his time in the mountains has guided Moitra through the stillness of the pandemic. In Himachal, when a connecting bus would take longer to ferry him from one point to another, the musician learnt to give up control, and soak in the surprises of his unscheduled stops. A little mind-travel, too, goes a long way in these tough times, he says. Moitra as a young Delhi boy would visit an air-strip dubbed ‘Jumbo Point,’ to watch aeroplanes. It was his virtual escape to all the faraway lands the passengers were bound for.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.