(May 26, 2022) One rainy day, while playing indoor cricket with his younger brother, a 12-year-old Soumik Datta discovered an old sarod that once belonged to his grandmother. That incident led to a never-ending fascination for music. Today, the award-winning multi-disciplinary British-Indian artist has released several albums. An ambassador of the Earth Day Network, Soumik often addresses social and environmental issues through his art. His recent animated musical film Songs of the Earth, premiered at The UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. A short story about Asha, a young climate refugee from Bengal who searches for her father across the world through burning forests and rising oceans, the film was commissioned by the British Council.
“I read that climate disasters caused more internal displacement than war. This had a deep impact on me, especially as someone privileged, living in London. What came out was in the shape of a short story — about a young climate refugee called Asha, searching for her father across burning forests and melting glaciers. This was the start of Songs of the Earth,” shares the artist, during an interaction with Global Indian.
Not a born musician
Born in India to a banker father and a filmmaker mother, he spent his early years in Mumbai. As a child, who loved the sea, Soumik wasn’t musically inclined during his stay in India. “I was a proper Mumbai kid. My days were mostly about school, playing with my friends – but I wasn’t into music during my time in India. I often wonder, had my family continued living there, would I have ever become a musician,” shares the 39-year-old artist whose younger brother, Souvid Datta, is a well-known photographer and filmmaker.
When an 11-year-old Soumik first moved to London, he was in for a culture shock. “My father was already working in London, so the family eventually moved there. I was one of the very few coloured kids in my school. I had to learn a lot in terms of the vocabulary, which was quite different from India. It took an adjustment period, but looking back I feel it all happened quite quickly,” the British-Indian artist shares, adding, “My parents listened to classical music. I remember my mother would sing Tagore songs. I was a huge Shah Rukh Khan fan then and would listen to his songs. While I wouldn’t sing to play, music was always around.”
Trained by a great Guru
Soumik’s first introduction to the string instrument was purely accidental. “It rains a lot in London, and one such day, my brother and I were playing cricket indoors. I shot the ball a little hard and it dashed into a cardboard box kept in the corner. When I went to check what was inside the box, I found a shiny instrument with strings attached to it, which I had never seen before. Later that day, I showed it to my father who informed me that it belonged to my grandmother. That evening my father gave me my first sarod lesson,” shares the artist, laughing, “I didn’t really play cricket after that.”
After a year, Soumik was introduced to his Guru, renowned artist Padma Shri Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta on a vacation in Kolkata. “He looked at me noodling at the instrument and told me to come to his house next morning at 6 am. And just like that my training started,” the artist quips. While most students attend music classes for years, Soumik had an unusual training. “It was quite rigorous while I was in India, each year during vacation. However, my guru would design the training sessions in a way that even when I returned to London, I would still be able to practice the ragas every day. I was very blessed to have him train me,” he shares.
However, sarod was not the only thing that captured Soumik’s interest. “Growing up, I listened to every kind of music. In school, I would play the English tracks on sarod. Eventually, I became more interested in the contemporary music as well,” says Soumik.
A melodious journey
Soumik attended the University College London, and later studied at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, graduating in 2009 with a MMus degree in Composition. Meanwhile, he toured with his band to various cities with his songs. But his big break came when he was invited by American rapper Jay-Z to play at the Royal Albert Hall in 2006. Later, he even performed with Beyoncé.
Subsequently, Soumik’s music started addressing several social issues. “I wanted to talk about these issues since they affect each one of us. I feel that music has the power to make people think,” quips the British-Indian artist. In 2021, he released a six-part visual album titled Silent Spaces, which is a creative lockdown response driven by a pervading sense of Covid-induced personal and professional loneliness. Later the same year, the British-Indian artist won the British Council Commission for Climate Change Award for his film Songs of the Earth which was released at COP26 in Glasgow.
“When British Council announced the award, I was already devising music and film projects about the environment and had already released an album Jangal — to raise awareness about the impact of deforestation with art director Sachin (Bhatt). I had a premonition of working together again, so I wasn’t surprised when we landed this award,” shares the British-Indian artist. The animated film Song of the Earth is an eight-track album wherein each song represents a specific environmental issue experienced through Asha’s eyes. The songs create a unique narrative, covering issues from floods and eco-Infashion to deforestation and industrialisation.
Soumik was keen to write the songs in a fashion in which they are able to retain the musical quality as well as appeal to a larger audience. “I wanted to write the songs in a way that wouldn’t detract from their musicality but would hold hidden layers of meaning for the different kinds of listeners,” he says, adding, “Throughout the film, her baba’s teachings offer her hope and propel her to face the dangers and calamities which lie ahead.” Datta fervently believes the only way to deal with climate change is to “not be motivated by fear but instead by the hope for a better future.” The artist collaborated with Sachin Bhatt and Anjali Kamat who visualised the story from page to screen and helped him manifest his lead character, Asha and the climate emergency that spirals around her.
Currently, he is working on a new show that will address immigration, mental health issues, and the refugee crisis.