Toggling Between Contemporary and Conventional in London
Culture & Education
In conversation with Sahana Bajpaie
She is a famed singer-songwriter in India. She is also a lecturer of Bengali Language, Culture and Literature in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Sahana Bajpaie delves in the polynomics of Bengali as a language of her profession and passion in her candid style.
From Santiniketan to Dhaka to London, the journey of a singer and a lecturer must have been a comprehensive one. Tell us more about it.
I grew up in Santiniketan and then spent eight years of my career as a lecturer of English Literature in Dhaka, Bangladesh. My parents were both professors and from a very early age, I would see myself as a teacher. The love and respect they received have in a way influenced and inspired me to take up this profession. I teach with all my heart. In the same way, singing came to me naturally as well. Santiniketan nurtured me and so did my father. I started learning music at the age of three. People relate to me more as a singer, but truth be told, music doesn’t put food on my table, teaching does!
I teach at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London and that is my profession. Music is my passion and I try my best to give a professional performance when I am on stage. It has been a great journey and I have learned so much. I got to meet brilliant professors and performers over the years, who inspired me and helped me grow as the individual that I am.
As a musician who has performed globally, where do you see Indian music as an art form outside India? How receptive are your audiences when you are doing a concert in London or Amsterdam?
Indian music outside India is generally classical music; covering South Asian music as a whole. As far as the audience is concerned, it is very much the classical and to some extent Sufi music. The audience is not only Indian; there is a huge western audience that goes to these concerts, especially in London.
As far as Rabindra sangeet (Rabindranath Tagore’s songs) is concerned, I think the diaspora audience is more potent. This is because the language is very important. So, the Bengalis settled outside India often invite me to present Tagore. However, there are lone instances such as the Alchemy Festival in London where I performed in front of a mixed audience. In these cases, the songs are presented in a different way whereby the presentations and salutations are made in English and translated meanings of the songs are conveyed to help the audience enjoy and delve into the roots of these songs.
How does the cultural gap impact the Indian diaspora? Are they oblivious to the likes of Tagore or it allows them to connect with the philosophies that the music aims to imbibe?
The diaspora is a very curious space, if you want to study it, you see that the people who inhabit the diaspora hold on to or adhere to their kind of culture or music more steadily and fiercely than the people back home. So, of course, revival of folk music or Tagore’s songs would likely impact people more in India than the diaspora. This is a trend among the younger generation most of the time if you look at the revival of different genres.
The younger generation grows up differently out here and they are exposed to completely different forms of music. So, expecting them to reflect on Tagore sounds unrealistic to me. It has happened a couple of times, but I am sure the motive was not the revival – they would create music according to their understanding. I have two friends – Zoe Rahman, an award-winning Jazz pianist and Idris Rahman, a clarinetist – with whom I have worked in my earlier album, ‘Ja Bolo Tai Bolo’ and they have their own interpretation of Tagore songs. When I worked with them, I understood that there was no such thing as the revival of Bengali songs; they just re-interpreted the way they have heard it and the way they want to cater to their audience. So, I would not call it a cultural gap you see. The space between the forsaken land and the land where you stay does play an important role.
You have stayed outside India for a considerable period of time. Tell us more about the professional and the cultural differences between the music industries in India and in the west?
The professional difference in the music industry is there if we compare India and England. I am here for the last nine years and I know the exact meaning of ‘professionalism’. Professionalism is regarded highly here. You have to work your way up the ladder.
In the UK, I have seen only the privileged families pursuing music. They have the proper means to learn music. Otherwise, learning music is extremely expensive here. I might have to think twice about the affordability of having a piano teacher for my daughter. Similarly, it is tough to survive doing music. I mean, unless you are a genius at it, music could be a tricky profession to take up.
Thus, the quintessential difference lies in the fact that learning music in India is affordable and more accessible but the practice in the west is much more professional.
As a Pravasi Bharatiya or a Non- Resident Indian (NRI), what according to you are the most crucial aspects of education and fine arts that our country lacks and should implement immediately?
Calling myself an NRI sounds like a self-reference joke although I have a resident visa of this country. I am not English and will probably never be. And, I don’t think that I have much to say about the cross-cultural affinity. Every culture has something to learn from the other. However, when I look back, I still feel the ideal clay model of education and culture is the one that Tagore brought in Santiniketan a hundred years ago.
An individual being encouraged to grow up with imagination should be exposed to art forms such as painting, singing, dancing etc. to help them reimagining their strengths and fondness. I have been extremely lucky to be a part of this education system in my school in Santiniketan.
Finally, if you are asked to gauge the preference of your diaspora audience in Europe – what are they more likely to prefer to lend their ears to – A Tagore song or a folk song?
It is still Rabindra sangeet if I have to gauge the preference of my audience. It is still considered as ‘high art’ and everyone has been introduced to Tagore, whereas people are yet to align with folk songs. But, it also depends on who is singing it. Recently, when I performed in Amsterdam I sang both Tagore and some otherwise unfamiliar folk songs to my audience. There were many who came up to me and told me that they loved the folk songs. Similarly, my diaspora friends settled here in London would tell me that my new album ‘Mon Bandhibi Kemone’ is really refreshing as a collection of unheard folk songs.
Tagore songs, on the other hand, have always been an outlet for the Bengali population living abroad to connect with home. Rabindranath is more like an idol and holds a very special place in the hearts of Indians. It remained the preference in due respect to the attachment that it proposes apart from anything else. His songs have acted like memories from home and thus, have greater acceptance out here. Nevertheless, folk songs are gradually becoming popular as well.