Lessons on the Ganges – The Tribune India | Ad On Picture


Shantanu Moitra

Traveling I think is a way to escape whenever you feel trapped. I can’t tell if I’m a traveler or a musician first. But yes, both complement each other and are part of my Bengali DNA. While I don’t have to name legendary Bengali composers, I would like to remind you that Bengalis are avid travellers. Swami Vivekananda also had a close relationship with the Himalayas.

I can’t remember when I first got the travel bug. I’ve always wanted to travel, but I didn’t know it cost money. So I joined an advertising company where I made jingles and eventually created the famous one; “Stud bare lips. I love Uncle Chipps”. I later worked with Shubha Mudgal on Ab ke Saawan and Mann ke Manjeeré and was drawn to Bollywood. In 2005 three films were released – Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Parineeta and Yahaan – for which I composed music.

The work flowed easily and somewhere the traveler in me faded into the background. But after PK, instead of basking in the success of the film, I decided to take a 100-day break and went on an expedition to the Himalayas with my friend Dhritiman Mukherjee. Although we had one of the world’s best nature photographers as our companion, we didn’t take any photos, didn’t record anything. But upon my return, I had a pang of regret. There was a world out there that we had experienced and there are so many people who don’t have the luxury to travel. I could have offered them a travel experience in an armchair.

Perhaps this is the seed for my six-part documentary, Songs of the River, which follows my almost 3,000 km non-stop cycling expedition from Gomukh in Uttarakhand to Gangasagar in West Bengal. But imagine trying to sell the idea of ​​adventure sports to companies. It was a Herculean task until I met Sangeeta Jindal from JSW Group. She gave me carte blanche and we were ready to roll.

Somewhere deep in this project was also embedded a personal loss. I had lost my father during Covid-19 and on some level producing the documentary was a coping mechanism and a way to deal with my grief. But when my journey started from Gomukh and I reached Varanasi after my father’s last rites, I realized that I was fortunate to travel along the Ganges and find my catharsis. But there are so many out there who are caught in a similar predicament and have not found a solution. This was the birth of the Ananth Yatra idea. So I asked people to give me photos of the loved ones they lost. These later found a final resting place in Calcutta. What began as personal soon became universal.

If you ask me what I discovered during my heavenly sojourn, the revelations were many. For one thing, I stumbled upon an India you don’t see on Instagram. It is an India that thrives on community and sharing. Even in places like Bihar, whose image as the epicenter of violence is so skewed, I’ve seen excellent examples of community activity. As for the Ganges, which I discovered to be the backbone of our socio-cultural fabric, revealed to me its many moods. I saw it as a therapist, friend, companion, healer and the phrases “when in doubt go to a river” seemed so true.

How has this 3,000km journey down the Ganges changed me? Although change is a gradual process, I think it has changed me in countless ways. Why it made me pause, pause and think not only but all the amazing singers and musicians who are an integral part of my documentary. I chose these singers not only because of their great talent, but also because of what they do beyond music, which is so extraordinary. Mohit Chauhan took care of hundreds of stray dogs during the pandemic. “Bombay” Jayashri teaches autistic children. No wonder collaborating with them during the recording – Mohit in an orchard, “Bombay” Jayashri on a boat and Kaushiki Chakraborty in a haveli in Murshidabad – completely changed my sound. As RD Burman said, movement is music and often composing in a car, I recognized this too and composed in my head while cycling.

Music has a higher purpose. But you can’t achieve that through Bollywood music. Only the diverse range of independent music that India has in abundance can do. Because film music should advance the arc of the character and the vision of the director.

Creating background music is harder than songs. While everyone has an opinion on a song, the background music is only perceived by the director. In a way, scores are given less attention in India, which is quite unfortunate. But times are changing. For example, when I was composing for Madras Café many years ago, I insisted on only promoting the score. Similarly, we went to Russia in October just to record an instrumental track, something previously unheard of.

I can’t say exactly what my process of making music is, other than that it’s a lonely world, God’s gift in the first place, and you can’t learn past a certain point. Of course, unlike singers, composers are not fully understood or described. My friends, like the lyricist Swanand Kirkire, often ask me what gives me the courage to suddenly pack my bags and embark on an expedition, which for me is also a quest for music.

Luckily I always had my hands full. At the moment there is Lost directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, Mujib: The Making of a Nation, a film by Shyam Benegal, and an untitled film by Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

I also learned another important lesson from the Ganges River that it is the journey that counts, not the destination. So there is no final destination for me… My music is like a river and I hope wherever there are listeners with an ear for music they will resonate with my tunes. From Bollywood, which I belong to, I learned the importance and hopefully the art of storytelling as I hope to tell stories through my songs. Just as I told the story of India as the story of India through Songs of the River. When would I set out to tell a different story from a mountain or a river… who knows. Maybe tomorrow. But both my music and my travels have taught me how to live today.

— The author is a national award-winning music composer (as recounted by Nonika Singh)

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