Legendary Indian musician Baluji Shrivastav has teamed up with Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli for a re-imagining of legendary love story Sohni Mahiwal.
With the help of ace dancer/choreographer Gauri Sharma Tripathi, puppeteer Jonny Dixon and a company of accomplished musicians from different traditions, they have put a unique spin on the story of star-crossed lovers. The work in progress will be unveiled at the Alchemy Festival at Southbank Centre in London this month.
Eastern Eye caught up with Baluji to talk about classical Indian music, the new production, his future plans and more.
Tell us about your latest project The Tragic Love Of Sohni And Mahiwal?
Sohini and Mahiwal is a famous folktale popular in Sindh and Punjab, in Pakistan and India. Like Romeo and Juliet, it is a story of forced marriage, honour killings and passion. Sohni, a married Hindu girl, and Mahiwal, a Muslim boy, fall deeply in love, defying convention and paying the ultimate price. Images of the doomed lovers show them as a handsome couple walking or lying together by the side of a river.
I collaborated with wonderful Italian composer and Golden Globe winner Dario Marianelli to tell the story through an oratorio – a musical composition for voices and orchestra – in Urdu. Some of the singers had to learn to sing in Urdu for the first time. We are using Indian and Western instruments and vocal techniques. A visual dimension with puppetry by Jonny Dixon and dance/choreography by an Indian classical dancer will help bring the story to life, especially for non-Urdu speakers.
How does this compare to the other projects you have done?
I have worked with film, theatre and dance and have composed narrative pieces of music before, but this is different because we are working together as a company to develop the original work, composed in 1997, into a more theatrical form, like an opera with puppets and shadows.
What has working with Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli been like?
We share a common passion for food and music, so I would say we had a meeting of the best food and musical cultures in the world. Whenever we had an issue to resolve, it would be sorted out by the end of a meal. I learned so much from him and hopefully he also got something out of it too. Now we are friends and neighbours, in fact.
What can we expect from the performance at the Alchemy Festival?
Actually, the audience will be able to experience a work in progress, and their feedback will be part of the process. It is more like an open rehearsal/development, giving a fascinating insight into the creative process. We will also be showcasing the work to potential promoters. The final version, in its full glory, will hopefully go on tour next year.
How much do you enjoy injecting your own unique brand of music into interesting projects like these?
This is what I love to do. I have a host of projects waiting in the wings. I think it is a fascinating time to be an artist, as we are being exposed to so many influences. Many of the old barriers are coming down, and new technologies are opening up further possibilities.
Does Indian classical music need to combine with contemporary and fusion projects to survive?
Indian classical music is a living and evolving art form and always has been. It is not stuck at a certain point. It is one of the great cultural treasures of the world, and as long as musicians are willing to dedicate their lives to its practice, it will go on. But as with all forms of knowledge, it needs to be nurtured and supported. I don’t think it is an either/or situation. There is no substitute for hard work and dedication. The greater mastery you have of the tradition, the more you can do with it. There is no end to it.
You are very much in demand, but how do you decide what projects to work on?
Music is my life – when I play music, I am whole. If a project excites me and the people are fun to work with, then the shop is always open. The more the merrier. That is what I have been put on this planet to do.
What unfulfilled musical ambitions do you have?
Well, it would be good to find an agent, so I could concentrate on doing music rather than planning to do music. I could move forward with all those projects itching to get off the ground. Everything takes much longer to organise when you cannot see. I would love to play at more great music festivals around the world, and more commissions. I have my ear on opera, but accessible, heart-rending, tuneful, uplifting and spectacular. I need an imaginative producer to collaborate with.
What advice would you give young musicians?
Experience life and keep practicing. Try out different teachers, keep an open mind, be confident but truly humble. The music business is about more than just music; it’s about people. And whether you make it a profession or a hobby, it will add value to your quality of life and enrich you in so many ways.
What else can we expect from you for the rest of the year?
I have some more concerts with my blind Inner Vision Orchestra coming up in Manchester and Bristol. I’m playing at Luton Mela, and planning a big research trip to India to work with rarely heard regional styles of music.
Finally, what inspires you?
The journeys that music takes me on, both spiritually and physically. Play on.
Baluji Shrivastav and Dario Marianelli: The Tragic Love of Sohni and Mahiwal is on at 7pm, May 18 at Blue Room, Spirit Level at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall in London. Log onto www.southbankcentre.co.uk to find out more.