India is famous for diversity, for its range of climates, languages, traditions and cultures. Across the country’s 29 states, over 500 dialects are spoken, over 800 million reside in booming mega-cities, and rural enclaves are home to over 2,000 distinct tribes. Yet, this reality is fast changing.
Economic growth and technological advancement now threaten older ways of life. As rural youth begin pouring into urban areas, village economies and lifestyles become obsolete and many of India’s traditions risk being lost in the shuffle.
The departure from antiquated practices based on systems of prejudice, caste oppression and sexual inequality has been rightly praised as progress—but these movements have been accompanied by the disappearance of some of India’s most precious tribes, cultural practices and musicians: the dancing Veerghase troops of Karnataka, the formidable hunting tribes of Nagaland, the revered Kawaili singers of Rajasthan. These groups, once essential and symbolic of their regions, may no longer exist within a generation.This project documents the rarest of such fading tribes and artists across the sub-continent hoping to serve as a fitting testament to their spirit and skill and serving as a document of an India unseen by some and never to be experienced by many.
Souvid Datta has teamed up with his brother Soumik to produce a series of high quality documentary films about this fascinating subject. We reached out to Souvid to find out more about the background of his project. A trailer for their series is also included below.
LC: What first drew you to this subject? Your brother has a background in music—but what pushed the idea from a fun daydream to a full-blown reality?
SD: My brother and I both grew up in a very artistic household—our friends jokingly called us the Indian Von Trapps. As children we lived and breathed Indian classical and folk music. In fact, it was my first passion, long before photography and storytelling.
While our career paths ended up taking us in differing directions—my brother as a composer and performer, myself as a visual journalist and filmmaker—we both maintained a strong connection to our Indian roots. Having always wanted to collaborate, one day we discovered how we were both nostalgic about the effect Indian music has had on us. We wanted to rediscover this and experience first-hand India’s artistic scene beyond the beaten path. That’s how this project was conceived.
LC: The title of your project is “Lost Musicians of India.” Thus, the question of access must have been present from the start. How did you overcome your subject’s “lostness” in order to find them and make the work? Were there any subjects in particular that were harder to access than most?
SD: A lot of research went into the project before setting off. India has over 2,000 tribes and countless colourful sub-cultures, but we wanted to hone in specifically on musicians and artists whose practices really inspired us. Often, it happened to be the case that these groups were the hardest to access and least known in India’s increasingly commercial mainstream!
But when we did reach them, we found the people we met had often dedicated their entire lifetimes to their traditional crafts—from music to dance to poetry. In turn, these crafts had been shaped over centuries by India’s epic physical environments and societal factors such as religion and caste. So the project became much deeper than just an ethnographic document on India’s musicians; rather it set out to question and highlight the relevance of ancient customs and cultures within a rapidly changing world.
In terms of access, physically getting ourselves to the right place at the right times proved a challenge: imagine us comically lugging heaped carts of camera equipment over mountain tops, under waterfalls and through cliffside jungles. And there were deeper issues regarding our treatment of more reclusive tribes—or those being persecuted due to their craft.
What ran through everything, though, was a genuine sense of curiosity and respect in our ethos. We were truly in awe of every one of these artists and their individual histories and struggles. I think this is what helped our subjects see that all we wanted to do was experience their craft and collaborate with them as fellow artists. It wasn’t always easy but trying left us challenged and inspired—and that’s part of the positive outlook we’re hoping to communicate through the films.
LC: Photography, for all of its great qualities, is a silent medium. Can you describe mixing still and moving image into this project—what does each bring to the table that one couldn’t do alone?
SD: Coming from a background of still photography and writing, this was a big leap into my first director of photography and co-directing role. Whether working with a team or storyboarding shoots in advance, it was all new. But as you say: the two mediums, stills and film, contribute different but equally compelling elements to a narrative.
For me, film can appeal to more of your senses. It is an easier tool for creating the intimate and nuanced portraits of our collaborators that we had set out to discover. Also, this being a project about music, capturing the realtime movement, sound and intensity of performances was essential.
Stills, however, appeal to emotions directly and immediately convey more information. I knew that not everyone who engaged with our project would have the time or inclination to watch six 30-minute episodes; but they could certainly benefit from looking through a selection of images.
In both cases, my approach was similar: I wanted to remain intimate and respectful, while also aware that these pictures could become part of the historical documentation illustrating these disappearing tribes in the time to come. I saw it as a responsibility, but also a way to inform audiences and bring them face to face with a side of India that most never get the chance to see.
LC: Ultimately, what message do you hope your project can convey to the world?
SD: This project started small: with a crazy idea that two brothers had while listening to too much Indian music. But now, after having collaborated with over 100 talents across six Indian states; after having seen the universally relevant messages of empathy, self-awareness, discipline and creativity that resound from their stories—my hopes stand more ambitious.
Growing up with my brother, we always believed in the transcendental power of music and arts. This is a gut feeling which has quietly driven most of my work to date. And that’s exactly what I’m hoping this project will reaffirm to viewers from around the globe.
—Souvid Datta interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ Note: You can follow the Datta brothers’ adventures through their Instagram channel and their Facebook page. You can also support their project by visiting their recently launched Kickstarter page. Good luck!