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It’s Not Necessary to Outsource Music when India Encompasses a Huge Traditional Music Repertoire – Pt. Bickram Ghosh

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Winner of four GIMA awards Pt. Bickram Ghosh is known to dabble in a vast repertoire of musical genres, from classical, rock, new-age, fusion to film. The tabla wizard and the versatile music composer has played for George Harrison’s Brainwashed and Pandit Ravi Shankar’s Full Circle, which eventually won the Grammies. The illustrious Composer who has recently released 25 albums at a go with his own label Melting Pot Production talks to about his journey into the world of music, his creative side as a composer and where does he think the digital age will take Indian Classical Music in years to come writes Priyaankaa Mathur.

Bickram Ghosh comes from a renowned musical lineage born to the illustrious tabla player his father late Pandit Shankar Ghosh and his mother Smt. Sanjukta Ghosh the renowned vocalist from the Patiala Gharana. Although he grew up in an atmosphere of classical music in the house, young Bickram had a very western upbringing in school which was quite contradictory to the traditional classical lifestyle which he had at home.

His early years began with his Taleem in Indian classical music strongly at home from both his parents. Reminiscing his childhood days Bickram says, “I was born in Calcutta and was taken to America when I was just a year old, grew up there till I was six and then came back to India in the classical household. We used to have a lot of great singers in the house. So my musical influences were manifolds having learned Tabla from my father and then Vocals from his my mother who was the disciple of Munawar Ali Khan Saheb, the Son of Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan Saheb of Patiala Gharana. I used to visit Munawar Ali Khan Saheb’s house and play Tabla with him when I was a child. I was greatly influenced by the Patiala style of singing both Thumri and Khyal, which eventually started reflecting in my commercial work also in the later years.”

Bickram’s childhood was an interesting juxtaposition of the Indian and western culture which later happened to influence his music as he tells, “I studied in extremely westernized institutions like St. Xavier’s college and did a master’s in English literature. So all the growing up years had a lot of influences as I had a very wide blend of music, as I was listening to not only Indian classical at home but Rolling Stones, Beatles, Jazz, Western Pop and Bollywood biggies RD Burman and Laxmikant Pyarelalji of the 70s. Eventually, I  also played with Ghazals and traveled across the globe to collaborate with Jewish, jazz, Australian, Japanese musicians, spending time with them understanding their cultures. All of that added up as a big quadrant of influences on my music.”

Bickram mastered his art further to learn Carnatic percussion from the great Maestro of the Mridangam Pandit S.Sekhar, and the nuances of Tabla accompaniment from his late guru Bharat Ratna Pandit Ravi Shankarji and feels privileged to be the part of his 100th-Anniversary Celebration concert series in which he will be participating along with the maestro’s disciples starting off with London, USA and across the globe this year. One of his much-awaited albums shall be a tribute to Pandit Ravi Shankar on the occasion which he is recording with Raviji’s disciples Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Pt.Tarun Bhattacharya who represent the Maihar Gharana.

How did the transition from a classical percussionist to a composer happen tells Bickram, “ In-fact from the very childhood I had already started composing few songs in school and something had already started in my mind but which did not materialize until the turn of the millennium. I started composing formally for my albums around 1998 when I had formed my band Rhythmscape. Eventually, I composed for my first film in 2003 followed by a couple of films including  my first Hindi film ‘Little Zizou’ produced by  Mira Nair and directed by Sooni Taraporewala starring Boman Irani and John Ibrahim.”

Bickram has composed for 21 feature films so far including the Mira Nair Production ‘Little Zizou’. He shares his experience working on the film says, “This film was based on the Parsis and it was difficult as in how to create a Parsi sound but I did it and the film eventually won the national award. It was an important film and I loved doing it.”

Bickram is known for a series of super successful solo albums in the world music genre like Beyond Rhythmscape, Folktale, Drum Invasion. The Kingdom of Rhythm, Interface, Electro classical, Transformation, has consolidated his position as a pioneer of a new fusion sound. With a plethora of classical fusionists, what makes his compositions different and what are the key elements of his sound production he says, “ In the last two decades I have been one of the early birds to have attempted crossover work with Indian classical music to create world music fusion which started around 1999-2000. All the fusion I do is predominantly based on Indian classical music which has a very strong rhythmic bend me being a percussionist.”

He adds, “ While the melodic content in my compositions are from across a myriad spectrum of genres ranging from classical content to Bollywood music to world music, as one has to listen to all sorts of music and absorb the nuances of different musical cultures, and so I have. I have experimented with various sounds like the African rhythms, to playing with jazz musicians to exploring with Cuban and Latin genres. With all these influences I sank deeper into my own Indian rhythmic traditions, which created a unique sound.”

Having worked on a huge soundscape, ranging from albums to films to giving music for commonwealth games how would he describes his creative process, Bickram got a little philosophical, saying, “Today we all are being exposed to different cultures, music, and are not sitting in vacuum, so my life too has had many influences. I was doing albums for a very long time but started composing for films in the last 6-7 years wherein all of my musical influences have come together which I see as a single musical entity inside me. So whenever I am asked to make a certain kind of music, I just draw references from those influences. I have done a film in Bangla where I had to create an oriental sound, so I took references from the music in japan where I have spent a couple of years.

Bickram has recently teamed up with Bollywood singing star Sonu Nigam to begin their journey as co-composers for Bollywood. Talking about his association with Sonu Nigam, Bickram says, It’s great collaborating with him  as we have done a couple of films together  like ‘Jal’ and ‘Super Se Upar’ and now are reworking on some Bollywood songs and forthcoming albums.”

 Talking on upcoming film projects, he says, “I am doing music for Sunjay Dutt’s ‘Torbaaz’ which is set in Afghanistan, which has a completely Afghani sound, and of the middle east. I have been there so I understand the music and the sounds of the instruments like Oud, Bouzouki and the culture of the place, what is the way they eat the bread, so I have seeped in the culture. Another film which I am doing is ‘Band of Maharajas’ produced by Girish Mallik, which is a story of Pakistani singer-activist Billo Mumtaz and her musical journey. The film is a musical and has a very intense storyline which is based on music terrorism. I am both scoring as well as enacting an Afghan character in the film.”

 Achieving the unique feat of releasing 25 albums simultaneously so what was the idea behind launching them through his own label, “It was two months back through my own label ‘Melting Pot Productions’  which I distributed through an American company. I feel it’s all about distribution and if you give out your music to a label you lose out on your royalties, so I launched it myself.”

His collaborative concert ‘Surtal’ with Ustad Rashid Khan held in UAE was much acclaimed. So how is it working with the maestro, tells the maestro “Rashid and I are childhood buddies since the age of 15. We enjoy performing with each other a lot. He has sung on several songs that I have composed in Bengali films and many others.”

In this digital age although much work is being done in the classical music fusion pertaining to the Indian music industry it still lacks the status what it deserves, so what needs to be done to propagate it more to the next generation, Bickram shares his viewpoint saying, “I don’t think that it’s lacking, but there is a perception about Bollywood that it is a big elephant, which is not the truth. Since there is a lot of work happening in the classical field as we call it world music or fusion, and the best thing is that today the Bollywood producers are asking us to compose because they want new sounds now.”

 He adds further, “Times are changing as people are not watching the same kind of movies and they want new kind of films, content, sound and so they try to rope in someone like me. Although I have refused to stay in Mumbai, and have the condition that I will work in Calcutta still the producers want to work with me and come and stay in Calcutta since my whole set up is here, my studio and production house. Every year I end up doing one or two Hindi films also. So that is an important development that commercial music is opening up for classical musicians. I am doing most of the big films in Bangala right now along with art films.”

 Talking about the digital space Bickram points out, “So what is happening in the digital space today is that there is a huge amount of indigenous music being produced today, as individual people are putting up their music. So if I talk about the digital release today we have around 600 platforms worldwide the big players being Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, Gaana,  Hungama, Saavan. If you are able to put your music out there to the big players, then you are heard because people love good music. It’s easier to do it today because it is very easy to tap into your phones and you reach your kind of music. I have signed up with a very big distribution network in America, they had put out all my recent 25 albums.”

 So what role can the digital platforms play to popularise Indian Music in India, “ Well I feel if promoting classical music comes in their agenda instead of popularising foreign genres in India and giving value to our own music, it will help both the Indian music and the musicians. Having said that there is a huge market for Indian classical music abroad. We all go and perform in several different cities across the globe and there are big audiences and people. Ironically Indian’s don’t know about their own music!”

Bickram adds, “ Since at one point of time the classical greats like Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pt.Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan Saheb, Pt.Ravi Shankar, and Naushad Saheb ruled the Bollywood industry with their compositions and renditions.  Music was being composed by classical musicians and was driven by classical music which became timeless melodies. While somewhere around the time western influences have increased, but I think it is all going to change and our music will again revive soon enough because people are turning back to the same thing and they are listening to alternative sounds and indigenous music means that they want to move. It’s not just classical music but it’s also the folk music which is itself a very strong  musical entity, which is more popular in the regional pockets of regional industries.”

Giving his music industry perspective Bickram says, “ What the industry seeks today is the promotional music for the film, so the times are gone that the songs are definitely the part of the film, they could also be the promotional songs. So the good is that we are moving gradually into the Hollywood kind of a model, where music is being outsourced like my ‘Rhythmscapes’ music has been used in several films as people are outsourcing my music.  It’s similar to Michael Jackson who was famous for his indigenous music and not for the films but eventually his music was featured in Hollywood films and that is the scenario I see happening in the next decade, and if that happens it will be fantastic as then the artists will be the stars because of their indigenous music and not because they sang for the film.”

Bickram concludes with his message for today’s Gen-next saying, “ I see today’s youngsters are very open-minded and generally if they hear something good they like it. It’s not just that they want to listen to western genres or hip hop only. So my message to them is to keep their mind open and listen to all kinds of sounds around them and then make an informed choice of what they want to listen to on a daily basis. I am sure if they start doing that they will understand the power of Indian music and traditional culture, which is far superior to many cultures in the world. It’s not necessary to outsource and listen to stuff from outside but to look inside India that encompasses a huge traditional music repertoire, and not just be influenced by foreign  genres or just by Bollywood music.”

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