Multi-talented musician Sawan Dutta is best known for her widely acclaimed Song Blog, The Metronome. Her path-breaking Vlogs have established her as an emerging Influencer in the digital space. Her work as composer, music director, music producer and singer-songwriter for Bollywood films, TV, documentary, theatre, commercials and albums spans a formidable range covering some of the biggest Indian and global brands in the field of entertainment. Sawan is based in Mumbai, India.
Firstly, on the behalf of our team I wish to thank you sincerely for being able to manage time for TW out of your busy schedule. How exactly the musical journey started? Was it always your goal to make it a profession?
Thank you for asking me to share my experiences on your travel mag, Anirban and your team. Its lovely to be able to think about all my travels during this strange time when travelling is impossible and unsafe!
I guess my musical adventures started when my Dadu in Calcutta bought me a tiny harmonium with multi coloured keys, at age three 🙂 When I was a bit older, Ma taught me the hawaiian guitar. I guess my first “professional” stint with music was when I was still a school kid, in class 10th or so, when I auditioned and got empanelled as a paid performer on AIR in Delhi – I would get called to play pieces on the hawaiian guitar, for radio broadcasts, and they would mail the cheque home!!! At some point later I also started playing the harmonica. Then I formally learnt western classical piano and trained in operatic vocal technique, after years of singing with multiple choirs in Delhi.
In the Delhi School of Planning and Architecture, where I studied, I was part of the college rock band, The Archetypes, and also a part of the initial line up of Indian Ocean – one of India’s pioneering fusion bands. I never really thought about becoming a full time professional musician till I graduated and started working as an architect. Around this time, CB, my would-be husband, and one of the pioneers of the digital revolution in the country – introduced me to the world of Digital Audio, which changed my world completely, and made me realise that it was possible for a solo musician to create music on one’s own, without a band or a single other person, using digital audio hardware and software! And I guess that’s when I decided to see if I could make a transition, from being an architect to a professional composer / music producer.
You have been a Delhite in the beginning before you moved to Mumbai. How have been your memories of Delhi as a metro city?
Delhi, as a city, is gorgeous – because of its scale, because of all the greenery, because of all the magnificent ruins from different periods of history scattered all over the city – from the Qutb complex to Hauz Khas to Purana Qilla to Red Fort to Firoze Shah Kotla to Tughlaqabad Fort to the Lodhi Gardens. Khushwant Singh’s book on Delhi as well as William Dalrymple’s books – The City of Djinns and The Last Mughal – bring so many of these ruined citadels to life, offering glimpses into the city’s magnificent past.
Also, the food and street food in Delhi are to die for – I even prefer the Delhi version of “Mumbai Bhel Puri” to the versions I’ve tasted here in Mumbai 🙂
Delhi is a strange city with extreme dichotomies. Yes, as a woman it is a hostile, uncomfortable place to be in. Any woman who’s grown up in Delhi will tell you their DTC bus horror stories – you feel the hostility in the air, in the way you’re looked at, from the moment you step out of the airport in Delhi.
And yet, at the same time, I have experienced such incredible warmth, from absolute strangers in Delhi. I remember, we were shooting there a few years ago, in winter, and this old man sitting on a jute mat on the footpath asked us to sit on the mat with him, poured us half his share of tea from a thermos he had with him, asked him what we were doing, if we had a place to stay in the city, and that we were welcome to stay with him any time, in his humble abode – he gave us his number and said we could call him any time we came to the city and needed a place to stay, and he would welcome us as his guests!
From your perspective, how a traveler will find the two major cities in India different from each other?
If you’re a woman, the two cities are poles apart in terms of safety and in the amount of freedom you should expect to enjoy. In Delhi, we grew up considering it normal that it was safer to dress modestly to avoid trouble, that its not safe to travel alone after dark for a woman, or to use DTC buses or crowded public transport. Mumbai is a million times more civilized at least in terms of how safe women are and feel in the city. I have, over the last decade, found it completely safe to walk around or travel using any kind of public transport at any hour, in any attire, with or without an escort! The roads in Delhi are a dream compared to the ones in Mumbai – but as a woman, specially if travelling alone, I’d rather be on a horrible potholed Mumbai road than an impeccably built and maintained Delhi road.
Also, in Mumbai, the Autorickshaw drivers are honest, they mostly go anywhere when asked, they go by meter, and they return the smallest change – which is diametrically the opposite of how their Delhi counterparts behave. So in Delhi it becomes an aspiration for every individual to own a car or a personal vehicle, irrespective of what it does to the pollution levels and the environment – whereas in Mumbai you’ll find people from every strata of society frequently availing of public transport, by choice.
As a traveller – the single biggest advantage that Delhi used to offer us, over Mumbai, was its proximity to the Himalayas! In Delhi, it was possible to wake up in the morning, get in one’s vehicle and drive to Himachal, a few hours away and have your lunch looking out at snow peaked ranges on the horizon!
Some of our most memorable travels involved CB and me driving off in our Gypsy on our own, to Himachal Pradesh mostly – to areas beyond Rohtang Pass – to Lahaul, Spiti, Leh, via Manali.
In those days – in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s all of this was much more adventurous than it is now, because there was no cell phone connectivity, no GPS, no fancy SUVs – – the Gypsy ruled in the mountains – along with Mahindra jeeps, Sumos and Maruti 800’s and vans. We would fill up eight jerry cans with unleaded petrol ( not easily available in the far reaches of the Himalayas ) in the back of the Gypsy, and drive off with a paper map. Every single trip to these areas was unpredictable and different and filled with unexpected adventures! We’ve been forced to spend nights in solitary two-dhaba outposts and in truck drivers’ tents because of overflowing waterfalls making passage impossible, or because of landslides or heavy snowfall blocking off the highway.
Once, when i was at the wheel, a stream had to be crossed by driving through it – an earthquake the previous day had demolished the rickety bridge – I got the Gypsy lodged into some underwater rocks – and the water started rising alarmingly as the day got warmer and snow melted, and we both struggled helplessly to get the Gypsy out of the river before the water started entering it. Thankfully, a patrolling Army contingent saw us struggling, they got their Shaktimaan truck to tow the Gypsy out and we were saved – or we’d have been forced to abandon it mid river and save ourselves!
There was another time when we got caught in the Beas floods while returning from Manali – a large part of the highway got washed away by the river which suddenly changed course – and we had to abandon the Gypsy at an apple orchard and hike across the mountains to the nearest town from where we could take a bus back to Delhi, carrying whatever we could of our luggage with us. It took weeks for the highway to get rebuilt, before we could come back to retrieve the Gypsy, where the orchard owner had safely kept it for us.
No two trips to even the same place in the Himalayas was ever alike, and no other travels within India can quite compare to all the adventures the two of us had in the Himalayas. And no place that I’ve travelled to in the world can compare with the breathtaking majesty and might and drama of the Himalayas – the stark desert landscapes of Spiti and Leh – the awe and helplessness that one feels at the mercy of nature is just unparalleled.
Mumbai – well we live across the road from a beach – which has its own beauty. In fact the sea – even in its filthy state – is the single most beautiful thing about this city. Between CB and me, we’ve travelled to many beautiful beaches across the world, from Goa to Thailand to Bali to the North Sea in Europe – and I’ve found that Nature doesn’t discriminate between richer and poorer countries. The sunsets that I experience at the beach across from home are every bit as spectacular, if not lovelier, than some of the sunsets I’ve seen on expensive beach resorts elsewhere. I wish our people were cleaner and more respectful towards nature, though.
Sawan Dutta – a Singer, Producer , music writer and also quite an amazing actor in front of the camera – which one is more close to your heart and passion ?
Not sure ! The writer bit runs in my blood – everyone in my family can write, so I tend to take that bit totally for granted. Composing and music production are like musical puzzles that I love solving. Music moves me like nothing else does, so that is probably closest to my heart. The acting bit is entirely new – and I’ve had to start this primarily as a way to support the music that I make – and so far I’ve only acted for my own vlogs and productions, so I don’t really have much of an opinion on that !
Not only that your voice has an outstanding appeal for the listeners looking for originality but, your work and the metronome arrangements have a uniqueness rarely seen in the industry, specially in India. Who or what has been the major influence in the kind of art that you excel today?
Probably my own past work – both the successes and the failures! And CB’s critiques – he’s the only one i can count on to give me a brutally accurate critique of my work. Plus, I think my audiences have a HUGE role to play in my growth as a musician and a content creator – the best thing about being on YouTube and other social media is the direct connection that I have with my viewers. I have learnt – and continue to learn important lessons about people’s perceptions and reactions to various aspects of my work from my vlog analytics, and from my audiences’ feedback.
Of course, there are so many artistes whom I’ve grown up listening to and watching, who I’m sure have all influenced me subconsciously – from Kishore Kumar to Sting to Mozart and Tchaikovsky to Phoebe Buffay to William Orbit to Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell to John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Alan Silvestri…its a very long list . I’m in awe of multidimensional artistes, like Kishore Kumar, or Clint Eastwood, or Meryl Streep – again its a long list !
Your musical works have taken us to various cities in the world. Apart from our very own Kolkata and Kerala, one can enjoy the glimpse of the cultures of Edinburg, Scotland, Amsterdam, Singapore etc. through your lyrics. Share with us some of your travel experiences.
You know, when we travel, the one thing we avoid like the plague is all “tourist must do / must see’ lists, all guided tours, all advice given by others about what we MUST do and see in a place. What DOES influence our travel plans, very often, is the books we’ve been reading or the movies we’ve been watching.
For instance, there was this time when I was compulsively reading up and watching material on the Holocaust, to the point where I felt that i HAD to visit at least the first and the last of the Nazi Concentration Camps – in Dachau and Auschwitz. So we made plans to first visit Dachau, and then go on to Poland and Osweicim, with tickets booked for the train, and the entry to Auschwitz Birkenau. What I wasn’t prepared for was how Dachau effected me – despite reading accounts of how visitors to these places got affected. While there, I kept convincing myself that I was okay, I kept my focus on the landscaping and the design details of the place, of even the crematoria ovens, remarking how much better designed and aesthetic these were compared to the local crematorium here in Mumbai. We sat at the Dachau cafetaria munching on things from the elaborate menu, trying not to think of how the inmates were kept on a starvation diet of thin cabbage soup and if they were lucky, bits of horse meat. I thought, because I had gone prepared, that I wouldn’t get negatively affected. And then I found that I couldn’t sleep at night. And that inexplicably, any dark place would terrify me. And it felt like I had carried back all these ghosts of the people killed there, inside my head, and they would all start whispering inside my head whenever the lights anywhere dimmed. It got to a point where we had to cancel our trip to Poland and Auschwitz, because I couldn’t handle the aftermath of Dachau. Took me many months to get my head straight. I tried to exorcise some of these demons from my head through my Song for Dachau Vlog at the Metronome.
Similary, I remember reading Adolf Hitler’s biography by John Toland, and wanting to visit all the key places which had shaped the young boy, from a kid who wrote sentimental poetry about his mother, into the monster he became when he grew up.
I recall standing outside the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, staring at the entrance, trying to imagine the young Adolf doing the exact same thing, years ago. And trying to wrap my head around the fact that if this institute had not failed him TWICE in the entrance exam, maybe the history of the world would have been different, and 6 million Jews wouldn’t have been murdered. We went to the Hotel Imperial, which Hitler occupied on their conquering Austria during Anschuss in 1938, where he told others about how he had shovelled snow to earn money, outside the same hotel as a penniless young man, watching the rich and powerful visit the hotel, without as much as a glance at the snow shovellers. Some of this has made its way to my Vlog “Vienna” – at The Metronome
In Munich I unearthed the address of this flat in Munich where Hitler used to live as an impoverished man, in his youth. Not a trace of him remains there now, even the kids in the apartment building don’t want to mention this history, its such a source of embarrassment to them. Again, I made a Vlog about this, called “Hitler’s Haunts”. We went to Hofbrauhaus, the Beer Hall where Hitler gave his first Nazi Party speech, to Schelling Salon, the restaurant he frequented as a broke pre Nazi, which finally chucked him out and told him to settle his bill or stay away. We visited his Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden, and the underground bunkers he and the Nazi party built under his home there, in preparation for a siege.
Basically, I spent a lot of reading, viewing and travel time trying to figure out how someone turns into the kind of monster Hitler went on to become – WWII being one of my favourite reading and viewing subjects. Then we watched Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, and followed some of the journalistic outrage over the Indian soldiers who had been part of Operation Dynamo and not been covered in the film. And we decided to go to Dunkirk and see what we could find. From all the online research that I did, I read that some of the ships which had got bombed and not managed to escape are STILL there, in their ruined state, at one of the beaches just outside Dunkirk. And that there are six Indian soldiers buried in the War Cemetery in Dunkirk.
So CB had a software conference in Amsterdam, from where we were supposed to go to London to visit my sister and her family. We decided to take a detour via Dunkirk, spend half a day finding all these sites, shooting a Vlog there if possible, and then taking a boat/ ferry to England, retracing the path of those civilian boats that rescued all the stranded soldiers in Operation Dynamo – the subject of Nolan’s film. This was a completely crazy idea and venture because our train to Dunkirk was late, and we realised not a soul spoke English there, only French. And we had four hours of daylight in this unfamiliar town to find and shoot in four different WWII locations AND try and find six indian names in a cemetery. We found the War Museum, we found the shipwreck and the Mole, we found a cabbie who spoke a bit of English – but the moon was up by the time we reached the Cemetery – and this happened to be Halloween night!
What followed was possibly the most bizarre bit of shooting we’ve ever done at The Metronome – me hurried putting on my monkey cap, bindi and glasses, and then both of us going from gravestone to gravestone, reading names and trying to find an Indian name, in the flashlight from our phones. Finally we found a Merchant, decided that maybe he could be a Parsi, and i put on my headphones and started doing my song and dance act in front of the grave….and then we found some Unnamed gravestones, and thought maybe the Indians are buried here, so let’s also shoot this….and then I’d repeat my whole song and dance act in front of that grave….and so on…..I can’t even imagine what anyone looking into the cemetery from outside would have imagined we were doing in there!!!!
Which country/city impressed you most?
Very difficult to answer this. Well we both love Amsterdam – possibly also because we’ve always visited during the breathtaking Fall season – and the entire city looks like a dream, like a picture postcard – there’s something about the scale of the city that’s just right, the canals, the cobbled streets, the flowers in the boxes lining the canals, the outdoor cafes, the gorgeous brickwork on all the buildings – I’ve been given several lists of “Things To Do and See in Amsterdam” by people and magazines – NONE of which I’ve followed – no museum or shop can compare to the experience of just walking around looking at the visual beauty all around, everywhere, breathing in the air, watching the geese and swans in the canals, the autumn leaves floating in the air and in the water – I can’t get enough of just staring and gaping at how beautiful this city is.
I did a Brand Collaboration Vlog with Mahindra’s Mustard Oil, in Amsterdam, where CB and I have tried to capture some of the city’s beauty. Also, it was quite funny, carting those bottles of Shorsher Tel around with us everywhere and shooting as Bengali Aunty – in a place like Amsterdam, she draws a lot of stares 🙂 I was actually refused admission in a Coffee Shop when I tried to go in as Bengali Aunty – I had to come back the next day in my regular get up, and change right there inside the coffee shop, to get the shoot done, that was pretty weird 😀
Scotland would be very high on my list of favourites – the whole place and its people are just charming – every stranger you meet anywhere smiles at you and exchanges a few lines about the weather with you, these are some of the warmest, most welcoming people I have ever come across anywhere.
Plus, being an avid Potterhead, Edinburgh is a place that is hallowed ground for me – reading up everything I could find about the Elephant House Cafe, where JK Rowling sat and wrote the earliest Potters, some of it scribbled on the napkins there – and visiting the place, its famous Ladies Toilet where every inch of every surface has Fan Graffiti scribbled on it, visiting the Greyfriar’s Kirkyard the cafe overlooks – and finding the gravestones which bear the names of so many characters from Harry Potter – from the Potters grave to Thomas Riddell, to McGonagall, Scrimgeour, Black….we discovered all of this in the pouring rain, in freezing weather, where I was shivering so badly I could barely shoot – of course I had to do a Vlog about this experience, you’ll find it at The Metronome.
I could actually go on about many other places, but this article has already become already very long 🙂 !
You have always been staying outside West Bengal. But Bengal (whether in recipe, culture and mannerism) has always been a primary element in most of your works. What have been your thoughts behind it?
This happened more by accident than by design actually. The Ode to Boroline Vlog was meant to be a one off song and video, sung by that particular character, with the Bangla accented English. I hadn’t imagined that it would go viral and become so wildly popular, and that people would start wanting to see more of that character doing more such videos! So I guess my audiences are responsible for Bengali Aunty and all that she does at The Metronome – its their enthusiasm, entirely, which keeps that character alive 🙂
What we should expect next from the magic hat of Sawan Dutta ?
Hahaha I have absolutely no idea – I never work with any kinda long term plan, specially since The Metronome is more about reacting to life as it unfurls around me, and turning my personal journey into songs – so I guess the only thing you can expect is that I’ll continue to react to whatever life throws at me, and try to turn them into songs.
How you wish to be remembered as?
Hahahaha this is funny, makes me feel like I’m about to die soon! As someone who never tried to fit in, and lived by her own rules, perhaps?
> The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the interviewee , and not necessarily to the TW Editorial.
> The photo credit in the interview section here goes to Mr C B Arun Kumar.