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Brighton Festival 2014

Talvin Singh’s Bombay Talkies

Talvin Singh

Genre: Multimedia

Venue: Brighton Dome


Low Down

A classic Indian film with live music played by a cross-cultural mix of musicians


 The 1960 Bengali drama film ‘Devi’ or ‘The Goddess’ by director Satyajit Ray is universally acknowledged as a masterpiece by Ray, who is regarded as one of the most significant film-makers of the 20th century. Nominated for a palm D’Or, the film stars Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore, and is based on a short story by Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhya.

In this performance, Talvin Singh, one of the most influential figures in British Asian music, celebrated 100 years of Indian cinema with this blend of film and live music. The soundtrack was re-interpreted live by tabla player Singh, together with a cross-cultural group of musicians including sitar player Roopa Panesar, cellist Zosia Jagodzinska, Meg-Rosaleen Hamilton on violin and Chiranjib Chakraborty on vocals.
Following the tradition of Indian classical music, the soundtrack was improvised around a rag, or raga, consisting of a particular series of notes or a scale. Singh announced that the raga they were using was the same one used in the original score of the film.
The aim was to reinvent the original score and give it a more contemporary feel with a mix of classical Indian and Western sounds. This was achieved, but the blend of musical traditions didn’t work as smoothly as perhaps was hoped. The cello and violinist were dutifully following the raga, but their improvisational skills and knowledge of the patterns and development of classical Indian musical form sat uneasily alongside the expertise of the Indian musicians.  
The dialogue of the film was occasionally audible and sometimes muted, the idea being that it should fade in and out to mix in with the soundtrack – creating the feel of but it felt awkward and ‘clunky’ compared to the exquisite visuals of the film, which had been heavily edited so that it made little sense, leaving the audience to guess the nuances of the plot.
The second half of the show was to have been another film, but this was unavailable so the musicians again improvised, this time to accompany a different edit of the film, comprising of some still images alongside sections of the film that we had not seen in the first edit.
I came away feeling that both the film and the soundtrack had been unnecessarily ‘mucked about with’, and that I’d much rather have just watched a complete version with the original soundtrack – but in this neither the film edit nor the musical fusion really worked for me. It was an idea that had potential, and I enjoyed some of the fine musicianship especially from Singh, Panesar and Chakraborty,