In this edition of Mind Your Own Business, we interview guitarist and composer Nishad Pandey, who also curates for New Delhi live music venue, Depot 48. He talks to us about his musical projects, his curating work, and his thoughts on the Indian independent music scene.
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I’m a guitarist and a composer. Although born in India, I’ve spent extended periods of time living in Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia.
I was based in Calcutta for the past six years, going there ostensibly to study Indian classical music with Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya. I ended up becoming involved in different musical projects — with an Indo-jazz group called Kendraka, and also with my teacher’s group, Calcutta Chronicles. I didn’t end up learning Indian classical music in an authentic fashion, but I did spend a lot of time listening to classical musicians, and spending an intimate and informal time with them… which is quite good, I think, for internalizing things — the aesthetics, the expression, the emotion — but it doesn’t mean that I would ever say I’m an Indian classical musician, or that I would really try and play that music in a traditional way. I’m an improviser and also a composer, and I use the language of improvisation to explore things I like about Indian music, or jazz, or whatever.
About ten days ago, I shifted to Berlin, and here I endeavour to pursue various areas of musical interest, to explore the ‘free’ scene, the jazz scene, to listen to Western classical music, and to collaborate with some musicians based here, and in other parts of Europe. I’ll continue to be involved with the musical projects in India that I have, and the curating work for Depot 48, an independent music venue in Delhi. I’ll continue to travel frequently to Delhi, and to London. So it is not so much of a shifting of base as an expansion of my field of operation.
As a result of this nomadic existence, I’ve been exposed to musical and cultural forms from across the globe. Before turning to music professionally, I studied history and politics at Oxford University. In Melbourne, I completed a bachelor’s degree in music performance at Monash University, and studied with some of the best jazz musicians in Australia.
What are the projects you are currently working on?
In November 2015, Jonathan Dreyfus, Sukanya Bhattacharya, Gaurab Chatterjee and I started a new group called Hatchlings, a collaborative Indo-Australian experimental pop band. We recorded an album in Melbourne in March 2016, along with a bunch of other very interesting Australian musicians. We were about nine or ten people in a room, all miked up, and we improvised — completely improvised, with no structure whatsoever — recording ourselves for two and a half days, whatever came out. Then we cut away about ninety percent, using the remaining ten percent as the base for this first album of ours, which is in its final stages of mixing, and should be released in a few months.
Another project I’m excited about is Tinctures, with pianist Aman Mahajan, which is interesting because a piano-guitar duo is something I’ve never been part of before. We composed together, working with musical devices and concepts to enter the compositional process, and to practise the kinds of ideas which excite us. We’re currently working on mixing that album, and are planning to release it later this year.
Tagore Unconventional is an album I started recording over a year ago with Sutapa Bhattacharya and Subhasis Bhattacharya (my guruji’s sister and brother). This is an album of contemporary musical arrangements of Tagore songs that is out now, in fact. Subhasis ji and I worked out completely different musical arrangements of these traditional Tagore songs. For me, that meant reharmonizing the melodies, putting in different colours and melodic information, textures and so forth, and he added various percussion things as well as some interlude ideas which are quite fun.
Another project I became involved in is a covers project with the singer Sukanya Bhattacharya, and some other interesting musicians. Although more a commercial kind of thing, of course we explore the music in a way which musically challenges and excites us. We’ve just recorded three videos in fact — one of them was a Baul folk song, another was an Abida Parveen Sufi song, and the third was Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, as sung by Joni Mitchell.
The final thing I’m currently involved in is my trio with Sukanya and guitarist Matthias Müller — that’s two nylon-string guitars and voice — tentatively titled ‘From Bengal To Bavaria’, in which we reinterpret and reimagine a bunch of Bengali and Bavarian folk songs, which act as vehicles for musical improvisation. That’s something along with Hatchlings and Tinctures that I would like to pursue in Europe as well.
What are the biggest obstacles you encounter as an independent musician?
Well, the biggest obstacle is the financial uncertainty that’s associated with earning money as an independent musician, because the structures that exist in the corporate world do not exist for an independent freelancer. With music it is particularly unstable because contracts don’t often exist for performances, compositional projects, session work, or private music tuition. Someone agrees to give you some work and there’s no surety, really, unless you get a contract in place… and that doesn’t generally happen especially with these smaller bits of work that we get.
Then, chasing the money is another issue, which can be a protracted and frustrating affair. And of course, the self-doubt that plagues you every second day — you feel that it is often such an uphill battle, and at times you are on the verge of despair, asking yourself, “What’s the point?” In addition, you end up having to do so much ‘life admin’ — chasing people and venues, working out logistics, invoices and ways to allocate meagre budgets, often having to convince very resistant people that they should pay even a small fee for your art.
As a result you might find that you’re not getting the time to work on your craft, so in a sense, you’re just a very poorly paid clerk, you know, if you’re not even practising or working on your music. That’s a danger you really have to navigate carefully, and I think you either have to be organized or very lucky, and have an infrastructure which allows you not to have to worry about this stuff.
What do you do apart from composing, performing and recording music?
As I mentioned earlier, I work at Depot 48 in Delhi — a very nice place to work, in terms of curating performances, being involved in the scene, and seeing what contemporary musicians are doing in India. The proprietors, Girjashanker Vohra and Vikas Narula, are great people to work with. That’s also how I earn some money, which provides some stability, and the work is something I enjoy a lot.
I also used to teach quite a lot in Melbourne, and a little bit when I first moved to Calcutta. I’d like to resume teaching, as that’s something that interests me.
How does Depot 48 stand out from other venues? On what basis do you select the acts featured there? Is there a certain standard of music, or a musical genre that you program more frequently?
After the collapse of the Hauz Khas Village scene (which had basically been spearheaded in 2009 by The Living Room, one of Delhi’s first independent music venues), the village turned very commercial and The Living Room stopped functioning the same way as a venue. Places like Out of The Box stopped programming interesting things. After all this, Depot 29 was really the first place in South Delhi supporting independent, original music.
Subsequently, The Piano Man has opened, and Depot 48 as well. These venues stand out because the curators are musicians. Girja, the owner of Depot, is a sound engineer and a singer — he continues to work on live sound for documentaries and films. When I initially played at Depot 29, I liked it a lot. I liked the vibe, I liked Girja’s hands-on manner (he’s quite unassuming, in fact people sometimes think he’s just a guy who works there). There’s also a couple of other people who help out with curation; they also are musicians. So we’re all interested in music in a genuine sense. It’s not the case of… someone’s started a music venue, so let’s copy that to try and make a few quick bucks. And the emphasis is on original music. We have an eclectic enough palate to enjoy different kinds of musical and artistic expression; we’ve lived in different countries, and we try and bring all this to how we curate performances at the venue.
I do try and maintain a certain standard for paid performances. There is of course, a platform we have called Depot Sound Sessions, in which we generally host three acts for the evening — semi-professional or up-and-coming musicians, people who are new to a scene and just want to try something. Here as well, we really encourage original music.
What are some of the challenges you face as a curator?
Challenges as a curator are mainly to do with budgets. To try and not keep regurgitating the same Delhi contemporary music ‘jazz people’ or ‘pop people’ is quite difficult, without budgets to bring people in from the outside. But it’s essential, because there’s nothing I hate more than a self-referential, complacent scene that is not actually developing or challenging itself, and is just a bunch of yes-men and yes-women feeling inflated about their own output. That’s really unhealthy, and quite distasteful to watch. That’s something you want to avoid at all costs.
So you have to come up with inventive ways of getting people to come and perform. Sometimes an act might have a corporate gig that brings them to Delhi, so you can try and plan ahead for when they do. Maybe you get just one person from a band to come and perform — you fly them across and you get them to collaborate with local musicians. This can also be an interesting way of creating a new collaboration that could lead to a new project or type of performance.
We have a yearly musicians’ night at Depot, and at the most recent one, where we invited Evelyn Hii, the owner of No Black Tie (a jazz club in Kuala Lumpur), we had a few people go up and perform. We had Sina Ghaffari, a percussionist, and Ujwal Nagar, a Hindustani classical singer, improvise something together, and it really worked. They saw the potential in it as well, so I then encouraged them to actually do something together, and in fact they’re now performing as a new collective. These are some of the ways in which one has to encourage new activity. The same people can do different things if they’re put in different contexts and configurations, and out of their comfort zones.
Another thing I really try and encourage is artist sharing. I get in touch with a few other Delhi venues, and we try and plan ahead, so that an out-of-town act can line up a few gigs and actually make the trip possible and even worthwhile. Other options are gate-shares, offering the opportunity for acts to record at Girja’s recording studio, organizing masterclasses for visiting acts, and speaking to embassies to see if musicians coming in for festivals can perform at our venue when they’re in town.
There’s many little things you can do, but you have to be very inventive, since there’s not much money, so getting people down, and keeping the scene vibrant, challenging and competitive in a good way is very difficult.
Are you aware of the legal rights over your work, as well as those over the music performed at the venues you curate for? Do you find that the acts who perform at these venues have an understanding of the legal rights pertaining to their work?
I don’t think people have much of a clue about the legal rights of musicians, what we’re entitled to, what venues are expected to do, what managers and booking agents actually do — all of these things are ambiguous. In fact, they’re very unclear even to me, even though I work for a venue, and I’m a musician, and I’m somewhat involved in ‘the scene’. The dangerous aspect is you can be perfectly happy working in the scene without any knowledge of the laws or how things actually function.
In your experience as a curator, performer, composer and recording artist, what do you think is lacking in the music industry in India?
Although there are quite a few venues now, and more opportunities for independent music, I see it as something which is quite an elite pursuit in some ways, this ‘independent’ thing. I would say rock music and folk music… things like this have more of a ‘mass appeal’ that cuts across the demographic, but this ‘independent music scene’, and even calling it that… you’d have to be quite a westernized character to do that. So you’re only catering to a certain part of the people, and this bracket of people in India are the ones I find the least relatable, and the least inspiring. This is a group that is quite privileged — it thinks it’s doing well; the people doing this music think they’re doing well, and I think some of them are very good, of course, but I don’t think that they actually realize that there’s a lot more that they have to do to make a mark. Just being quite a good copy of someone in the West, or using some toys and Ableton Live and so forth… that’s not it; that’s not interesting to me, that’s not making any difference in terms of the music scene, if I look at it from the outside.
Well, what’s everyone interested in, looking from the outside? It’s stuff that has to do with Indian musical tradition. Now, that’s not to say that orientalism doesn’t exist, because the Western (broadly speaking) view is also mired in this strange history of viewing India as this exotic thing, so that’s also dangerous. But we have to see what’s good and interesting in our culture, and bring that out, you know, in our own way — that doesn’t mean inserting a sitar or a Tibetan singing bowl into a contemporary Western music context. What is it that ties you to this place? You have to see how this place has shaped your music and you, and that has to come out somehow; that has to be seen in a genuine sense. I think this authenticity or this genuine kind of feeling and expression and intent is lacking. This is a generalization; there are people doing interesting things, of course. But the scene is not that varied, diverse, or challenging.
If you’re talking about music industry, Bollywood is a completely different thing, with which I don’t have much experience. It seems very robust, not as open to artistic possibilities perhaps, although getting much more interesting in its scope…
What, in your opinion, are some steps towards improving the independent music scene in the country?
I think one is this internal question that each artist has to ask himself/herself — what is my identity, and how do I bring where I’m from into my art somehow, not seeing myself as living in a bubble existence, just happening to be born in India but having no connection to it. That’s not healthy — it breeds a strange kind of angularity which can be interesting; if pointed, it can have its own texture and aesthetic and can even be quite oppositional and intense — but it’s not wholesome. So for the industry to be vibrant and healthy I think it has to be wholesome on this level.
There’s also infrastructure, musicians knowing their rights and venues behaving in a more upright manner. Many venues do not do the right thing by way of musicians — some kind of code of conduct or unionization might be a good idea. Booking agents, people who call themselves managers… there are lots of sharks out there, and there are people who just don’t do anything useful. There needs to be more interaction, more sharing of ideas. When people have access to what is correct, I think, people feel more empowered, people know what they can expect fairly, and the scene develops like that.
How can our readers keep track of your work and future ventures?