Sonic art is getting a dogged audience in Delhi and beyond

A new aural art is getting popular even though it might be a bit much to wrap your head around

London-based artist Poulomi Desai has lived under the tyranny of the sitar — the socio-political symbol of 'British-Asianness', ever since Ravi Shankar crossed paths with the Beatles. She was a punk worshipper of the alternative since she started her multi-disciplinary work in art in 1980s' London, specifically, performance art — through theatre, music and noise. Feeling like a perpetual outsider to the expectations placed on her as an artiste of her particular racial identity, and deeply bored with the sterotyping, she decided to pervert and subvert the sitar.

(Clockwise from left) Sonic artists Lionel Denton (sitting front, Da Saz), Hemant Sreekumar, Poulumi Desai and Simon Underwood (Conspirators of Pleasure), Vinny Bhagat (Shivnakaun) and Chintan Kalra (sitting, back IMFL) were among those who played at Maker's Asylum on March 21. Pic/Abhishekh Sharma
Clockwise from left) Sonic artists Chintan Kalra (sitting, back IMFL), Lionel Denton (sitting front, Da Saz), Hemant Sreekumar, Poulumi Desai and Simon Underwood (Conspirators of Pleasure) and Vinny Bhagat (Shivnakaun) were among those who played at Maker's Asylum on March 21. Pic/Abhishekh Sharma

"Today, I see the sitar as an object that can make many sounds other than the ones children learn when they are taught to play it," says Desai.

She soldered an electronic circuit into a forgotten broken sitar harvested from a British Asian attic, no doubt, to create boombastic noises played with no attention to traditional note progressions.

Artiste Vinny Bhagat at work
Artiste Vinny Bhagat

She and her co-artist Simon Underwood in Conspirators of Pleasure gave several 'speak and learn' toys for children the same treatment. This electronic tinkering is termed circuit-bending, i.e. customising circuits within low voltage and battery-run devices such as toys, digital synthesisers, discarded and found objects to create new sound generators. The sound thus generated, is called sonic art.

Parikrama's ex-bandmember, now Delhi-based music producer Chintan Kalra who performs as IMFL, says his interest in sonic art meant he could take sound production and design to a performative level — get an audience's attention to tools which are not traditionally seen as musical instruments to facilitate artistic expression.

Though events that give a platform to this aural art are still rare, the crowds are increasing, says Sreekumar: "A larger audience turns up for each occasion. More people stick around till the end of each show. The Internet, too, makes a lot of older works accessible to the youth — and more kids are trying stuff at home than ever before."

Will noise travel?
For the past decade, Delhi-based Shankar Barua has been the curator of Carnival of e-Creativity or CeC (pronounced, 'sec' where the 'e' might stand for electronic or experimental art, visual or sound). The annual festival's 2015 edition was organised in Shillong, Meghalaya. The venue for this year's edition is yet to be decided.

He resists making open calls for participation at CeC, "I know that we can easily get more 'applications' than we can realistically assess fairly...and, most would tend to be specific 'types' of professionals who respond to open calls, whereas there are many excellent types of professionals who never do so," he said.

The only real reason the non-commercial sound art experimentation scene remains "underground" here in India, he says, is because we are an innovation-deficient civilisation, where true innovators are few and far between, with almost no empowerment for them.

But this may be changing.

The geeky toyshop
Based in Hauz Rani, Delhi, Maker's Asylum is a part-central government funded techie studio, workshop and co-working space, which stocks a generous inventory of useful things: power tools, desktops, 3D printers, laser cutters, free wi-fi... It welcomes hobbyists, hackers, artists and entrepreneurs alike to DIY their ideas to actualisation — the making of things with one's hands — to foster a culture of innovation.

On March 21, it was the venue for Disquiet, an event that drew Delhi crowds to the 'crazies' — Barua's name for the aural geeks he patronises — including Ruhail Kaizer who performed as Sister, Franco German Lionel Denton 'Da Saz' who moved to India 17 years ago to learn the sitar, Hemant Sreekumar (an ad professional), London-based Conspirators of Pleasure, IMFL and Vinny Bhagat as Shivnakaun who runs a full fledged artists' studio, capable of airing performance live online. The conference hall was crammed with 200 people which came as a happy surprise to the audio geeks not accustomed to such attention.

Creativity and vision are in no short supply, but institutional support is failing to keep up, aside from Khoj, a Delhi-based artists' association, and Pro Helvetia who continue to patronise at a genuine sustained institutional level.

But there is reason to be optimistic as new performers emerge from their adolescence or garages to play before audiences at sometimes, swish and other times, underground addresses and festivals in Delhi and beyond. The leeway and spontaneity it provides through ease of use, like all other technology-assisted arts, means it's a matter of time before the scene becomes sustainable.

So, listen up.

Hear their music

Da Saz/Lionel:

Hemant Sreekumar:

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