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Home > Lifestyle News > Culture News > Article > Bikes and tribal music How Mumbai composer Vipin Mishras documentary Folkroad celebrates Zanskar Valley

Bikes and tribal music: How Mumbai composer Vipin Mishra's documentary 'Folkroad' celebrates Zanskar Valley

Updated on: 21 May,2024 12:53 PM IST  |  Mumbai
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National Award-winning music Vipin Misra speaks to about his eight part documentary that celebrates travel and music of the Zanskar Valley in Ladakh

Bikes and tribal music: How Mumbai composer Vipin Mishra's documentary 'Folkroad' celebrates Zanskar Valley

Mumbai music composer Vipin Mishra went off-roading in Zanskar Valley to discover and archive the music of the valley. Photo Courtesy: Red Lorry Film Festival

Mumbai-based indie artist Vipin Mishra is known for his love for music but always having been a lover of off-roading, he decided to embark on one or probably his most challenging expeditions through the Zanskar Valley in Ladakh. While the territory is familiar, the nature of this trip brought together the best of both worlds for Mishra – music and biking.

He shares, “I first got introduced to Ladakh in 1991. After that, I've been there multiple times in all sorts of ways from road trips to climbs to treks. My first experience with the Zanskar Valley was when we actually rafted down the valley. It was an expedition we had done in 2012.” After that he did go to Shingo La Pass but not any further and came back but the itch to explore the valley has always been there. So in 2022, Mishra along with his friends including actor Satyadeep Misra (fondly called Sattu) decided to ride through and capture the beauty of the region but more importantly its immersive music.

The result, you ask? A magnificent documentary ‘Folkroad’, which premiered at the Red Lorry Film Festival, produced and promoted by BookMyShow, in April 2024 in Mumbai. The eight-part series is not your regular documentary style but one that explores the video log, or vlog style. This makes it extremely honest and raw, yet showcases the Zanskar Valley and the music of a region in a way that you have never seen before through the biker’s view. It not only includes the days from the planning of the trip but also those when they didn’t get anything, as it was done without contacting any musically inclined person and instead on-the-go to discover music. Imagine crashing a wedding and finding some of the most unique music and rhythms there or going to a monastery and not finding the monks to record the chants - it was completely unscripted but with the help of their local guide Dorja. 

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Valley full of music

With such myriad experiences, it only intrigues us to ask Mishra how his musical background helped him navigate the process beyond the equipment? “The obvious thing in which it helped was to produce the music because I knew that the music that I record at source, however beautiful, different and endearing it is, I also wanted to produce the music in a way that it becomes palatable to a whole lot of people not just in our country but across the world. In that aspect, it was all about the background and having to know how to compose and produce – was pretty much critical – and without which this documentary wouldn’t have been possible,” shares the National Award-winning composer, who has worked on films and series such as Powder (2011) and Aurangzeb (2013) to name a few. 

While one may wonder about the loss of originality to the music, Mishra’s approach is honest to his craft and that is visible when he plays a recording of the original recorded music to the one that he has produced, at the festival. It is simply refined - making listeners appreciate the music more. Interestingly, Mishra says being a composer helped in more than one way when he was making the documentary beyond making the sound palatable. “When you are writing the narrative and when you are editing you already know, you can hear what the score is going to be in your head. Sometimes when you write the score, you can already see what the end is going to be. So, I think that combination is absolutely great,” he adds.

The documentary, Mishra believes is a beautiful way for people to discover places as these are ones that most people cannot physically go to. These are beautiful ways to get a peek into them. “Some may even want to travel from South America to Zanskar Valley to discover the place,” he shares. “For the country, it shows a very non-mainstream side. We all know what comes up on the Internet in images of India – Holi, Taj Mahal, Rajasthani folk singer and even Indian wedding. This is what gives people an opportunity to go beyond the stereotypical side. Why must you go towards it? Because it exists.”

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If there is one aspect of the documentary that makes it even better is that there is a very informal narration and engaging – one that is almost as if Mishra is talking to his friend, and that is what makes it easy on the ear. While the Mumbaikar has purposefully kept it like that because it comes easy with his natural voice, there is more thought behind it, he reveals. “I was very sure that I didn't want to make this documentary in the regular sense that as documentaries are perceived – they get too detailed – while I am not saying it is good or bad – that is not what I set out to do,” explains Mishra. Without making it too detailed or data oriented as that is already available on Google, the Mumbai indie artist says he wanted to make it experiential. “I wanted it to be like – What if my friend was near me and I was narrating it to him?’” It comes across when there are suddenly jokes that Mishra cracks in the middle of nowhere that make it a light-hearted watch for anybody who loves nature, music, culture and bikes too.

Going off the beaten path

Interestingly for the composer, whose musical entity goes by the name – Vipin Mishra Project, biking became the choice of transport because it simply maximises the fun for him. “The simple visual of the person riding through instead of going in their car and comfy cabin – makes a world of difference – and it was a motivating factor. Secondly, I love doing this and would have spent a day in the valley anyway. Maybe I would have spent an extra day at the wedding and taken pictures, but never made a documentary out of it – this gave a purpose.”

A lover of bikes and particularly off-roading, which is obvious by now when one watches the documentary, Mishra says a large part of his friends’s circle is because of the biking community. He shares, “I am part of the music community and the motorcycle community. If you put out something and it is genuine, the motorcycle community comes together. When we showcased the teaser at India Bike Week 2023 in Goa, there were so many motorcyclists who knew me or didn’t, came up to me and said it was wonderful.”

While it may seem like everything was sunshine in the valley, Mishra and his crew, who spent eight days on this project in the valley, had many different challenges. The batteries in the cameras dying out was the least of them, as most camerapersons have faced it more than once in their life. However, there was more. “I didn’t expect the drone to crash. You think there is a drone pilot and drone, the last thing you expect is its crashing. So for the drone to crash on the first day was quite demoralising because without aerial visuals the documentary is very myopic visually; the subject matter is still the same but the breathing time that the viewer gets is very necessary.” Luckily for them, they found good Samaritans in some other bikers on the road travelling the same route. They not only helped them by connecting their drones but even gave them the footage to complete their documentary. The monastery was where we wanted to recorded chants but when we reached there, there were only two small boys, who said the monks had gone on their leave just the previous day and coming back after 10 days. However, these can still be managed. “The biggest challenge is always the terrain and the altitude. There is nothing that challenges you more than spending days at 13,000 ft – 14,000 ft while having something to do,” he points out.

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The Zanskar Valley and its tribes are a whole different world compared to the city life but in the larger scheme of things, it begs to ask the question about whether the government is doing enough to give them the importance they deserve, especially with India boasting of so many tribes in different parts of the country. Mishra believes it is a question about policy. “From a music standpoint, I believe that government, corporates, CSR that should step in because I believe that the next generation of the tribes won’t be doing this. The reason why I did it is also to archive. There is no reason for the next generation to start learning the dhamang and the surna because there is no market or future for it and there will be no teachers.” While this is only the music culture, he reminds that there will be a textile, house, agrarian and water conservation culture. “They are sitting on a wealth of knowledge. It is critical to start archiving, protecting and making what they are doing sustainable.

Celebrating tribal music 

With such a unique experience, there are definitely memorable experiences, and it was no different for Mishra, who says when they couldn’t record the chants at the monastery, it was sad. However, there was more coming. “We were close to a town called Padung and we could have made an exit onto a better road but we said no, there is an 800 year old monastery close by, the place where the Dalai Lama stayed when he was in India. We didn’t find any place to camp so we were staying at a house, and the man of the house, who happened to be a monk, came home in the evening, and we told him we wanted to record chants, as we are two days after from going to Leh.” The rest is history as they were not only able to record the chants but also experience its peacefulness.

Mishra shares, “The music in the Zanskar Valley is free flowing and sporadic but at the same time, it is a beautiful set of notes, and they have some gorgeous melodies. I learnt that they phrase it differently, what notes to sustain and what gaps to give after the second hook comes back, how they count their bars and beats, and the time signatures are different.”

Even as the show is about travel, biking and music, India has produced similar shows over the years that fall into this category. So, what makes Folkroad different? “I personally have seen a lot of music shows, few of them are great and most of them are set up and Folkroad is hugely different that way. Folkroad’s principle aspect was ‘you go there and have that adventure and accept the uncertainties or you may come back with stuff that is unusable’. There are motorcycles, region, format and authenticity, and the music is something I haven’t heard before. I have kept it very 80s synth wave, synth pop – fused with their music.” With Folkroad self-funded, Mishra says with some external funding, he hopes to go to Arunachal Pradesh next and spend time there with different bikes, terrain, food and music.

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