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India’s First Art Rock Band

Priya Bhattacharji spoke to the musical project that seamlessly blends visual arts, theatre and poetry to bring Delhi to life

Much like its muse, Delhi, the synchronised chaos of Dastaan Live defies simple classification. Its varying sounds and visuals create an intricately layered spectacle, elaborately blended with introspection and activism. 

Since its WIP debut at the OddBird theatre in March this year, this unusual music project has moved around different parts of the city to make its lithe presence felt and polyphonous voices heard. Through a long-winding conversation, the people behind Dastaan Live delve into its intricacies, themes, aesthetics and its rising popularity.

How would you, the creators of Dastaan Live, describe the project?

Dastaan Live is an exploration of theIndian condition through a multi-arts experience that combines live music with the visual arts, sound & light design to tell the story of New Delhi. With music composed by Anirban Ghosh and Sumant Balakrishnan at its foundation, Dastaan live is driven by visuals and poetry from Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majaz, Nazir and Baba Nagarjuna. We seek to explore new ways to make the show more immersive for audience members and provide a forum to cast light on their own experiences and perspectives on the issues raised during our performance. We constantly tinker with the content and the music with the aim of making our show more accessible at the same time recognising that our show, by design, is aggressively postured and hard-hitting, our response to the challenges we face as a nation, today.

While we are primarily still a live music act at our core, at various points in the show Dastaan Live blurs the line between music, theatre, and the visual arts. This is why we call our show an“art-rock experience”- a term once used to describe Krautrock from post-war andCold War era Germany- a groundbreaking genre that brought together new music with liberal thought, a combination that still echoes in popular music today.

What makes Delhi such a compelling topic?

Throughout the story of India, Delhi has always had a great role to play. Emerging from the rubble of a failed mutiny against a colonial power nearly 250 years ago, a new city was carved out of the wilderness and went on to become the stage for many watershed moments in the history of our young nation. From its infancy as a symbol of European power and progress in the early 1900s, New Delhi came to be a haven for refugees and the seat of government when the country gained its independence. A confluence of myriad cultures, faiths, and traditions, juxtaposed with the aspirational, modernist and consumerist nature of New Delhi is what makes this narrative truly compelling.

A tale of a city is incomplete without the characters that shape it. Ordinary people that have lived extraordinary lives.The weak versus the powerful. The Haves and the have-nots. Religions pitted against one another. Each person jostling for space in a city that is already filled to the brim. The journey of Delhi thus far hasn’t been an easy one and no one is quite sure of what the road ahead will bring.

An interesting set of visuals play out during the performance. Can you explain their treatment and significance?

With the videos, we are trying to juxtapose the old and the new, the literal and the metaphorical, the familiar and the obscure. The visuals used in the show are a mixture of original content and found footage, largely from tv programmes/news features/archives.

Since the videos are edited live during the show, the final cut that the audience sees is constantly changing, often depending on how we feel on the spur of the moment. The visuals for each song have been treated slightly differently, sometimes by desaturating/over saturating the content, sometimes by altering the speeds of clips but at the same time, hopefully having a connecting thread weave through hall of them. We try and do a live edit that follows the tempo of the songs, but more importantly, responds to the message that a particular song/poem is attempting to convey.

Dastaan Live has performed at unusual platforms in Delhi, choosing to stay away from conventional spaces for independent music in the city. How important is the performance space?

Since the WIP show at the OddBird theatre in March this year, we have had nine showings in four spaces – in Shed 9, in an undisclosed intimate boutique theatre space in Delhi, at the Old World TheatreFestival -India Habitat Centre (Open Air Amphitheatre) and Thyagaraj Stadium(as part of Climate Jamboree- organised by TERI SAS) .

With each show, our effort is geared towards creating a completely new experience – in terms of the scale, aesthetic, design/scenography, and the format. The spaces we perform in play a very important role for us as Dastaan Live is primarily a site-specific performance and every new site/space inspires us to experiment with various elements available in terms of unique projection surfaces, light, and sound design and the general ambience we create during the show.

Do share instances of how the show has experimented with different sites.

At Shed 9, which essentially was an empty warehouse, we re-imagined the space and through the use of props and dressing, we managed to capture a slice of New Delhi, complete with street lamps, commercial flex boards, clothes lines etc

Our DIY lights design, have now become an inseparable part of the show involved creating a city skyline behind our stage, to truly immerse ourselves in our subject, New Delhi.

At IHC, the high wall of the amphitheater enabled us to be able to project at a sheer scale that is rare to find in other performance venues. Similarly, our lights team had much more at their disposal in terms of tech to scale up the experience from their end. The stage has a unique triangular orientation which was different for us ( the musicians)  as well. Combined with the cityscape and the high wall of projection above us, this looked completely different from theShed 9 incarnation, yet the content and the intention remained unchanged.

At the boutique theatre, we completely reworked the show-flow, threw out our tech requirements and started from scratch. Using only the natural acoustics of the room, we managed to recreate the signature Dastaan sound. The visual content was directly projected on the musicians, creating yet another look and feel to the show.

The experience of re-imagining and re-creating the show while maintaining its essence in different spaces is easily the most exciting part of Dastaan Live.

What has the audience response been so far?

In a relatively short period of time, we have managed to garner a steady audience across varied age groups. Some are familiar with the poems that are part of the show and for them, it’s something they know intimately, for others, it’s a new experience the unique way in which the projection, lights, and music come together to create the show-  each element enhances the experience of the other.

The biggest draw for audience in our opinion is our format and more than anything else, our presentation.    

While the response to the shows has been overwhelmingly positive, there are still the occasional walk-outs during our show, people who have taken offence to some of our content- that’s fine, maybe our show isn’t for everyone.

The theatre community in New Delhi has been particularly responsive to Dastaan Live, whether it is by extending their support to us, providing insightful criticism to help us make the show better or by creating a space for the show that the independent music scene simply cannot provide.

What makes Dastaan Live relevant in the times we live in?  Is ‘protest music’ a suitable label for the project?

For us, this is show is not a medium of protest. To hold up a mirror to the audience, to enable them to question the realities that surround them, for them to recognise how vulnerable they really are in the world’s largest “democracy”- these hold more value in terms of starting the conversation, which is essentially what the show is trying to do.

Calling Dastaan Live protest music would be inaccurate. Doing so belittles the work being done by activists and protestors with real action on the ground, who are the real embodiment of protest. That being said, each member of the collective shares a common ideology and a vision to create spaces that enable conversations, rather than push forth a piece of propaganda in a time of great flux for our nation.

Our narrative is just an honest response to what we see around us. Our most important band member-the poetry, written by the greatest poets the subcontinent has ever produced, are still chillingly relevant today, even if some were penned over a century ago.

What about the black “uniforms” you wear? That has an undeniable anarchist element

We choose to wear black pathani suits in an effort to be invisible. Black is a colour that swallows all other colours, it’s the colour of impartiality. It is also the calling card of protest, and in that small way perhaps, we fit the convention of protest music.

Dastaan Live is a Delhi-centric project. Staging it in other cities make not may sense.

New Delhi is home for all of us in Dastaan Live. Some of us have been here all our lives, some later in their lives, and it only made sense for us to create this narrative around the stories that we as residents of this city have seen or heard over the years along with personal experiences, real or imagined.

During the course of performing the show, we realised that the stories that we were trying to tell are common to the entire country, and by extension, the entire subcontinent and people, irrespective of where they come from, also relate to them at some level. The broad themes that the show touches upon- displacement, unfettered urbanisation, aspirations of people living in cities, religious tensions and disharmony, communal violence are everyday realities in South Asia

Since cities are on the verge of becoming homogenised and our format is flexible enough to constantly evolve to accommodate new spaces, we look forward in the future to form narratives with musicians and storytellers from other cities in a collaborative effort to look at them in a brand new light.

What lies ahead for Dastaan Live?

We seek to perform at more unconventional venues. We are currently looking at possibilities of performing at some of Delhi’s abundant ruins, in front of audience who wouldn’t normally be able to have access to our show. We also wish to perform in smaller cities and villages as soon as resources and opportunities become available. Additionally, we hope to collaborate with artists who resonate with our thought behind the show and create something even more powerful and unique in that process. 

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