Giving Voice to Contemporary Conflict
In conversation with musicians Dastaan LIVE
It’s a full moon night, and a starlit sky fades in. Two figures emerge against the tranquil backdrop—a young girl holding her father’s hand—travelling across the pastoral setting. All of a sudden, the atmosphere changes. A barbed wire coil appears in the distance, looming larger with each passing moment. As the music rises to a crescendo, miniature figures of armed gunmen and army tanks are placed on screen—the calm dispelled by a gripping tension that lets you know this is a conflict zone.
The shadow puppetry video presentation of Delhi-based art rock collective Dastaan LIVE’s new single ‘Mat Ro Bachche’ is a haunting narrative that echoes the current socio-political climate. The track’s lyrics are drawn from the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem ‘Philistini Bachche Ke Liye Lori’. They have also released India’s first 360 degree VR video of the same track.
“In India, we take our freedom and other civil rights for granted. While everything seems normal at the face of it, if you scratch beneath the surface, a parallel narrative emerges that contradicts the foundation that this nation was built upon,” said Sumant Balakrishnan, guitarist, vocalist and co-founder of Dastaan LIVE. “Mat ro bachche follows a young girl who has seemingly lost everything to an environment of insecurity and conflict. Faiz sahib’s powerful words provided the initial inspiration for this song and video and it’s eerie how they are relevant in this day, as when he wrote them almost four decades ago,” he said.
The group was formed in 2016 when bassist Anirban Ghosh was joined by Sumant Balakrishnan in converting Ghosh’s idea to compose poetry into full-fledged tracks. The duo expanded their team to include Nikhil Vasudevan (drums), Varun Gupta (percussions), Sudheer Rikhari (spoken word poetry), Pinak Mokashi (visual documentation/backing vocals), Jagtinder Singh Sidhu (Hindustani vocals) and Subhanshu Singh (Guitars / Backing vocals). Yashas Chandra took the lead on live projections and Ankit Pandey joined to handle lights and space design. “It was the sheer love for the content- the poetry, the music, it’s newness and overall vision that brought everyone together…” Ghosh told The Citizen.
The group first performed in March 2018 at Oddbird Theatre. Since then, Dastaan LIVE has fashioned a niche for itself in the independent music scene by creating experiences that attempt to highlight contemporary socio-political issues. According to Ghosh, some of the themes that inspire their performances are “societal problems that we, as urban, educated, upper class/caste men, see happening around us.” He said while these issues might not affect them directly, they are still of immense significance in the current climate and Dastaan LIVE attempts to talk about them from “the lens of a spectator, and sometimes the oppressed, make people think and engage with the transformational process that we as responsible citizens of this country are going through by realizing that no society can grow or flourish by building walls and drawing lines amongst the very people who are a part of it.”
“Through this project, we are only reacting to what’s unfolding around us,” said Balakrishnan. “It is not so much a knee-jerk reaction to the problems of today and yesterday, but systemic issues that are so well entrenched in our society that they remain even though generations of our countrymen have come and gone. We need to move on beyond themes of love and materialism and this is our earnest attempt at doing just that.”
In order to bring these issues into the discourse, Dastaan LIVE has incorporated different art mediums into their performances. “We believe in pushing the limit and finding intersectionalities between art, design and tech,” Ghosh told The Citizen. The group has dabbled in projection mapping, immersive technologies like VR and other new media and mixed media forms. Innovative spatial design remains an integral component of their performances and the group has also experimented with building their own sets, using materials such as cardboard, jute, bamboo, old cloth, reused and upcycled plastic.
In keeping with their experimental style, their new single ‘Mat Ro Bachche’ has been rendered in two artistic forms for the audience. For the shadow puppetry video, Dastaan LIVE collaborated with filmmaker Anant Raina, cinematographer Shupriyo Maitra and animator Ikroop Sandhu. “None of us had any experience in shadow puppetry, but we still chose to use this as the medium because shadow (as a metaphor) helped us create our narrative for ‘Mat Ro Bachche’ in the most unbiased and honest way, said Ghosh.
The 360 degree VR video, conceptualized and directed by spatial designer Vaibhavi Koushik, was envisaged as a bridge between the group’s live performances and a larger online audience. “She came to see one of our shows at the Oddbird theatre, where we were performing in a roundel or 360 format and she suggested that we put a 360 camera in the middle and shoot this,” Ghosh told The Citizen. The video has been shot in multiple locations in Delhi, from a dilapidated building to an empty plot, finally being packaged in VR “for the viewer to get inside the Dastaan LIVE.”
By combining the works of eminent poets with their musical compositions, the group makes a critical comment on concerning developments through their performances. However, Dastaan LIVE does not want to be boxed in by categories or the label of ‘Art Activism’, instead preferring to let their music speak for itself. “Some people might label us as Artivists, but the labels don’t deter us from doing/saying what we want to. We believe in the transformational power of art, and that drives us to create meaningful content. We just want people to start engaging with societal problems that plague our existence, rather than living in their own little bubbles,” said Ghosh.
“Dastaan LIVE simply holds up a mirror to the audience and asks the questions, How did we get here, and where do we go from here? There is a huge unseen and unheard mass of activists, social workers and community leaders who are actually involved in activism and are part of the solution to the problem and not the problem itself. I find it unfair to them to attach the activist tag to what we’re doing,” said Balakrishnan.
Since their inception, the group has done twenty-five shows and released two music videos. They have collaborated with a range of artists working across domains and art forms and have also started an arts space in Lado Sarai, New Delhi to hold workshops, rehearsals, talks, film screenings and work-in-progress performances. Dastaan LIVE is set to perform at Serendipity Arts Festival in 2019. They are also launching a crowdfunding campaign to finance their upcoming South Asia tour.