Now, racism in Britain is more well-hidden: Nitin Sawhney

NAOMI CANTON | Jul 14, 2013, TNN

British Indian musician Nitin Sawhney, composer for movies like ‘The Namesake’ and ‘Midnight’s Children‘, has several gold albums to his credit, but is still unable to find a slot on the Glastonbury Festival main stage. In an interview to Naomi Canton during the recent Tagore Festival in the UK, he spoke about why he chafes against the ‘world music’ label and the pain of immigrants

So what is this about you accusing the organisers of Glastonbury Festival of being racist?

A reporter asked me if I was excited about Glastonbury and I said I have not been for 11 to 12 years but I used to play there a lot. And they asked me if I played on the main stage and I said that I always played on the world music stage. Then the reporter said, “But you would have preferred to play on the main stage?” I said yes, but since I was Asian and Nitin Sawhney, I normally played on the world music stage and that they always seem to segregate musicians like this. In the same way we have Asian Network Radio and Radio One. However I prefer a more pluralistic and integrated society. I said, “I wonder what it takes to play on the main stage as an Asian guy who sells lots of records.” We would sell out at the Royal Albert Hall and Beyond Skin has certified gold sales.

Tell me about your background.

My dad was a Hindu Punjabi who moved to India from Lahore during Partition. My mum, Saroj Sawhney, is a classical Indian Bharatanatyam dancer, who was born in Nairobi and moved to Jalandhar. I have two older brothers.

You were the only Asian at your school in Kent. What was that like in the 1970s?

It was a very difficult time as the National Front was very strong and doing some dark things. Now it’s more well-hidden but the English Defence League are very nasty in some things they say. It’s not as bad as it was in the 1970s which was a very racist time when Eric Clapton said England was becoming a black colony and ‘Rock Against Racism‘ played.

You have written and directed a play, Einstein Tagore: the Bombmaker and the Poet based on real meetings the two men had in Berlin in 1926 and 1930, to be premiered at the Barbican in London in 2015. What inspired you?

These were two lionised figures who were very flawed as human beings. It’s about rehumanising them. Tagore’s beard is kept in a glass case at Dartington and Einstein’s brain is kept in cookie jar in America, so people want a piece of them because we want to feel close to greatness in our lives. But we want to ignore the flaws — it’s like Jimmy Savile. The way Einstein treated his first wife was disgusting. He compiled a list of things of what she had to do and then he married her cousin and had sex with her daughter and sister. People say Tagore was in love with his sister-in-law and she committed suicide after he married a child bride who had their first child aged 12 and he gave away his three daughters at 15 and below. If we judged these people by today’s standards, they are two of the greatest icons in the East and West, but we would be pretty shocked.

How do you assess Tagore?

I like the fact that he is a polymath, he did not believe in nationalities, he saw the universe as illusory and was unafraid of approaching concepts outside art, like having scientific conversations with Einstein.

Your 10th studio album, ‘Dystopian Dream’, will be released next spring. Tell us about it.

It’s really about the past year. England has become a very dark, depressing place to me. It’s to do with the Tories strangling the economy. Official figures confirm the Tory party has widened the gap between rich and poor and that’s their cure for this economy. I got very depressed and was thinking “Is there light at the end of the tunnel?” Islamophobia is on the rise.

Half of the mosques in the UK have at some point been attacked since 2001. You think it is a dark place if you come from an immigrant background because of the way this government, the media and certain political parties seem more keen on demonising immigrants than informing people how they have benefited the economy.

My dad passed away two months ago. He had fought prostate cancer for 14 years so personally it’s been a difficult time for me. I say dystopian dream because it suggests there is something beyond that and there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve just released OneZero, an album cut live and direct to vinyl with no post-editing and no multitracking. The last time this was done was 35 years ago by Thelma Houston. The Beatles went to magnetic tape.

You are producing Anoushka’s next album, ‘Traces of You’. It is to be released in October featuring vocals by Norah.

Anoushka plays the sitar and I play the guitar. It feels like a really deep album with a lot more lyricism. There is a more melancholy because of her dad so tracks like Unsaid are about things that were unsaid to their father.


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