‘It’s an exaggerated take on some universal Bengali traits’

Sawan Dutta, the creator of the viral hit Machher Jhol, on celebrating Bengali stereotypes, her ode to Boroline and quitting architecture to pursue music.

Written by Anushree Majumdar | Published: July 28, 2016 12:42:49 am

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Sawan Dutta is gobsmacked with the kind of attention her latest ditty, Machher Jhol, has received on social media and the press. Released on her song vlog, The Metronome, the song has Bengalis all over the world smacking their lips and humming along.

But Dutta, 45, is no stranger to the music industry. A graduate from the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), the Mumbai-based composer of ad jingles, TV shows, theatre scores, original soundtracks for feature films, was one of the earliest members of Indian Ocean as well. Excerpts from an interview:

Your song, Machher Jhol, and its recipe has gained many followers — Bengali and otherwise — on social media. So is your sexy Bengali boudi persona with red lips, red bindi, spectacles and sari — leaning close to the camera, intimately, and pressing every other Bengali’s hot buttons by singing about Boroline, monkey cap and now, machher jhol (fish curry).

Oh, let me tell you that I lean in close to the camera so that it catches my voice! It’s not to build up an atmosphere of intimacy (laughs), it’s a technical issue. I shoot the videos on my iPhone, so I try to look at the lens and make sure it’s recording properly. I wear saris because I have so many of them, I’m airing them out in my videos. The spectacles are not meant to be sexy, I have myopia. And I don’t own a monkey cap — I bought them on Amazon.

So it’s not intimacy that I seek to create, but nostalgia. It’s an exaggerated, musical take on some universal Bengali traits; it’s a celebration of them. Some people think I’m making fun of Bengalis but I’m not. I think people are reading too much into the songs for various reasons. My song vlog is very irreverent, as am I.

When did you start The Metronome? Is the focus on Bengaliness on purpose? Those particular songs have witty lyrics set to old-fashioned melodies, making them stand apart from your other tunes.

I released a trailer for it on YouTube in March and uploaded my first song in April. I try and release a new song every two-three weeks. I write songs about anything and everything — living in Mumbai, singing in Singapore; I’ve even written a song for Dachau, the concentration camp in Germany. I visited the place, I read a lot of Holocaust literature, watched documentaries. It was so depressing and I needed to take myself out of it. So I wrote Winter is Coming, a song about how Bengalis are constantly worrying about feeling cold; it also references my love for Game of Thrones.

This was the second song with a Bengali theme. I’d written Ode to Boroline before and that did very well too. The owner of the company called me to tell me how touched he was, and so many viewers told me that they felt very nostalgic after listening to the song. The waltz, the piano — it’s all deliberate, it’s what I’m recreating based on my memories, my mother’s memories of the way we have always been.

My mother, Swapna Dutta, is a well-known children’s author and this light-heartedness runs in the family.

You’ve been in the music industry for a really long time, you were one of the earliest members of Indian Ocean. In 2006, you brought out a concept album called Lady Chatterjee, which boasts of “India’s first 3D animated item girl”. But you’re only going viral now. What’s your back story?

I’ve always been interested in music and I was a part of Indian Ocean when I was in my third or fourth year at SPA. I left the group when they were going to Calcutta to record their album; I had to graduate first and at that time, I couldn’t pursue music as a career. Very few people did that. So, I worked as an architect for a few years after graduating. But I really wanted to make music, so I quit my job.

I like working with concepts, so I came up with Lady Chatterjee, an animated character who sings and dances, in 2000. I went on to record labels but they said the concept was too ahead of its time. By the time I released the album in 2006, it was no longer my creation — I had to sign away my rights, and Lady Chatterjee belonged to the label.

What happened then?

In the midst of all this, I got married and my husband, CB Arun Kumar (a filmmaker who specialises in animation and VFX) who I created Lady Chatterjee with, introduced me to digital technology. It gave me control over the whole music making process; I didn’t need musicians, labels, anybody anymore. It made me immensely self-sufficient and I started working with production houses who needed music for ads, for TV shows, documentaries, theatre performances and so on. But clients can be controlling so I started The Metronome. I am now looking for a sponsor for the vlog so that I can concentrate on writing more songs.

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