In one of the most iconic scenes in Satyajit Ray’s fantasy film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), Goopy Gyne — the singer, and Bagha Byne — the drummer, heave a sigh of relief after their lives are spared by a tiger in a forest. Delighted at the prospect of living another day, they begin drumming and singing joyfully. Their music awakens a company of ghosts — farmers, townspeople, colonial masters, Christian missionaries and soldiers — who begin to dance. It is a medley of styles, from Kathak to Bharatanatyam, waltz to tribal rhythms, set to spirited percussive music played on the tabla, mridangam and ghatam.
In comparison, Ghost Dance, from sarod maestro Soumik Datta’s new project, King of Ghosts, starts off as a stripped-down affair — a patter of beats on the bodhran, an Irish frame drum, and the lilt of the sarod following soon after. They pick up pace as they riff off each other, growing a little more frenzied with every turn in the melody. When played alongside the original film, this track and 14 others from King of Ghosts — Datta’s reimagined score of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — offer lovers of Ray’s classic to revisit it with a pair of fresh eyes and ears — the new soundtrack is haunting and fantastical in equal measure.
“I must have watched the film when I was four-five years old and was drawn to how atmospheric it was,” says Datta, 33, over the phone from London. The Mumbai-born British musician remembered certain scenes more vividly than others, especially the one in the woods. “There was a certain kind of darkness in the story, about a rot that had set into society. What was magical to me then and now, is that Goopy and Bagha’s music was the medicine that healed those who heard it,” he says.
In the film, Goopy and Bagha meet the king of ghosts who grants them three boons: food for an eternity, the ability to travel anywhere with the help of magical shoes, and that their songs would leave every listener literally spellbound.
“A few years ago, I rewatched the film and what stood out was at the end of the film, they stop a war, with their magical music and laddoos. What an incredible message that is for the times we live in,” adds Datta.
In 2014, Chris Purnell, artistic director of the Edinburgh Mela, reached out to Datta — wanting him to collaborate with an orchestra, and the latter mentioned Ray’s film in passing. “Once he watched it, the project was a go,” says Datta, who then teamed up with Irish percussionist Cormac Byrne and jazz composer Johannes Berauer. “When I was reimagining the score, I wanted the sarod to be the voice of Goopy; Byrne’s bodhran is Bagha’s voice. The orchestra dips in and out, either to complement us or to create the atmosphere, to overpower us sometimes, to underscore us as well,” says Datta, who debuted the score with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Edinburgh Mela in 2014.
After travelling with the show through the UK, Australia and Malaysia, Datta played two live shows with the City of London Sinfonia at Shakespeare’s Globe in June; a recording of the performance has now been released as an album by Globe Music. “Ray’s family has not had a chance to hear our work as yet, because as much as we want to, we haven’t ever had the opportunity to bring King of Ghosts to India. It is my dream to perform it there,” says Datta.