A Slice of Culture – A column with an eclectic mix of South Asian cultural stories from the world.
London-based multidisciplinary artist and musician Soumik Datta‘s animated film Songs of the Earth premiered at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasglow (COP26) on November 2, 2021, and his eight-track album by the same name was also released the same day. Songs of the Earth was created after Soumik won a British Council Climate Change Creative Commission in February 2021 to develop a film and music project in partnership with Earth Day Network.
The first short film written, scored, and directed by Datta is animated by Indian illustrators, Sachin Bhatt and Anjali Kamat. The 24-minutes-long film follows Asha, a young climate refugee from Bengal, who is searching for her missing father through the flood banks of the Sundarbans delta, burning forests, and melting polar ice caps. A dedication to the Global South and those who have been tragically displaced by environmental crises and natural disasters, Songs of the Earth responds to climate change, weaving issues from climate migration, extreme weather to ocean pollution, deforestation, and sustainable fashion through original narrative, songs, and immersive visuals.
The album is a sparkling blend of vocals, saxophone, pulsing drums, sarod, cello, and meditative samples of nature (leaves, wind, and waves), and brings together an ensemble cast of musicians, singers, and voice actors from both India and the UK. It features a diverse band of musicians including British-Sri Lankan singer and rising star Ashnaa Sasikaran, contemporary cellist Matthew Barley, Indian-Egyptian pianist Rosabella Gregory, British-Tanzanian saxophonist Yasmin Ogilvie, and Jake Long on drums.
In this exclusive interview, Datta tells us more about the idea of the film and the album, how he is deeply inspired by environmental issues, and his upcoming projects in 2022.
IC: What was the idea/inspiration behind Songs of the Earth, your recent animation film accompanied by an eight-track album responding to climate change? How has the reception been since its premiere at COP26?
SD: Climate disasters caused more internal displacement than war in 2020. And more than five million people were displaced that year, mostly from Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. I remember reading about this within lockdown and being deeply impacted by it. There I was, a privileged man in my home in London – and there were people with the color of my own skin, who were without home or safety – displaced by the very engines that run my world in the Global North. What came out of that despair was a creative response in the shape of a short story.
I wrote about a young climate refugee called Asha who was searching for her father across burning forests and melting glaciers. This was the start of Songs of the Earth. At the time, I had no idea that Asha, who was based on someone I had seen on the news, would lead us on a journey all the way to the premier of our film inside the UN-run delegate Blue Zone at COP26.
I’m deeply grateful to the British Council for their commission which led me to partner up with Earth Day Network and two of the brightest, most creative illustrators I’ve had the privilege of working with – Sachin Bhatt and Anjali Kamat. Bringing Asha to life and representing the marginalized voices of the Global South has been a great honor.
IC: Tell us a little about the creative and collaborative process that you used to create the film and the songs.
SD: Songs of the Earth went into production during the lockdown. So the entire project – from scriptwriting, storyboarding, animating, music composing, recording, and editing – happened remotely – over countless Zoom and WhatsApp calls! I’ve never really worked like this before and at times, it did feel frustrating to not be in the same room as the animators or the musicians. But I accepted that this was part of the challenge of the project.
Since I wanted the project to be deeply rooted within the reality of climate issues, I asked Earth Day Network to connect me with climate reporters, environmentalists, and professionals on the front line of the climate refugee crisis – to draw the source material for the script and songs. Oceans Rising speaks of what the oceans will wash over if we are not careful. This includes cities and communities, but also – greed, power, and profit – all non-sustainable human behavior that is leading to rising surface temperatures. This lyric would not have been realized without the invaluable contribution of our climate experts and consultants. What made this project unique is the way we brought together a cross-sector team of visual artists, musicians, environmentalists, architects, and policymakers to manifest the journey of our lead character, Asha.
IC: The project will also be available as an educational resource for schools and youth labs in the shape of an e-book. Give us more details about this. Why was this important to you?
SD: The outcome of COP26 has been questionable and even disappointing. But what gives me hope are the young crowds on the streets, the slogans being chanted, and the sight of people coming together from all walks of life to unite in a common dream. The hierarchy of power is not working. That is clear. Our leaders are failing to put aside power and profit in order to reduce carbon emissions. This is exactly the time when we need youth voices to step up and convert climate indifference to positive action. This is why the next phase of our project is to engage with schools and colleges. We can make our interactive e-book available to teachers who reach out to us wishing to drive climate arts education within the classroom. Perhaps in the end then, change will come, not from law and leadership, but from the heart of the community and the spirit of the next generation.
IC: Your projects Jangal (EP 2019) and Tiger Tiger (single 2020) were also inspired by environmental issues. Tell our readers more about them. Do you remember the point when climate change became a real, personal issue for you?
SD: Indian classical music is deeply connected to nature. So even though, I grew up in cities (in India and the UK), the value of seasons, the importance of ecosystems, and the balance of nature was something I learned as a young boy. But over the last few years, I’ve become acutely aware of my sense of privilege and the uncomfortable truth of how many of us are complicit in contributing to a society that is no longer sustainable – we now urgently have to rewrite through dialogue and self-education, building bridges between people from different cultures. At its heart, this is what drives my work now – a coming together of diverse collaborators to address the big issues of our time. Now when I write a song, my intention is to try and untangle the impossible, to catalog chaos through creativity.
IC: What other projects are you working on for 2022?
SD: The UK’s premier arts venue Southbank Center invited me to produce a new work that we will create in residence within the building. It’s a huge honor. I collected a team of diverse singers, musicians, dancers, and filmmakers to create this show called Hope Notes which addresses the intersection of climate anxiety, mental health issues, and immigration through a multi-disciplinary, big-cast production. In terms of scale, it’s the biggest project I’ve ever attempted, with multiple outputs, videos, performances, and tours. I’m just very grateful for the recognition and the daily support of my team at Soumik Datta Arts, who are the real engines behind every venture.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.