In late 2017, I composed and recorded a couple of studies for sitar and electronics. At the time, I was working full-time and more interested in the visceral aspect of making music and also wanted to start and finish works more quickly rather than agonizing over a lengthy process. I challenged myself to see what would happen if I limited myself to a more concise set of parameters—recording 2-3 improvised sitar performances with one or two pulsing electronic timbres and drones. I was pleased with the result. Later, in the summer of 2018, I came back to them and decided that I wanted to explore what would happen to create a full series of these works—starting with electronic sounds using computer software plug-ins and then sitting down to record sitar in short bursts in my home studio. The result is this series of music—a full-length album devoted to (mostly) improvised sitar (or quickly composed) and ambient electronic sounds.
While considering and creating these works, the theme of Indian and Middle Eastern folklore popped up in my life and continued to surface in different ways. I have long been fascinated with the four popular tragic romances of Punjabi, that is, Sohni Mahiwal, Heer Ranjha, Sassi Punnun, and Mirza Sahiba. Sohni Mahiwal, Punjab’s Romeo and Juliet story, particularly interested me as it tells the story of a couple, Sohni and Mahiwal, whose love is forbidden by Sohni’s family. Soon after Sohni’s parents learn of their interest in one another, they arrange for her to be married to another man. After Sohni’s marriage, Mahiwal, her lover, decides to settle on a property across the river from Sohni and her husband. And when Sohni’s husband is away from home, traveling for work, she paddles across the river night after night (with the help of a clay pot to keep afloat) to meet him. Her sister-in-law spies her on her journey and replaces her clay pot with an unbaked pot. The following night, Sohni picks up the urn and starts to go across, but since Sohni can’t swim, the unbaked terra-cotta gives way, and she drowns.
This archaic tale may seem irrelevant today, but many South Asian (and particularly Punjabi) families continue to be very strict about marriage. I was engaged in 2017 and in early 2018, my husband and I were married—much to the chagrin of my parents. During this time, I revisited this folktale and reflected on changing practices and attitudes over generations. As an educated person living on my own, I haven’t been dependent on my family to financially support me in many years, which means that my choices are my own (unlike Sohni’s). But the attitude toward these major life decisions (among some families) hasn’t changed very much.
While working on this record, I was also invited to perform original music to an act of the first feature-length animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed in September 2018 at the Parkway Theatre in Baltimore. The story is derived from Arabian Nights or (One Thousand and One Nights), which have been translated by many Western (primarily British) authors. This animated adaptation of one tale, “Prince Ahmad and the Fairy Peri-Banu” (according to Richard F. Burton’s translation) features an Orientalist (and often problematic) interpretation of the story, despite featuring stunning and intricate shadow puppetry and innovative light and film painting techniques by renowned early 20th century filmmaker Lotte Reiniger.
I decided to devote this series of sitar and electronics studies to Eastern folktales in translation, which seems fitting since my music is a combination of east and west (a product of a hybrid, intersectional identity) and the traditional and the contemporary, the acoustic (visceral or analog) and the electronic. Here, I’m less concerned with what is inappropriate or appropriate in the western adaptations and translations of these stories but more interested in how we critique this work over time—how the meaning changes relative to the political discussion of today. And also, I reflect on how these narratives (which I read or was told as a child) have affected my identity as a Punjabi, Sikh-American woman musician growing up in the west with a deep fondness for my heritage. It’s impossible to fully comprehend how this folklore has affected who I am today and the work that I make, but I know that it has certainly influenced my interest in retaining some fragments of eastern timbres and themes (the sitar) while breaking the rules—through the use of electronics and departing from the traditional Hindustani raga used in Indian classical music. With a global, intersectional identity, I am neither the eastern storyteller nor am I the western translator, but my music serves as a soundtrack to consider the themes of these folktales, how they have been conveyed over time, and their relevance today.