Sneha Khanwalkar and the porosity of aural boundaries

Music has been marked by continuous mutations in its technologies of transmission. The major turning point in this technological evolution was the advent of recording devices, which democratised music by enabling a wider listener-base. This essay takes a look at the interface between the latest rung in the evolutionary ladder- digital technology, and the luxuries of mobility and portability that it affords. The focus of the interface will be composer-curator Sneha Khanwalkar, whose rejection of the confines of the studio in favour of recording and archiving the aural textures of actual geographical areas (both in their acoustical properties and thriving aural cultures) shows an anthropological curiosity in people, their tongue and ways of life as they manifest in her art. Her work navigates the ways in which the voice has been dethroned in favour of multiple sonic registers in the contemporary moment, which has in turn created a unique interface with the user through changes in the latter’s habitual auditory patterns.

Starting out as an intern on the sets of Ishq Vishq (2003), Sneha took interest in the possibilities offered by the film industry. Trained in a family with lineage in the Gwalior gharana of Hindustani classical music, Sneha’s formative interests took shape on set as she gradually realised that music was her natural calling. Sneha’s methodology involves backpacking and travelling into hinterlands, actively looking for tunes unique to the region, which she then compiles in a makeshift studio. With the help of her team (that includes sound mixers and engineers), she then merges them with the ambient sounds of the region in a distinctively syncopated pattern. The aim here is to bring out the aural texture of the region through the vocal energies of the local musicians/performers, and to capture the grain of the local voice as it is affected by the vagaries of weather and performative conditions. An instance would be the track “Tu Raja ki Raj Dulari” that she dug out for Anurag Kashyap’s film, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008). With just the sonic strain of the aforementioned line in mind, Sneha embarked on a journey to the rural recesses of Haryana where she met with several local musicians in an effort to trace the tune. She finally did discover the tune when she attended an all-night Ragini music festival (with only male attendees). She handpicked a child singer from the stage- Rajbir, whom she subsequently brought to a small studio in the vicinity, and had the tune recorded in his voice. This process of “hunting” for the voice marked Sneha’s process during this period, which inadvertently consolidated her image as an undaunted backpacker.

Sneha’s expeditions are best documented in the episodes constituting the 2012 MTV show, Sound Trippin’, where she is seen traversing expansive geographic sites in the Indian subcontinent in search of local voices and performative traditions to create songs specific to each region in its aural texture. As Shikha Jhingan points out in her essay, Backpacking Sounds: Sneha Khanwalkar and the “New” Soundtrack of Bombay Cinema, Sneha carries a microphone on her body as a “prosthetic extension”, by virtue of which she records a range of ambient sounds, such as the clinking of soda bottles, the gong of a church bell in Goa, the sounds made by the waters in Banaras, the thumping of earthen pots, everyday phrases, vernacular expletives, idiosyncratic nuances, and the like. The base of the song thus set, she now looks for local talent with whom to sit and pen the lyrics for the intended song. Once the lyrics are performed and recorded, the post-production process engages in data manipulation (like pitch correction and layering of voices over the ambient track) to make a final soundtrack complete with electronic interventions like dubstep (and its attendant bass and break-beat sonic patterns). This collaborative process posed a challenge to Sneha and her team owing to its compressed durational format; the track had to be composed from the samples over four days and then played to the town, village or family of the participating artists to gauge their reactions. The final tracks would be constitutive of the essence of the region concerned: “when you dwell in it for a while, you start to feel a beat”, believes Sneha.

Sneha’s decision to credit the singers of a track in the credit roll of a film also speaks of her ethical position on questions of ownership. In this and through her episodes in Sound Trippin, Sneha ensures, through a visual documentation of the performers, that their voices are not seen as having been unfairly appropriated into the mainstream. The local musicians retain their identities and their contributions are seen as legitimate citations. This is a stark departure from the preceding era of Bombay cinema when the music industry’s polyglot nature was based on (but was reluctant to admit) folk influences from sheer disregard or apathy. In some cases, mega mainstream singers would be paid to sing folk tunes lifted from rural areas, the latter deprived of their due royalty. Sneha cites the example of Rekha Jha, a housewife who was roped in from Patna to render the now-famous song, ‘O Womaniya’ in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). Currently a big name in her state and referred to as the “Womaniya of Bihar”, Rekha shares a cordial relationship with Sneha where she often calls up the latter to inform her about her projects. Collaborating with the regional musicians was an organic process for Sneha, but the trust of the artistes had to be earned, and their anxieties addressed sensitively.

It is interesting to see how technology has enabled the female body to traverse vast grounds and forge interactions amongst the human, the social and the technological. The microphone becomes an empowering device as it enables an auditory experience where sounds are disconnected from their visual stimuli. Sneha has also often entered predominantly male-dominated spaces to negotiate with male musicians on gender-neutral terms on the lyrics of an intended song. She recalls how even the most aggressive-looking men would drop their facade and respond to the ‘kick’ as the process took shape: “they can tell if one is genuinely interested in their culture or simply making small talk”, observes Sneha. She resists the idea of being addressed in superlative terms for ensuring due recognition for the artistes; her collaboration goes beyond any patronising designs.

Referring to her latest compositions in Nandita Das’ Manto (2018), Sneha says she did not need to travel for the tracks. Drawing mostly from 1940s’ Urdu poetry, the songs carry a contemporary strain. Her next project will be visible at the Serendipity Arts Festival 2018 where she is one of the two Music curators. Titled ‘Sounds in My Head’, Sneha is curating a ‘sound museum’- a physical space that will house immersive sonic installations by different artists from India and Switzerland. Having engaged with sound art in an informal capacity, Sneha now intends to channel this interest professionally through this curatorial project by engaging with a range of artists who have dealt with sound art and computational music in an academic capacity. Excited about her new role as a curator, Sneha has had to find ways to navigate this role, given her own pulsating practice as a composer. Sneha Khanwalkar may be seen as carving a space for women performers, which has played an ameliorative role in filling up the huge gap that has been left in history, evident in the conspicuous neglect of female musicians. From exploring diverse sonic registers by dissolving the boundaries between mainstream film and regional music to curating a sound art project, Sneha is hopeful about the shift in the music industry towards decentered forms of music that allow room for constant experimentation.

Image — Sneha Khanwalkar/ Serendipity Arts Festival
Article originally posted in Zine issue #3.