Down the memory tracks

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on January 09, 2018

Time and ties: Sanaya Ardeshir, aka DJ Sandunes, made her grandfather the protagonist of her composition for Different Trains 1947. He had relocated to Kolkata from Karachi in 1945, only to be cut off from his family when the Partition happened two years later. Photo: Naman Saraiya

Different Trains 1947, a collaborative Indo-UK audiovisual project, reinterprets a Steve Reich composition within the context of the Partition

The 70th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani Independence from British rule has sparked off a remarkable upsurge of public and academic interest in one of the most tumultuous and definitive events of modern history — the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. The fact that 2017 is the UK-India Year of Culture has also contributed to the glut of historical, journalistic and artistic endeavours that aim to engage with, contextualise and make sense of the largest — and bloodiest — mass migration in history. The latest addition to this list is Different Trains 1947, a collaborative Indo-UK audiovisual project that aims to reinterpret a classic Steve Reich composition within the context of the Partition. UK musicians Darren Cunningham (pseudonym Actress) and Jack Barnett (of These New Puritans) and Mumbai music producer Sanaya Ardeshir (aka DJ Sandunes) have collaborated with percussionist Jivraj Singh and Hindustani vocalist Priya Purushothaman to create three original and interlinked compositions for the project, which also features visuals by prominent British artist/filmmaker couple Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. Having already made its début at the Barbican Centre in London, the project now travels to Alsisar Mahal in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region for its maiden — and only — performance in India on December 17 at the Magnetic Fields music festival.

The original Different Trains — a three-movement piece written in 1988 — is recognised as one of the minimalist composer’s most innovative and iconic works. It was inspired by Reich’s memories of the train trips between New York and Los Angeles that he made as a kid during WWII. A meditation on train travel, Different Trains contrasts those childhood trips with the Holocaust trains that took his Jewish kin in Europe to Adolf Eichmann’s concentration camps. There are uneasy resonances here with the Indian and Pakistani experience of the Partition, where the railways became the symbol of the displacement of millions of refugees on religious lines, as well as the sites of some of the worst atrocities committed by both sides.

“I was really excited by the idea of trying to re-contextualise this iconic Steve Reich piece within the framework of 1947,” says Ardeshir, adding that she approached the project from a personal space. Her grandfather moved from Karachi to Kolkata for work in 1945, only to be cut off from his mother and three sisters when the Partition happened two years later. “So I decided to put my grandfather as the protagonist in the piece, and use the music to tell his story. The context is still 1947, but told through the story of this person who lived in Karachi and witnessed the ordeal, but from a slight remove.”

Like Reich’s original, which pioneered the use of archival interviews as the basis of melody, Ardeshir built her piece around interview recordings of her grandmother. But in this case, she used parts of the interview to inform the rhythmic sections of the piece, performed live by Kolkata-based artist — and regular collaborator — Singh.

The UK producers chose less personal and more abstract angles of approach.

Barnett focused on the sounds of the train itself, making high-fidelity recordings of a vintage steam engine in action. He then sampled the train sounds for the piece, while also using it as the basis for the drum score that was played live, again by Singh. “Trains are rhythmically very interesting and Jack’s movement is exactly that, it’s a transcription of a steam engine doing a bunch of things,” says Singh. “There’s a lot of musical content just in the way a train sounds.”

Cunningham — whose movement is meant to be performed without visual accompaniment — chose a more abstract approach, informed by meetings and conversations with Indian classical and folk musicians during a trip here earlier this year. “In our portion, the feelings Darren tried to evoke were mixed — separation, of course, but also he was fired a lot by the visual and cultural experience of India,” says Purushothaman, who provides vocals for this segment. Speaking of her own contribution, she said “I took two verses from a Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem on the Partition, set that to melody and then improvised.”

Accompanying two of the three movements in Different Trains 1947 are visuals by Forsyth and Pollard. The two use vintage reels from the British Film Institution’s National Archive, alongside a new set of social archives featuring interviews with those who lived through the events of 1947, created by multidisciplinary artist and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra in India, and documentary maker Jah Jussa in the UK. The performance at Alsisar Mahal will be the last time Different Trains 1947 is played live, though there are plans to document the entire set.

“The Partition was a defining, earth-rattling event and I think as cultural workers we have a responsibility to engage with the subject and paint a little more context,” says Ardeshir, when I ask her about the impact she hopes the project will have. “I’m curious to see if any conversation happens at a venue like Magnetic Fields. It’ll definitely be very different from everything else that happened at the festival.”

Published on December 08, 2017

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