Music composer Sneha Khanwalkar has a distaste for ‘honey sweet’ musical voices.
Months before the script of Gangs of Wasseypur was punched in, Anurag Kashyap met musician Sneha Khanwalkar, who had just finished compositions for Love Sex Aur Dhokha. His brief to her was simple: “Explore Bihari folk music, and if possible, find real and original voices.” To begin with, Khanwalkar was an odd choice. Marathi by origin, she grew up in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, a “mixed-up and confused” kid who had never been to Bihar and Jharkhand until the compulsions of her job took her to the very dusty badlands of those states the film was shot in.
Yet, when the soundtrack was completed, with such ambitious and quirky songs as O Womaniya, I Am a Hunter, Keh Ke Lunga and Jiya Ho, it was instantly and unanimously hailed as a winner—an epic that was born of small beginnings with that simple one-line brief by Kashyap. Several critics and film-goers have pointed out that the album stands out as a triumph of style and irreverence. She knew that she had hit the right note, establishing an almost pulp fictionesque credibility by blending Bhojpuri folk with alternative sounds.
When you compliment Khanwalkar that the film belongs only to two people, namely Kashyap and her, she asks anxiously, “Do you really think the soundtrack is a success?” It is plain that she has laboured on the album, given it much time and thought, and what’s more, is genuinely interested in knowing the extent of its on-the-ground success. “I wish I had a software [program] through which I could get each and every response—who is listening to which song and where all it is reaching,” she remarks.
The music of Gangs of Wasseypur, Kashyap’s gritty film about crime and coal politics in Dhanbad that released in two parts, was a tough assignment, the result of a year-and-a-half’s travels and travails. Whatever little information she had about Bihar came from her director. “Anurag knows the area and its socio-economic issues quite well. But I wanted to find out myself.”
Naturally, the first task before the young music director was to understand the cultural fabric of Bihar. Like any first-time traveller, she was curious about the region she was about to explore: “I wanted to see how the young boys out there romance, how their women folk think and what the society is like. It was not research. Research is a big word. I wouldn’t be able to relate to it. It was just curiosity to see the land and find out, in the end, what is their music like, what are the instruments they use, aur kaise bajatein hain (how they play them).”
During the course of her work, she flew to Patna several times. She travelled further across to Gaya, Darbhanga, Ranchi, Muzaffarpur, Wasseypur and Dhanbad to soak in the local flavour and check out the folk music scene. While she was there, she went about with a fierce determination to find new voices that could suit the small-town rusticity that the soundtrack demanded. Fascinatingly, she handpicked voices from the street, untrained and unprofessional, or small-time singers who couldn’t believe their luck. For instance, she picked up Rekha Jha from Patna and Khushboo Raj from Varanasi for O Womaniya and made four versions of the same song, of which only one was used. She spotted another singer called Munna from a performing troupe in a village near Gaya and gave him what has become a legendary cry, ‘Hailo’, that appears at the beginning of I Am a Hunter.
“There was no requirement for so many songs,” says Khanwalkar of the 27-odd songs that pack the two soundtracks. “Good that Anurag kept it open. He never told me to stop at any point.” Although a hands-on filmmaker, Kashyap didn’t impose any conditions on her and let her experiment with new sounds. “That’s because he is an experimenter at heart.”
More than the numbers, the big challenge was to get the instruments right. The soundtrack is dholak-heavy and it was by design. It is the humble dholak or drum that lends the music its rootedness, but she used it for a more practical purpose, to underline Bihar’s compulsive connection with the dholak.
“A lay listener may not know of any instrument, but the moment you play a dholak, s/he will recognise its beats. But the idea was to do something new with it. Very often, the only tune you remember coming from a dholak is ‘dhaki taki chaki’. I tried to strip it of its conventional sounds.”
At one point, a doubtful Khanwalkar had to be reassured that she hadn’t overused the drum beats. Although by then she had amassed several different sounds, she was still not satisfied. The search for more unique beats drove her to Trinidad, where she found almost extinct Indian instruments still in use among descendants of Bihari indentured labourers. People from Bihar and neighbouring states like Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal had docked in the Port of Spain more than a century ago. Quite miraculously, she stumbled upon dhantaal there, an instrument that has vanished from the musical traditions of Bihar, but survives among a handful of Bihari clans in Trinidad.
The Caribbean island proved to be a perfect place for inspiration—and her discovery of Chutney, a Bhojpuri form of Calypso, provided the base for I Am a Hunter. The song is picturised on a moving train, on a group of wannabe hippies. “One day, I found this singer by the name of Vedesh Sookoo who, though of Bihari parentage, had never been to Bihar. I loved his voice and asked him if he could write smutty lines and he wrote about the hunter and his gun. We recorded it then and there,” she says.
Her month-and-a-half stay in Trinidad also introduced her to the Spanish Christmas carol style of music, Parang folk music and other instruments such as the cuatro, a compact, four-string guitar found in Spanish countries, which she prudently incorporated. Once the music reviews were out—though glowing and positive—she was amused to read that most reviewers had mistaken the cuatro for a guitar. “It’s okay, I guess,” she says, just stopping short of being admonitory.
Never in the hour-long conversation did she sound overjoyed with the reception to her work in Gangs of Wasseypur. “I don’t think you hit satisfaction with anything, really. You start off by thinking you will find satisfied with what you have done and you chase that satisfaction, but once the job is over you realise it was all about the process,” she says philosophically. She is just happy that the music has touched a chord somewhere.
As she sees it, the fundamental aim of any music is to communicate, and in that regard, she believes her work has been successful. “Just as a writer writes out his feelings, we say it through audio,” says the 29-year-old, who first burst upon the scene with Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! It was one of her earliest works and she relied even then, as she does today, purely on instincts. “I don’t have any profound thoughts about music. I just get these sparks in my head and if I feel it is coming along okay, I go ahead.”
Tunes are bubbling in her head all the time. “I brood and meditate on them over long periods,” she adds. For that, she doesn’t have to follow a highly disciplined regime. Riyaaz (practice) occurs as and when she is in the right frame of mind.
“In school, we were instilled with a sense of discipline. We had to wake up on time, leave on time and we were told what to do and how to do it. In the creative field, there is no routine. It’s not like you consciously plan when to switch off and do your riyaaz. Sometimes, you are in a meeting with three people and one of them says something so inspiring that you are suddenly lost in some other zone.” She believes this freedom to do things at one’s own pace and to one’s liking is one of the perks of being in the movies. “This profession allows that. Everybody is like that here. Nobody says, ‘Do this, do that.’”
Speaking of school, it was actually while growing up in Indore that she developed a passion for music, but she never thought she would pursue it professionally. Her mother’s side of the family was musically inclined. Her first impulses came from being around formally trained musicians who had a strong grip on Hindustani classical music, a subject she was to take up years later at Mumbai’s SNDT College, Churchgate, only to abandon it in the next form.
“I learnt my basics observing my aunts and relatives. Although I didn’t train formally, I had the sincerity of a student,” she recounts. “As a child, I was very restless and didn’t have any interest in my books. I was distracted. There was a phase when I was listening to songs like a maniac.”
This was in the 1990s, a time when the band Ace of Base was popular and the Hindi film market was bustling with songs like Kya ada kya jalwe tere paro (Shastra) and Mustafa Mustafa (Kadhal Desam/Duniya Dilwalon Ki). Unlike her friends, Khanwalkar had an open ear; she listened to everything that came her way. Pop and rock music came much later, but her ear for quality music was a gift from her parents. “My parents were not listening to jazz or blues. They didn’t have a Western sensibility and were more into classical, semi-classical songs by SD Burman and films like Rudaali.”
Today, her iPod has music as diverse as that of Kumar Gandharva to psychedelic and Billie Holiday. “I can listen to anything. At one point, I was stuck on Salil Chowdhury’s Anand. Then for a long time I listened to Pankaj Mullick’s songs that are sung by Ashok Kumar,” she says. “But there are no favourites. My list changes with time—like boyfriends,” she smiles impishly.
Despite being surrounded by music, her earliest dream was to become either an architect or an IAS officer, or a doctor. With their own deep interest in music, her parents hoped that she would take up singing someday.
“Although I was young and all excited, I couldn’t bring myself to sing perfectly—in that honey and sweet voice,” she says, of her irreverence even at that age. “I thought there was more to explore in styles of singing than what we had been hearing on conventional musical shows.”
Her voice was good, thought her relatives, who kept prodding her parents to send her to the TV show Sa Re Ga Ma, then hosted by Sonu Nigam. “I didn’t fit into that setup. I was afraid— afraid because my voice was not suited for such a show.” She would have gone though, she says, just for Sonu Nigam, with whom she was infatuated.
There has always been a need somewhere in her to break free and experiment. This is reflected in her music too. “I was confused all through my school life. I am sure everyone was, but nobody discussed these confusions and insecurities with each other. I thought, ‘Chalo yaar, shayad yeh school ka problem hai’ (This must be a school problem).”
She is not the “outgoing type”. After a day’s work, she retreats into her shell. She says she cannot bring herself to party with the people she works with. “I close myself at some point and it’s not because I am scared of new people. In fact, it’s the other way round. I am afraid I will scare them off,” she laughs. “With people I know, I am fun and quite bratty.”
When she first arrived in Mumbai in 2001, her small-town upbringing clashed with the values of the big city. “Earlier, it was just Indore. That’s it. But Mumbai seemed huge.” SNDT College, where she had enrolled, gave her a taste of big city life. “Initially I was struggling with the vocabulary. The F-word was thrown around generously. If you didn’t use the F-word, you were not cool. In Indore, at the most kids would say ‘bastard’. Then one day someone discovered a new swear word—‘asshole’. For many years, I thought it meant donkey’s hole. That’s how small the world was.”
When films drew her into its service, she met people like Tigmanshu Dhulia and Piyush Mishra, both of whom have also worked on Gangs of Wasseypur. She was offered a film titled The Killing of a Porn Filmmaker, which Dhulia and Mishra were engaged in at the time. “I was awestruck by Piyush bhai’s theatre experiences and his music. I had never spoken to people like him before and just talking to him was encouraging and liberating. Piyush bhai has that effect on most people.”
Over time, she came to cherish her friendship with Mishra. She started sharing everything with him, right from her love problems to work issues. Was he her love guru, then? “No yaar, that’s too radio-ish” she snaps back.
Agony aunt? “No yaar, you are using Femina words,” she says, exasperated. “He was a good listener. He understood me.”
When asked if there are any contemporaries she esteems, fellow music composers like Amit Trivedi, Ajay-Atul or Ram Sampath, she says, “I have recorded with Amit and I love his compositions. Ram has done some quirky work and I like Ajay-Atul’s clean and grand arrangements. Why only them, I also enjoy Mike McCleary. He is fresh.”
More than that, she is leery of the question she is now often asked: ‘How do you feel being a female music composer in a man’s world?’
“I will borrow a quote from another very inspiring female artiste who is asked the same question over and over again,” she replies. “I heard her respond, ‘Why don’t you instead ask the male artistes what it feels like to be one?’”