Super Sitar

Sheema Mukherjee takes us on a musical journey with global glimpses 

Posted: 18.11.14

I always knew I wanted to be a musician

My parents knew a great vocalist, Ustad Amir Khan Sahib, who started teaching me music when I was three years old. He saw a musical flair in me from that age. During practice, all my childish mind could comprehend was a lot of elongated ‘aaaah!’ sounds which like a lullaby, would send me to sleep. I would say to my mum, ‘But he doesn’t sing any songs!’ Now of course I realise how privileged I was. Because of the size of the sitar, I started playing at the age of eight or nine. I’d come home from school and put aside an hour a day to practice, but usually with the TV on in the background – I was very undisciplined! I still struggle to practice, but nevertheless I practice everyday no matter where I am, which is important.

We travelled to India frequently with free tickets, as my dad conveniently worked for British Airways. I am Bengali and my family are from Calcutta, so I studied music there too. I left school when I was 17, but went back to do my A’ Levels then later did my computer science degree as a backup – I broke it all up by studying classical music, which was a good balance. I always knew I wanted to do this forever. Once you choose the life of a musician, you have to carry on. It is a commitment to your art.

Men like to be serenaded…whilst I cook them a curry

I’m from a musical family - many of my aunts were vocalists so there wasn’t that stereotypical rigidity. Even when a marriage proposal/introduction would come about, at the mere mention of music, the suitor’s family would insist I sing to them. Not long before asking me the all important question of whether I am a good cook! After an appearance on TV, I got many proposals – apparently men like a woman who can sing. Despite the initial enthusiasm for my music, most were not supportive of me progressing my musical career.

Fusion of Eastern and Western sounds

The combination of being born and brought up in the UK and the fact that my parents instilled traditional values in me has hugely influenced my music, as well as coming from a very long lineage of Indian classical musicians. I started off playing Indian classical ‘ragas’. The meaning of the word in Sanskrit is to portray an emotion, so what I am trying to do as a musician is to impart emotion through my music and that is the foundation with which I write from – it all comes under the framework of raga.

I am fortunate that my uncle Pandit Nikhil Banerjee taught me, as well as Vilayat Khan Sahib – both are highly talented artists. When I first began learning, it was compulsory to do sixteen hours of training with a guru. After that I really wanted to get away from it all, which was when I joined Transglobal Underground who are the godfathers of fusion. They started the underground movement of fusing bhangra and Indian music with all kinds of genres, not just Western, but also Balkan and Arabic music. Their fusions were not a typical amalgamation, and when two different types of music are fused together and work well together, it is quite a feat. Working with them taught me a lot about how to create something which maintains respect for the kind of music you are working with.


Express yourself through music…without limitations

With classical music, you can always find a way of weaving it in with other genres. I find it refreshing to be able to have that choice, not everyone does. I have met women from all over the world who say it is so difficult to express themselves in their respective countries such as Iran. I can’t imagine living a life like that. Often women begin playing and stop due to societal and family pressures, and they don’t always get the exposure needed.

The essence of India captured with the help of Lush Cosmetics

Being a musician often involves financial constraints. I always wanted to do an album, but never had the means to put it together the way I wanted to. Whilst performing at Lush Fest, the founder of Lush cosmetics Mark Constantine asked if I wanted to create a perfume based on the story behind my song Sikkim Girls. Once, my fiancé at the time and I were in a café in Darjeeling when some women from the tea gardens walked in. The owner became quite flustered and told me not to let my fiancé look at these Sikkimese women as despite their faces being veiled, they would mesmerise him with the seductive swaying of their hips, the song is inspired by that while the scent itself is reminiscent of the sweet essences of the flower markets in Calcutta, a relief after the pungent odours from the fish market next door. Fortunately, Mark loved my tracks and asked if I wanted to do an album with him.

A manifestation of me and my journey thus far

I called my first album, Sheema because I wanted it to be associated with me. My friends have all said to me, it really personifies you. The album itself has a 1960’s vibe to it, with many global influences. It encompasses so many different genres, that it drags you in by taking you on a journey – a waltz, on a beach, in the rain, eating samosas. You can live through my experiences. One of the first tracks I wrote, Mrs Moo features a chant that I heard rickshaw wallas chant in India - I wanted to incorporate an aspect of real folk from the streets of India as there is a lot of snobbery in classical music.

Inspiration from a spectrum of genres

I admire Jimi Hendrix. The way his guitar was always around his neck, it became a part of him. I am also inspired by Bob Marley, reggae style, bhajans and classic singers like Chopin. I have worked with many esteemed artists, all of whom I have learnt a lot from like jazz musician Courtney Pine and John Taverner, with whom we fused an operatic piece.

Putting classical Indian music on the global map

It was against my grain to delve into fusion, due to my classical background. But the beauty of fusing my classical background with other influences has allowed me to reach out to so many different people. Travelling with the band exposed the sitar to people had never heard of the sitar before. As a society we are accustomed to listening to three-minute songs but in classical music compositions can last an hour – combing the two makes the music more accessible to a varied audience; after all it’s not easy sitting through an hour of classical music if you don’t understand it.

Breaking the mould

I will be touring the UK in December to promote the album and really hope to reach the Asian audience. Typically Asians are encouraged to be professionals like doctors, accountants etc, but that’s slowly changing. There are so many more Asian artists and talent, with more women doing different things to the norm. My aim is to encourage and examine the creative arts. Freedom of expression is something Asian women don’t always have the liberty to do, but this is now changing.

You can purchase Sheema on vinyl here.

Find out more about Sheema Mukherjee.

Interview by Fariha Sabir

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