Talvin's Talkies

Ahead of his live cinematic score to celebrate the centenary of Indian cinema, the music maestro discusses films, fashion and festivals with Momtaz Begum-Hossain

Posted: 11.04.13

I lost connection with Talvin four times during our interview. It happened when he moved: once to play some percussion instruments down the phone to me and three times when he was getting into a comfortable chatting position - symbolic considering during our conversation I discovered we actually have four things in common:

a) We make our own clothes
b) We share a soft spot for Scotland 

c) This time last year we were both going through difficult patches
d) We have an appreciation for dogs
It kind of stops there though. Mainly because you won’t see me putting ghee in my hair.

I am referring to the above image, the current publicity shot of the tabla playing, ‘father of Asian electro’, percussionist doing the rounds. It’s to publicise his forthcoming live show where Talvin will be performing an improvised soundtrack to two classic yet rare Indian films as part of the Southbank’s Alchemy Festival. I couldn’t speak to him without enquiring about this most intricate display of facial hair styling.

He explained: ‘On a good day when I have time I make an effort. I usually use ghee.’ GHEE I exclaim! He continued: ‘Men have used products in their beards and moustaches for years. Back in the 1950s my grandfather carried around a small bottle of a product called Fixo to keep his in order.’ I suddenly recalled seeing my dad apply mustard oil to his. Is it just an Asian thing then? Apparently not, Talvin confirmed sightings of such elixirs on Savile Row. Which took me nicely onto asking about the Tweed suit.

It turns out Talvin had more than one to choose from for the photoshoot. He confessed: ‘I have a couple of Tweeds – I really like Harris Tweed but I also enjoy making my own clothes.’ Cue a future contestant for the celebrity version of The Great British Sewing Bee. ‘I started making myself some clothes, Indian style jackets and then my friends and family started enquiring about them – I actually have more friends in fashion than I do in music.’ I wasn’t expecting to hear him say that, even though he’s always been a style icon. He is after all the man who used to have blue hair and you can’t get more trendsetting than that.

But onto the music. Bombay Talkies is the name of the event that takes place on Sunday 14th April inside the Royal Festival Hall. It’s a show of two parts. Pre interval Talvin will be improvising a score to Raja Harishchandra, one of the first full-length Indian movies to have ever been made – back in 1913, and therefore the ideal way to mark this year’s 100 Years of Indian film celebrations.

Talvin hopes this initial section will help the younger audience relate to and appreciate the visuals. He admits: ‘Most silent movies look the same, they speed up sections and have comical moments but when you add music you can really begin to tell a story.’

In the second half the tales continue, only for the next film, Satyajit Ray's Devi, the soundtrack is a collaboration between Talvin and the sitarist Roopa Panesar. Their concept is to bring the visuals to life, such as recreating the chimes of the temple bells, which you can see but not hear. Talvin certainly has no shortage of bells – that’s what he was ringing when the phone went dead half way through our conversation. He also has gongs, tam tams and all manner of other quirky instruments picked up during his travels around the world. He’s certainly been raking up the air miles recently with seven trips to Bombay in recent months.

‘I’ve been doing a lot of concerts there where I can be playing to 12-15,000 people.’ One such event was the Kala Goda Festival, a celebration of street art where Talvin performed on the Asiatic Steps, a moment that left him feeling rather proud. ‘I’ve always admired India, its people and culture so Djing for them is really special.’

As much as he has a love affair with the city, his home is still very much in London with his beloved dog Prince. To see photos you’ll have to check out Talvin’s Twitter account. He’s one of those cuddly canines with long floppy ears though his name wasn’t one Talvin chose. ‘I was at the vets getting his jabs and they wanted a name. On the paperwork he was referred to as Prince of Storm which turned out to be a poignant name as after he arrived life got quite stormy but he was a constant that gave structure to my day like taking him for a walk at seven in the morning.’

Now if I was a really good journalist I would probe deeper and find out what had been troubling him and creating the waves…but instead I directed the conversation back to Sunday’s event. Obviously I wanted to know but remember this was a phone call and somethings just can’t be asked when you’re on an unrealiable mobile that may cut out at any point.

So on to films. Talvin had just received an entire shipment of movies for research purposes and was planning to watch them over the next few days. So this is what musicians get up to when the rest of us are at work?

On a scale of 1-10 on how filmi Talvin is, I decided he scored a high seven. He revealed: ‘I love Bengali films, directors like Shyam Benegal and Satyajit Ray but also popular Indian movies like Sholay.’

In fact if all goes to plan for Bombay Talkies, Talvin hopes to curate a regular film soundtrack event – possibly one that attracts the same enthusiasm his cult club night Anoka used to get in the 90s, which is something that still inspires him. And on that note my love for him quadrupled. I have total respect for anyone who looks back on their life and is proud of their achievements, Talvin’s one of them and thankfully he has many more achievements to come. Sunday’s Alchemy event is the start of another new chapter for him and his fans and I for one can’t wait to turn the page and see what he does next.

Talvin Singh performs Bombay Talkies at The Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre on Sunday 14th April 2013.

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