Ace musician Shantanu Moitra on composing experiential music, staying away from the spotl

Shantanu Moitra

In November last year Bollywood’s ace musician Shantanu Moitra began riding Anantha Yatra (Endless Journey) along the trail of the Ganga in Kolkata as a tribute to the lives lost to COVID-19 on behalf of their loved ones who had been denied closure. Little did he know then that his small ride would lead him on a One-in-a-lifetime journey across the range of river Gange – from Gomukh to Gangasagar. The expedition may have started out as an adventure sport with a cause, but by the time he reached Gangasagar in West Bengal, it changed something very profound in him and he decided to continue the journey. And a blend of adventure, travel and music, the journey eventually turned into a travel web series, Songs of the River Ganga currently streaming on Disney+Hotstar.

Produced by JSW Group, Songs of the River Ganga follows Shantanu cycling along the River Ganga from its origin to its end to record the music album by the same name. The unique docuseries sees Moitra taking in the melange of blue-green vista, rich sights, sounds and stories, which eventually culminate in an epic album inspired by the journey. With more than 3,000 kilometers on a bicycle along the River Ganga, the 60-day adventure was Shantanu’s road trip to rediscover himself with a much stronger purpose through a powerful combination of life’s unique moments and music.

The six-episode web series is presented as a reality show capturing the softer moments as well as the challenges Shantanu overcomes to record his songs in varied locations ranging from an apple orchard at Harsil to a perfume factory in Kannauj to the Ghats of Varanasi, the ruins of Rabindranath Tagore’s House at Munger to the Baluchari silk weavers of Jiaganj.
Before the Songs of the River Ganga, Shantanu had taken a 100 days journey to the Himalayas. His music album 100 Days in the Himalayas is inspired by his enchanting journey into the hills. Braving a cloud-burst in Uttarkashi, a flood in the river, an asthmatic attack and an accident just 40 kilometers before the final destination, Shantanu’s journey had its high points. The musician, who mostly stays away from the limelight yet manages to leave his signature in every music he creates, spoke to us exclusively about his unconventional way and inspiration behind creating music with basic instruments, his personal discoveries, why he stays away from the spotlight, his next projects and much more…

What was the idea behind Songs of Ganges?

After 100 days in the Himalayas, I was guilty of not taking cameras and capturing the trip. But in the middle of my trip to the Himalayas, I realised that I should share my journey because not many people have this opportunity to travel. I was there to experience everything, so I made a mental note that I will be sharing my next journey. For the Songs of the River Ganga, I always wanted to do something that includes small towns, small villages, and what happens there. What is most important of it all is the fact that I was going to create a set of recordings to be able to see new sights, new sounds, and new experiences. It is definitely a different experience where I didn’t get four walls of a recording studio and see what happens. So I think all of these things together were the reason why I decided to do this journey.

 What inspires you to turn your travel experiences amidst nature into music?

There’s a natural beauty. That’s pretty much what I think is very soothing to your senses. Also, the people who dwell here are fantastic artists. Be it the Himalayas or the length of the Ganges there are amazing stories to encounter from people who live there. You don’t see these people every day in your lives in big cities, or maybe we rush past too fast to even stop and notice them. So I think wherever there is nature, of course, nature’s beauty, but it’s also people who live there. And I think bringing both together is very exciting for a creative person like me. I create and compose music in my head. I don’t sit on an instrument and play anything. It’s like when anything comes to me I create the tunes in my head, which is what I was doing while I was cycling through the Ganges. I was creating tunes along the way. So, I definitely feel that nature is a great impetus for me to create music.

 What are the discoveries that you made during this Anantha Yatra?

Actually, for me, primarily, it was a very personal kind of upheaval that I was going through because I lost my father to COVID-19. He was very much part of my planning journeys to the Himalayas and to the Ganga. And the fact that he always felt that if there’s something you’re searching for in music, maybe it’s time for you to go to the Ganga, especially to Banaras because that’s where something will unlock in you and he was from Banaras. So he had the sight that he probably wanted to share with me. What I was guilty of was constantly postponing it. Then I finally planned to go to Banaras with him but then COVID changed the world and I lost him. So, this entire trip also was almost like a payback time. The entire journey was like a remembrance of who he was to me. So yes, it was a very, very emotional moment for me. But also, I think, very interestingly, a change that did happen was that while I was performing a ceremony in Banaras after I lost my father, I got the idea that there are so many other people in India, who have lost their near and dear ones. I’m fortunate that I was next to Ganga. And I can do my father’s ceremony, but what about those who didn’t get the closure? And how is it that I can include them to be a part of my journey? And that’s when I came up with the idea for Anantha Yatra where I invited photographs of the ones who succumbed to the virus and said I will include them as part of my journey.  If you ask me about that one definitive moment, it was this that brought that transition into my life.

I’m really sorry to hear about your loss. Your way of creating music keeps you away for a longer duration. Do you fear losing the spotlight?  

Actually, that’s a fair question. I just have understood this one thing: your work speaks for you and being in the spotlight or not is subjective. I by nature and characteristics slightly like to play the second figure. Even in my school, I was like this. I didn’t like to be on the front bench. I have always been very comfortable being the backbencher. Also, I think the fact is that as a creative person, the joy of your creation coming alive is so overpowering. It’s so beautiful that you just seem to forget about the limelight part of it. The fact that God has given me a gift where I can create music with people makes me thankful every day and in my own small way. This is the limelight for me. I’m in the limelight for having got this opportunity. It is scary of course when you’re out for a hundred days from the industry, which is competitive. But I think it is also faith and belief that you can’t predict or claim. No matter how you design it, it doesn’t work like this. Otherwise, there would have been a formula and people would have known what to do, but it’s just that you need to be true to yourself and believe in what you are setting out to do. And hope that another bunch of like-minded people will like what you’re doing. It’s an unconventional path. These roads are not traveled metaphorically also. But then there are joys that you feel going on this uncharted territory. In my heart, I’m actually an adventure traveler and it helps in the music that I create.

Do these trips help you stay grounded at this stage of your life?

I think travel definitely does. When you go there, you see that there’s a world out there that is functioning very differently. I see the enormity of this incredible land that I’m part of. I feel very conscious about one thing: to create something is a god’s gift. And I am gifted with that talent and it is my job now to nurture it and ensure that with that gift I can reach and communicate with more and more people. I genuinely believe that music is not just entertainment but an ideology.

Your music reflects a commitment to the craft and Shantanu Moitra’s touch. How have you maintained that?

If you ask me about one blessing, it is that I don’t design anything to make it a signature. It is just there and that is a true blessing. I can’t rationalise it but there is something and many people have said that when they hear my first four bars they know, it’s my music. But the greater satisfaction as a creator and a composer is when I hear this because ultimately we all want our small signature in whatever we do. I have noticed one thing every time I have not been true to myself, my signature disappears. So the trick, struggle and belief are how much honesty can I show to something that I am doing, and at the same time, I am also looking at other extraneous factors like will it work or will it not work? or What’s gonna happen? I’ve seen that by nature that every time I am true to myself the signature comes in.

You also use rare yet very basic instruments. How do you think they contribute to the kind of music you want to create?

I don’t know but I think it’s maybe the college canteen where we grew up with no instruments and use whatever cutlery available on the table and enjoy the joy of creating music. We didn’t have the money to even buy any instruments. We were all singing and having fun together. We never thought much about it so I think there is a return of that innocent DNA.

What is your next big project?

I’m very keen to do a journey from coast to coast, right from the Bay of Bengal to Gujarat along the peninsula of India. So that would be a very fascinating journey for me because every 100 kilometers there is a different language, dialect, food, clothing, and music. I am guilty of the fact that when I did the Himalayas I didn’t take a crew with me but I would definitely do the Himalayas once again because I want to share that story with people.