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Sneha Khanwalkar’s new show Sound Trippin retreads the old stomping grounds of fusion music and lays out a whole new track, says Poorva Rajaram

Soundscape Sneha Khanwalkar
Soundscape: Sneha Khanwalkar

MTV’S NEW show Sound Trippin follows the buoyant Bollywood film composer Sneha Khanwalkar to 10 places across India as she creates 10 songs mixed from musicians and stray ambient sounds. In each episode, she recreates the experience of a place by recording and remixing all that she hears around her. The idea of travelling aurally opens these songs out to pleasantly idiosyncratic sources of sound: tractor engines, sports commentary, clothes being washed and comically oversized tablas. She has already visited Punjab, Varanasi, Yellapur (Karnataka) and Goa.

MTV zeroed in on Khanwalkar after a clip on the making of the music of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! aired on YouTube. Khanwalkar travelled to Haryana’s allmale, all-night Ragini festival to find singers for the soundtrack. Khanwalkar’s film soundtracks, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!and Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, contain no nervous deflections to film music and its imagined polar opposite: independent music. Her songs pound with a levity that comes from disrespecting the weight of influence. Unfettered and almost chronically upbeat — they are tinged with a slight percussion mania.

The show is largely put together by a young, energetic crew. No backstage brain could have scripted a more compellingly madcap TV character than the 28-year-old Khanwalkar. Much of the show consists of her running amok accosting strangers for any sound they might have to contribute. She is intrepid in the backpacking sense (at one point, she wears boots in Punjab) and remarkably non-patronising to strangers.

Sound Trippin possesses a narrative ease sorely lacking in all scripted and moulded television, reality included. There is no concerted attempt to create tense story arcs. Throughout the show, Khanwalkar is driven by an investment in hearing voices that don’t make it through the playback or rockband circuit. “I met people who naturally sang very well, who didn’t always think of themselves as singers. So we nullified the institutional thought that training is needed to sing.”

In a moment of candour, Khanwalkar tells the camera, “I can hear some synth being put, I think I should go inside and control that,” as she runs off to shield her song from too much electronic interference. Chandrashekar L, 29, head of programming, MTV, says, “We didn’t get our crew from a soap, a reality TV or a conventional production house. We hired people who read Rolling Stone.”

The production crew has prudently elected to expose viewers to detailed step-by-step procedural footage. Sound engineers slouched over computers are constant in Sound Trippin. It manages to demystify song-making and answer the basic question: how is a song made? Khanwalkar proceeds in the path of her own film compositions by taking the right amount of artistic licence. While most of her sounds come from direct aural contact, some are just musical intuition. Tung Tung, the engine-driven (literally) earworm from the first episode shot in Punjab, carries audacious but congruous dubstep. Of her irreverent mix-and-match, Khanwalkar says, “There are puritans who do good dubstep. But I’m primarily a film composer, so I like to dabble in everything.”

Her attitude to the new voices is striking — like any professional singer, they’re given lines and a tune and asked to sing. Mercifully, nobody is treated as an anthropological oddity. The sense not to paint everything rural as pre-city sets Sound Trippin away in a crowded category of TV shows about non-film music — Coke Studio, Roots and TheDewarists and run-of-the-mill travel shows.

The show amplifies the simple premise that all places, tier whatever, have distinct sounds. “For us in Mumbai, Bollywood is our workplace rut, but all over the country it is highly regarded. Most people first sing a Bollywood song when I ask them to sing. They may not know the value of all their songs,” she says.

The cumulative effect of Khanwalkar film and TV compositions is a much needed broadening in the range of sounds and voices we could hear at a mall. It might be time to finally identify and congratulate music that light-heartedly entertains regional specificity.

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