Going With the Flow: Shantanu Moitra Travels Along the Ganga in ‘Songs of the River’ Series
In Shantanu Moitra’s mind, a composer hardly works in a studio. The artist behind the music for films such as 3 Idiots, PK and Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi – plus diverse rock and fusion contributions with vocalist-composer Shubha Mudgal and for music series Coke Studio – says the recording studio is where the vision is executed. “But where does a composer create? Who the hell knows,” he says over a call.
For Moitra, music composing is deeply linked to travel, specifically solo travel. After all, when he left his job in the banking sector, it was so that he could travel more, which was in turn funded by his composing work. In 2016, he took a journey across the Himalayan range, terming the project ‘100 Days in the Himalayas.’ While that’s been documented on his YouTube channel, Moitra’s most recent sojourn along the river Ganga on cycle gets a much broader video production, called Songs of the River.
Charting adventures in road travel spanning approximately 3,000 kilometers and collaborations with musicians he brings in at different stages, the series has been streaming on Disney+ Hotstar since August 15th. There’s also an album’s worth of songs, featuring everyone from singer-composers like Sid Sriram, Taba Chake, and Maati Baani to vocalists such as Bombay Jayashri, Mohit Chauhan, Kaushiki Chakraborty and Rathijit Bhattacharjee. The only non-vocalist featured on the six-track record is violinist Ambi Subramaniam, who joins Chakraborty for the folksy Bengali song “Bhagirathi.”
Moitra says he trained for three years before embarking on his bicycle and by then, India was between its second and third waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. The composer lost his father during the pandemic, and Moitra counts him as a “pivotal role in my adventures.” The musician says, “When I would tell him about the fact that I find a recording studio a little claustrophobic for creation, he would say, ‘You must step out, and you must at some point go to the Ganga. And in fact, you must try and come to Banaras.’ That was because my father was from Banaras.”
From Gangotri to Gangasagar, Moitra and a sparse camera crew capture their experiences of a different India in the midst of pandemic struggles, but also stay hopeful in those tumultuous days. He enlisted wildlife photographers to turn videographers for the 70-day journey. “These guys are trained to be alert, trained to be discreet, trained to be distant and yet catch emotions which are important,” Moitra says.
Although the composer has appeared on a few similar travel and music shows such as The Dewarists in the past, he says he’s camera-shy. Even then, he spent about eight to 10 hours traveling on cycle every day with a camera surrounding him. Part of the goal with Songs of the River was to, of course, compose music along the way and that led to inviting artists down to the river and “getting them out of their comfort zone.” That may not be immediately evident when you see the six episodes, but Moitra does admit that he pushed some of his collaborators. He says of Sriram, who sung a rare Hindi song with “Aye Nadi Chali Kahan” for the show, “Poor Sid, he was staying in a ramshackle place and most of the time I took him in an almost broken-down boat down to the middle of the river.”
Subramaniam, who joins the call with Moitra, says he stayed in a haveli hotel in Murshidabad that offered new perspectives on Indian history. “They [locals] started telling me about the history, and how before British times this was probably the richest place in the world. I think they said that at one point of time, Murshidabad was responsible for roughly 5 percent of the world’s GDP,” Subramaniam says.
Moitra and Subramaniam have worked together since 2019 and the violinist-composer says he’s been pushed in different ways each time, building a kind of trust. Subramaniam says with a laugh, “Shantanuda will give me a brief and it may not work the first time, second time, third time… but maybe the fourth time, he’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s lock this.’”
For their song “Bhagirathi,” the duo, along with Chakraborty, spent a night on a boat in the Ganga. Subramaniam recalls the experience and says, “There were just the three of us in that entire space in the middle of the night, just enjoying the silence there. I think once you feel like that, then the music and everything comes kind of automatically.”
Given that some of his collaborators stayed in different conditions, Moitra didn’t spare himself either. “I would cycle during the day and the boat would kind of go along with me. And then at night, instead of a hotel, I would be on a boat,” he says. Even for recording the songs, the composer worked with mobile studio setups and kept in ambient sounds, because he didn’t want the songs to sound too “clean or just feel so artificial.” Subramaniam adds, “I think that’s why the song [‘Bhagirathi’] kind of sounds like a party.”
Battling a few health setbacks and other travel-related contingencies along the way, Moitra still considers Songs of the River – which was funded by the JSW Foundation – an “audacious” journey that remains one of the “most incredible decisions I have taken in my life.” He adds, “In the process, I interacted with the artists, had conversations that I never had. They talked about things that they never had. We created songs that we never could have. And at the end of it, I think we felt very good.”
Stream ‘Songs of the River’ EP below. Watch the trailer for the series here.