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Shantanu Moitra: The Musical Adventurer

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Back in 1999, a young man sat at Mumbai’s Virgin Records office, quietly listening to the others. Singer Shubha Mudgal was describing her forthcoming album Ab Ke Sawan, and Prasoon Joshi talked about writing lyrics while holding a prestigious advertising job.

The album’s composer, Shantanu Moitra, spoke only when asked, but went into detail on how convinced Mudgal was to do a song with a rock flavour. He talked of his background in composing jingles and was pretty excited to venture into the world of private albums. That turned out to be only the beginning.

Today, Moitra has come a long way, moving from Indipop albums to Hindi and regional film music to creating unique thematic concerts. In 2016, he conceptualised the show Song Of The Himalayas, based on his travels in the mountainous region. And this weekend, he will premiere Chandrayaan: Celebrating India’s Journey To The Moon.

To be held at the Tata Theatre, Mumbai, on February 18, the unique concert attempts to blend science and music. It will feature vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty, flautist Rakesh Chaurasia, Veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh, violinist Ambi Subramaniam, Tabla player Ojas Adhiya and Mridangam exponent, Sridhar Parthasarathy.

It’s been an exciting journey. Born in Lucknow, Moitra grew up in New Delhi, and was part of the Springdales School band. Initially, music remained a hobby, and he worked in the client servicing team at an Ad agency. He got his jingle break with the Uncle Chipps campaign, and one thing led to another.

 

“Ab Ke Sawan was a turning point,” the composer recalls. “I later did the album Mann Ke Manjeerey and the song Sapna Dekha Hai Maine for a girl child. Working with Shubha was a very important part of my career. Our wavelengths matched, and she was open to new ideas,” he adds.

It was only a matter of time before Bollywood beckoned, and Moitra shifted to Mumbai. He bagged prestigious projects like Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, which had the song Bawra Mann, and Pradeep Sarkar’s Parineeta which featured Piyu Bole and KaisiPaheli Zindagani. His music in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Lage Raho Munnabhai and 3 Idiots was also admired, though he was criticised for the former, for lifting Cliff Richard’s Theme For A Dream to create Pal Pal, Har Pal.

“That was a mistake I made,” he admits.

Walking Down Memory Lane

One of Moitra’s most memorable experiences was to get Amitabh Bachchan record Tu Chal in Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s 2016 film Pink.  He recalls,
“There was this beautiful and moving nazm penned by Tanveer Ghazi. I thought it would go well with the end credits. I hadn’t told Tanveer I wanted to use it in Pink, but asked him which singer would present it best. He suggested Bachchan Saab, and that’s how it all started.”

Moitra says that besides composing songs, he was specially fond of working on background scores.

“The challenges there are different as one has to think of each frame. At the same time, one isn’t restricted by style or genre,” he explains.
Besides Hindi films, Moitra dabbled in Bengali and Malayalam cinema, and even bagged the National Award for the 2014 Telugu movie Na Bangaru Talli.

He also got a chance to work with Gulzar, who had translated some of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems from Bengali to Hindi.
The poems were released in the Saregama India album, Gulzar In Conversation With Tagore featuring singers Shaan and Shreya Ghoshal, and in the children’s album Tapur Tupur.

“Gulzar Saab is a wonderful person and I discuss a lot of my ideas with him. These included the Himalayas and Chandrayaan projects,” says Moitra.

Songs From The Himalayas happened when Moitra took a short break to pursue his love for travel.

He reminisces,
“We Bengalis have a special connection with the Himalayas. My friend Dhritiman Mukherjee, who’s a wildlife and mountain photographer, inspired me. The idea was to just travel, covering the Himalayas in 100 days.”
Moitra wrote about his experiences in a newspaper series, and the National Center for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, approached him for a concert for their One World, Many Musics series.
“I discussed it with Gulzar Saab and he insisted I shouldn’t postpone. The first concert covered the first 50 days. People from the Himalayas don’t use the instruments we use and have special whistles and flutes. They have a different idea about music. So it was challenging.”
The concert featured Nepalese singer Ani Choying, vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty, Sitar exponent Purbayan Chatterjee, flautist Ashwin Srinivasan, guitarist Ankur Mukherjee and keyboardist Daniel.  Says Moitra,
“It was a delight to work with Ani. She’s a singer, Buddhist nun, monk, philanthropist and Unesco ambassador. When we performed at the Paddy Fields festival in Mumbai in 2018, she went into a complete trance, surprising even me.”
Besides travel, Moitra is fond of science too. He says,
“Many people think science and the arts are two separate things, but that needn’t be the case. When I heard about the Chandrayaan moon mission, I was keen on transcribing my understanding into music. Gulzar Saab is very passionate about astronomy and again encouraged me to do something.”
Moitra points out that nobody complained that the Indian team didn’t complete the journey.
“Everybody praised the effort, and that’s what mattered. If the same thing had happened in the US, it would create such a furore,” he says.
Musically, Moitra has focused on folk and semi-classical compositions for this concert. He explains,
“Since it has to do with science, many would expect modern electronic music. But we have so many traditional gems and that’s what I have used, though I have also put in some effects for the ambience.”
Keeping his thematic concerts in mind, has he cut down on film work? In the past three years, his only release was Shoojit Sircar’s October. Moitra replies,
“There’s been little that has excited me, but if I get something good, I will consider it.”
Besides taking Chandrayaan to other cities, Moitra plans to work on a project related to the river Brahmaputra, as the North-Eastern region has always fascinated him. He also has in mind a broad concept revolving around the snow leopard. Simultaneously, he’s working on many jingles, which take care of his “kitchen money.”
The ideas are plenty, and the journey has had its share of adventure. For Moitra, the musical expedition is following an exciting path.
Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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