Nitin Sawhney is firmly established as a world-class producer, songwriter, orchestral composer, DJ, multi-instrumentalist and cultural spokesman. He has earned a reputation as an innovative Renaissance man in crossing the worlds of music, film, videogames, dance, theatre and current affairs. He is, quite simply, one of the most distinctive and versatile musical talents at work today.
Sawhney was born in Dulwich in 1964, a year after his parents had migrated from the Punjab, and grew up in Rochester (where he was the only south Asian at his school). His father, Anandeshwar, was a research biochemist whilst his mother, Saroj, was a trained Indian classical dancer. It was an intrinsically musical household, from which Nitin would later fuse various influences: Bach, Debussy, Jazz, Flamenco and classical Indian ragas were all important early passions although in his teens he played in punk, heavy rock and funk bands. Dropping out of Law at Liverpool University, Sawhney qualified as an accountant before forming the stand-up duo The Secret Asians with fellow student Sanjeev Bhaskar. Their success led to a stint on three BBC radio series of ‘Goodness Gracious Me’, but Nitin quit days before filming the full TV show, intent on throwing himself wholly into music.
Sawhney’s subsequent output as a musician is astonishing. Now on his ninth studio album, ‘Last Days Of Meaning’ (more of which later), Nitin has collaborated with and written for a dazzling array of talents. These include the likes of Paul McCartney, who guested on his 2008 album, ‘London Undersound’, which also featured artwork by Antony Gormley. A CV of other musical colleagues would also list (amongst others) Sting, Brian Eno, Shakira, Taio Cruz, Ellie Goulding, Cirque Du Soleil and Nelson Mandela. His credits across the worlds of theatre and dance are equally extensive, featuring scores for multiple Olivier-Award-winning productions (Complicite’s ‘A Disappearing Number’, Akram Khan’s ‘Zero Degrees’). Perhaps most surprisingly of all, considering his time spent on the sofas of Newsnight Review or Hard Talk, Nitin is also a highly-regarded DJ; spinning everything from Afro-beat and Dubstep to Asian breakbeat and drum ‘n’ bass at Fabric, Big Chill, Womad and Womadelaide. In short, Nitin Sawhney, will mean different things to different people, depending on their cultural points of interest, but many will be aware of his work – particularly across TV and film - without even knowing it. Nitin is currently scoring MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, the upcoming film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s famous novel. The story involves India’s transition to independence, starring Satya Bhabha, Shriya Saran, and is directed by Deep Mehta.
Sawhney’s ability to keep a foothold across all these areas of the arts has not gone unnoticed. He is, for instance, the only artist ever to play both the BBC Proms and the BBC Electric Proms, gracing London’s Royal Albert Hall and Camden’s Roundhouse respectively. Few can also claim to have earned the likes of two Ivor nominations (one current), a Mobo and a BBC Radio 3 Award in tandem. And whilst he would not claim to be a household name, Sawhney’s career has had a number of notable breakthrough moments. A major turning point came in 1999: his fourth studio album, ‘Beyond Skin’, was nominated for the Mercury Prize, and won the much-coveted South Bank Show Award. Most recently, he scored the hugely popular landmark BBC series ‘The Human Planet’, which is nominated for eight Baftas, and will be performed at the Royal Albert Hall with a live orchestra across two nights at this summer’s Proms. “The show is a true celebration of human resilience,” says Sawhney, “and is really about how people who live in a very simple way across the world can triumph against the odds, and against the pressures of nature.” It was, though, a phenomenal amount of work. “There were fifty minutes of orchestral music to write and record per show, across eight episodes. That’s the equivalent of writing an album a week!”
It was during sessions for ‘The Human Planet’ that Nitin furthered his relationship with the legendary John Hurt, who famously narrates the BBC series. It is a friendship that formed the basis of Sawhney’s most current commitment: he will release his ninth studio album, ‘Last Days Of Meaning’, this summer. Played by Hurt, the record’s main character – Donald Meaning – is an embittered old Dickensian man, fearful or immigrants, terrorists and the outside world. He sits in a room raging against childhood memories, society, himself and a small tape recorder sent to him by his ex-wife (the cassette-recorder contains the songs of the album). Conceived by Sawhney as a script before it became an album, and written and recorded in just five months, ‘Last Days Of Meaning’ is intended as a “modern day Christmas Carol, almost. The songs act as the ghosts of the past, present and future. For me it’s ultimately a parable about entrenchment and dogmatism.”
‘Last Days Of Meaning’ is the latest in a line of subtly political works from Nitin, who wrote the piece partly in response to “this assumption that everything that is unfamiliar is also a threat.” It’s a particularly timely concern, given the financial climate (“every time that there’s an economic downturn, politicians seem to blame immigrants. It’s an obvious scapegoat”). Having been on the receiving end of prejudice from his formative years – “The National Front was very strong around where I grew up” - this record is Sawhney’s first work to consciously imagine life from the opposing mindset. “The album is ultimately about people being frustrated with themselves and society, much like John Osborne’s ‘Look Back In Anger’. It’s a journey towards self-acceptance, and sits alongside ‘The Human Planet’ nicely as well, since both essentially celebrate human diversity.”
Nitin Sawhney is a prodigious and ambidextrous musical talent, but he is clearly concerned with issues beyond his ever-increasing schedule. He works tirelessly for musical education, acting as patron of the British Government’s Access-to-music initiative, together with his own Aftershock projects: a worldwide programme designed to bring together international groups of young and diverse musicians, who collaboratively produce a brand new composition in just one week. Nitin also sits on the panel for the Ivor Novello Awards, BAFTA, BIFA, Somerset House, Sadler’s Wells and the PRS foundation, having received four honorary doctorates from British Universities. With a variety of projects lined up across the next twelve months – a ballet for Sadler’s Wells, and a Hitchcock score with the LSO – there is still one thing he will not try his hand at. In 2007, Nitin Sawhney turned down an OBE due to ethical reasons. “In France,” he explains, “they have something called ‘Knight Of Arts and Letters’, which I think is a far better idea. But the idea of the OBE comes from a colonial past, and I just didn’t want Empire after my name.
|Human Planet [Miniseries]|
|Angell's Hell [TV Movie]|
|England Expects [TV Movie]|
|Still, the Children Are Here|
|The Legend of the Tamworth Two [TV Movie]|
|Corrientes del pasado|
|Second Generation [TV Movie]|
|Twelfth Night, Or What You Will [TV Movie]|
|Anita & Me|
|Ivor the Invisible [TV Movie]|
|Split Wide Open|
|Goodness Gracious Me [TV Series]|
|The Dance of Shiva|
|Flight [TV Movie]|
|Throw of the Dice|
|The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog|