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Shubh Saran's search for identity and Indianness

New York-based guitarist Shubh Saran’s new album emerged from intense research and soul-searching

Shubh Saran released his album ‘Inglish’ independently on 29 October.
Shubh Saran released his album ‘Inglish’ independently on 29 October. (Elizabeth Maney)

What happens to your sense of self when you spend your formative years jumping from continent to continent, never staying in one place long enough to put down deep roots? What sort of cultural whiplash are you dealing with when you have called five different cities home before you even enter high school? How do you define your identity when you have a foot in two—or three, or five—different worlds, as over 18 million Indians in the global diaspora do? When the covid-19 lockdown interrupted Shubh Saran’s US tour in 2020, leaving him stuck at home for months on end, the guitarist and composer decided to seriously engage with these questions.

“Other people were trying to figure out what their hobbies were—gardening or baking or whatever—and I started reading about all these existential questions,” Saran remembers during a Skype call from his home in New York, where he has been living since 2014. “That was also the time where the racial justice conversation in the US was really exploding, and those conversations were very inspiring. But the biggest thing was that living in the US as a foreigner without any work to do, I started asking, ‘Why am I here really? Is this my home or should I be home in India?’”

Saran pours all his insights from those intense bouts of research and soul-searching into his second full-length album, Inglish, released independently on 29 October. There’s also a three-part companion podcast in which he poses these questions to contemporaries in the Indian and diasporic desi music scenes, exploring different perspectives on what it means to be an Indian musician. But it’s in the genre-bending culture clash of the album’s 10 instrumental tracks that Saran really engages with the personal, social and political forces playing a game of tidal tug-of-war with his sense of personal identity.

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The composer weaves the strands of his widely dispersed roots—pop-punk, jazz, R&B, Indian and Arabic folk, Hindustani classical, industrial, progressive rock—into a vibrant, messy bricolage. The music’s vitality is all the more thrilling because it teeters on the edge of being pulled apart by the tension of its inherent contradictions: the tension between tradition and assimilation, the different elements of hyper-hyphenated identities, different homelands.

Saran first faced this internal conflict when he moved back to Delhi for high school, after spending years in Cairo, Geneva and Washington, DC. In those cities, he had taken his “Indianness” for granted. But moving back to his homeland put those easy certainties through the wringer. “The music I liked, the things I thought were cool—anything cultural—suddenly felt not very Indian,” he says. “In Geneva and Cairo, I was just the ‘Indian kid’, so I was blissfully unaware that I was caught between different worlds.”

Saran leaned into his “difference” as an act of teenage defiance, playing up his accent, making his Hindi sound even more terrible, hanging out with the other “foreign” kids. Eventually, he found his community in the small but lively Delhi indie music scene that was just establishing itself when he left high school. He was already playing Blink 182 riffs on the guitar in his bedroom, but artists like Advaita and Indian Ocean piqued his interest in the possibilities of making Indian music that wasn’t puritanically traditional.

“Finding fusion music was definitely part of the answer,” he says. “That was a way for me to relate to Indian things. And all these fusion and indie bands were just like me. They played a little guitar music, a little fusion, just trying to sound authentically themselves.”

Ironically, going to Berklee in the US to study jazz and R&B ended up pushing him further into the study of Indian classical and folk music, in part because the experience left him with a bit of an identity crisis. “People there really expected me to be able to play Indian music, and I knew a couple of Prasanna licks, so I would try to do it,” he says. “But that made me realise I actually don’t know much at all about these musical traditions, and that made me start doubting my own identity and tradition. Everybody coming from a certain part of the world knew how to play their music pretty well. And I showed up like this globalised, bastardised version of an artist who didn’t fit into any space.”

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So, even as he made inroads into jazz and R&B, Saran was also giving himself a crash course in Indian musical heritage. But it was a while before he could allow these two worlds to mix in his music, and for the longest time he found it a fraught exercise to be both respectful of tradition and appeal to a largely non-Indian audience. It took him even longer—till covid-19 forced his hand, really—to dig deep into the reasons behind that self-doubt and reluctance, which he attributes to internalised biases about what it means to be “Indian” and all the baggage that comes with it.

“I was thinking about how I see Indianness as a thing that needs to be hidden and shed, and I started finding that odd,” he says. The songs on Inglish—which takes its name from the uniquely Indian dialects that emerged from the collision of vast forces like colonialism, tradition and national identity—try to resolve that tension by saying yes to everything, without qualification or hierarchy. Opener Enculture is simultaneously an Indian folk tune, a progressive metal track, an industrial dance-floor banger and a free-wheeling jazz joint. Lead single Postradition is the Indo-futuristic soundtrack for an imagined future in which tradition and global cosmopolitanism march in lockstep (rather than in conflict). Remember To Come Home Soon is suffused with the intense nostalgic longing that animates so much migrant music—elegies for a lost homeland that has moved on without you. Altogether, Inglish is an emotive, powerful argument for a more expansive notion of identity and cultural belonging that goes beyond the constricting lenses of geography, ethnicity or ideology.

“I am not questioning Indianness, not to point at something and say this isn’t Indian,” says Saran. “I want to expand the idea of ‘Indianness’ to include many different things. I would like to think and exist in a world where each of those different definitions are valid. If you say Indian music is classical music, you deny everything else. If you say it’s folk music, you deny classical and pop music. So my aim was to say that all of it is Indian. Anything made by Indians is Indian. Come on into the club because it’s open to everything.”

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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