Our planet is our parent: Soumik Datta talks about his animated short film premiered at COP26 summit

Our planet is our parent: Soumik Datta talks about his animated short film premiered at COP26 summit, the vie

The 24-minute film tells the story of Asha, a young climate refugee from Bengal, who searches for her father

Nine years ago, Soumik Datta turned down an invitation from Beyoncé and Jay-Z to tour with them. His reason is self-effacing. He says he was not ready for it. But Soumik’s choice of projects informs us that popularity is not something he fervently pursues. Right from his early days, he veered away from conventions.

Growing up in London in his early teens, Soumik played the sarod. His band, Circle of Sound, which he formed with an Austrian friend, was a mix of drums and sarod, alaap and bass, jor and hip-hop. He collaborated with folk percussion artiste Cormac Byrne to rescore Satyajit Ray’s 1969 film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, mixing contemporary orchestra with Indian classical and folk sounds. In 2019, for a BBC series, Rhythms of India, he travelled across India to explore its diverse culture and history through music. This April and May, he, with a 40-member team of musicians and dancers, performed in front of empty seats in Britain’s iconic cultural centres like the British Museum and the Royal Albert Hall. The idea was to break the silence with new music in these spaces shut down during the pandemic.

Art, for him, is not merely entertainment. He believes it “is a vehicle to carry messages.” Among the messages his recent works convey, is one about our relationship with the environment. His latest EP, Jangal, was his response to the already unfolding ecological crisis around the world. Soumik’s latest work, Songs of the Earth, an animated musical short film, emphasises this issue.

The film premiered on November 2 at the COP26 summit in Glasgow. There could not have been a better place and time, says Soumik. The occasion is not a coincidence.

Soumik made Songs of the Earth after winning a British Council Climate Change creative commission in February to develop a film and music project with Earth Day Network. Soumik wrote, scored, and directed the film. Indian illustrators Sachin Bhatt and Anjali Kamat did the animation.

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The 24-minute film tells the story of Asha, a young climate refugee from Bengal, who searches for her father through the flood banks of the Sundarbans delta, burning forests and melting polar ice caps.

Soumik explains why he chose this story. “The thing with climate change is that it is difficult for people to understand what the numbers mean. We might not relate to coral reefs dying, burning forests in Australia and South America, or polar bears going extinct. But we relate to human stories and relationships. So at the heart of the story, I wanted a relationship between a daughter and her father. It is also a metaphor for our planet being our parent.

Climate change is an umbrella term that encompasses many challenges. It is not just about the ice caps melting, but also about migration, extreme weather, ocean pollution, deforestation and sustainable fashion. Soumik’s understanding reflects in the film. Climate change is not a recent topic for him. He grew up reading National Geographic and admiring people like David Attenborough, who recently wrote a letter to him.

The film’s music stands out. It is a blend of vocals, saxophone, drums, sarod, cello, and sounds of leaves, wind and waves. As with Soumik’s other projects, this one also has a fusion of different styles. At one point, it even sounds peppy. Soumik agrees. “As an artiste, I respond more when what I am watching and what I am listening to do not always fit (with each other). That’s when you start questioning. If they fit, it becomes background, your brain embraces it, and you don’t really question it. With this project, we tried to create something that is visually arresting, sonically arresting, and thought-provoking at the same time.” The music album of the film is available on major audio streaming platforms.

Despite addressing distressing topics like deforestation and migration crises, Soumik says his work tries to spread hope.

What, then, is the underlying message of hope in Songs of the Earth?

Soumik answers with more questions. “Can this perilous journey of a young girl from the Global South make those from the Global North realise the repercussions of their actions? Can they empathise with people who are different from them? Can that lead to taking some responsibility and reshaping things?”

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