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Alternate Utopias: An Interview With Sarathy Korwar
Patrick Clarke , November 17th, 2022 08:40

Sarathy Korwar speaks to Patrick Clarke about how Indo-futurism, a colonialist critique of Thomas More’s Utopia, and the invention of his own new circular rhythm system have pushed his practise forwards on ambitious new album KALAK

Photos by Fabrice Bourgelle

Depending on the format in which you purchase, stream, borrow or steal it, the cover of Sarathy Korwar’s new album contains a different photograph taken by his friend Fabrice Bourgelle during a road trip the two took around southern India. One depicts vivid orange earth and green trees, another a roadside market stall in the dark of night, another a pond dotted with lily pads. In all of them, at the centre of the landscape is a circular pattern made up of dashes, circles, crosses and triangles, aglow in bold white neon.

The symbol is of the American-born, Indian-raised and now London-based artist’s own devising, and represents a concept for which the album is named - KALAK. On one level, it represents the cyclical rhythm at the music’s core. Korwar, a colossally talented drummer, has long been experimenting with his own methods of notation, and for the record decided to push them beyond a traditional ‘left-to-right’ structure. That has deeper implications, howver. The word is a palindromic form of ‘Kal’, a word that in Hindi and Urdu means both ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’, referring to the record’s wider themes of the way the past, present and future relate to one another in a cyclical fashion.

The album, Korwar says, explores futurism through a South Asian lens, allowing some traditions that exist in the region of not viewing time as a strictly linear process to enter the imaginative process. It pays direct tribute to the Bengali feminist thinker, writer and activist Begum Rokheya, particularly her pioneering 1905 story Sultana’s Dream which depicts a futuristic feminist society in which gender roles have been reversed, and it also considers the way in which other instances of speculative fiction have often been based in colonialist rhetoric. The track ‘Utopia Is A Colonial Project’ is based on Korwar’s reading of Thomas More’s oft-canonised 1516 text Utopia as a blueprint for settler colonialism.

KALAK initially evolved out of Korwar’s attempts to write speculative fiction of his own, the artist honing it down over time to the tightly-packaged and richly accessible record it ended up as; one of the record’s most significant achievements is the way in which it boils down the sprawling and cerebral thinking from which it arose into a piece of work that is simultaneously intensely listenable. tQ caught up with the artist shortly after its release to find out more.

You open the album with a spoken word sequence structured as a recipe, that addresses themes of privilege, appropriation, and selective ignorance about colonial truths. Why did you decide to make that statement through the medium of food?

Sarathy Korwar: Over the last couple of years I did a lot of speculative fiction writing, and the music soundtracked a lot of those stories, even if they themselves didn’t ultimately make the album itself. While I was trying to build this world, one of the things that I paid attention to was food, which is something a value a lot. The idea that legacy, stories and wisdom are passed down through food a lot, especially in South Asia. I have recordings of my mum telling me recipes that she learnt from her grandmother. It felt like food was an obvious way to link the past to the future. I wrote the recipe as a stream of consciousness, slightly surreal – I don’t recommend anyone actually tries to cook using that recipe!

What was the speculative fiction that didn’t make the album?

SK: Early on I decided that I wanted to write this futurist record, and the most obvious link to futurism I had was science fiction and fantasy. I figured that I’d start writing this story about this protagonist who has these encounters, sometimes with elders and sometimes with young people, and who encounters the KALAK rhythm. After I’d written it I sent it to a lot of friends and family who said ‘It’s fine, but I’m more interested in the music,’ and everyone kept talking about the KALAK rhythm. Through the writing I devised this idea of what that is, what the symbol is, how it relates to music, and then far beyond to this idea of cyclicality, non-hierarchical living and how the past connects to the future. By listening to people around me I guess I narrowed it down to what actually seems to resonate with people, and that became the album. I love that process of listening because I feel like you often lose perspective as an artist when you’re just brooding over something terribly abstract. You have to be ready to initiate it effectively at the end.

Can you explain briefly what the word KALAK actually means?

SK: Initially I was going to call the album ‘Kal’, which in Hindi means both ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’, but then I thought about ‘KALAK’, this word I’ve made up. It relates to the symbol because of the palindromic nature of the word that makes it readable from left to right, again it breaks that assumption of the linearity of time.

You represent KALAK with this circular patterned symbol that’s on the album cover. When was that drawn up?

SK: Probably in 2020. I’ve been experimenting with my own musical notation system for ages, a lot of crosses and dashes that’s a combination of Western music notation and the notation that I’d use for the table – which is again this kind of weird amalgamation of written word with dots and spaces. A mish mash of all those things was what I use to notate rhythms anyway, but I was still doing it in an obvious ‘read left to right’ sort of way. Then I started thinking about how we often imagine rhythms in music to be in loops, and that this left to right thing doesn’t really represent how we think about music, so I started experimenting with writing them a circle. With drum sequencers and music software, everything works left to right, and a lot of musicians would probably tell you it’s a very convenient way they’ve learnt to do things, but visually I think there’s a lot that could be developed using a circle to do with perspective. The rhythmic and musical possibilities are more complex and nuanced and interesting.

There has been a lot of discussion in the past few years about how the traditional Western notation system can be quite limiting for a lot of artists…

SK: It’s almost like notation hasn’t grown the same way music has. It’s this whole thing of prescriptive versus descriptive musical notation. The prescriptive one tells you exactly what you should play, whereas the descriptive one is more open to an idea. I’m going for that a bit more, trying to give you more than just the notes that are being played, an understanding of how the music could work. Khyam Allami has talked a lot about how a lot of music software is developed for a Western audience, and how using these softwares can mean you end up sounding a certain way as it doesn’t account for how people learn music in certain other ways.

Am I right in thinking that you took a physical sculpture of the symbol physically on a road trip around India?

SK: In the south of India, especially in Tamil Nadu, there’s a big festival in the month of Aadi, sort of a harvest festival. Lots of temples have these amazingly intricate LED sculptures of gods, about 20 feet high. I grew up seeing them, and one of the ideas I had was that if I want to build this mythology around the KALAK symbol, this idea that this rhythm appears in natural environments around the world, it would be amazing to photograph it in those environments. So I went and got this symbol made from one of these temple makers, for them it was a piece of cake! They built it in a couple of days, ten feet by ten feet based on a bamboo frame with LED lights all over it. Me and my friend Fabrice [Bourgelle, photographer] took it all around Puducherry and Chennai, powering the LEDs with a car battery.

Can you explain how your reading of Thomas More’s Utopia relates to the album, particularly the track ‘Utopia Is A Colonial Project’?

SK: The first time I came across a critical analysis of Utopia was in a lecture by this guy called Kodwo Eshun, a professor at Goldsmith’s University, who was doing this talk about futures at an art biennale in India. I can’t remember what the question was that he was asked by someone, but his answer blew me away. He said this thing about how the first time the word utopia was used was in Thomas More’s book in 1516, and how England at that time was very much beginning to flex its muscles in terms of the empire. He talked about More writing Utopia with that in the background and considering what the book is about – the protagonist, this guy Raphael Hythlodaeus goes in search of this new land, finds new life, finds this island, builds a bridge, gets all his mates to go over and live there and then changes the name from Abraxa to Utopia. If you read that from a critical perspective, it’s a blueprint for how settler colonialism achieved its goals.

It's also about an idea that’s deeper than that, about treating the land only as a resource, not a living thing. It’s about going in somewhere and not learning to live in the place or learn from the local population, just to make a profit of the land and erasing its identity. That really struck me, and when I went and read the book I felt the same way. I thought about how, when we talk about futures and futurism, we often talk about utopias. The track is really just an attempt to draw attention to the idea that our ideas of utopia could also be based in this mentality of settler colonialism, and that if we use these words, we have to call them about as being within a colonial perspective. It’s not to say that that’s true of every utopia – everyone’s utopia is different – it’s more about the word itself. ‘Utopia Is A Colonial Project’ is a strong and heavily worded title, but that’s so we’re able to have this conversation.

Another track instructs us to ‘Remember Begum Rokheya’, the pioneering Bengali feminist thinker. Her best known work Sultana’s Dream is an altogether different idea of ‘utopia’…

SK: She wrote this book in 1905, it’s quite radical in its ideas. It’s about this place called Ladyland, a fantasy world where the men are all locked up behind closed doors and the women are roaming freely and doing a great job running the world. They’re living in harmony with nature, there’s no violence. For me it raised this idea I think about often, of ‘who gets to speculate about the future?’ At the end of the day, we only hear from people who have that amount of privilege, so for me, coming from where I do, I thought it was important also to look back and highlight these voices of people who deserve to be heard, and whose speculations I think deserve to be thought about. That’s why I wanted to dedicate a song to her, in praise of her really. She was an incredible person.

You’ve described KALAK as ‘Indo-futurist’, how would you define that term?

For me, the idea of ‘Kal’ hints at traditions that already exist particularly in South Asia that already lean towards this idea of non-linearity that’s on the album. The idea of karma for example, that in your next life you reap what you sow, that things don’t end but are just a continuation of something else. For me it was tapping into those ideas and philosophies that helped me centre the album. There are other futurisms, Italian futurism or Afro-futurism, that are far more developed as ideas. One of the first things I thought about with the album was ‘what does it mean for me to make a futurist album? What is an Indo-futurist album?’ Even calling something ‘Indian’ has colonial undertones, so you could potentially call it ‘South Asian futurism’ instead.

Does the album involve you imagining a future of your own?

SK: SK: For me it’s less about a grand vision and a plan. I think it’s more about understanding that there’s a lot of work towards better futures happening right now anyway in our living rooms, in the way we treat our families and our friends. You’ve just got to pay attention to that. It’s not this huge grand vision, this massive upheaval that’s gonna change the world, it’s based in simple ideas of kindness and empathy. I think that’s important to remember. Instead of me putting out another grand vision for the world, I’m talking about what I know with the KALAK rhythm. It comes back to that idea of who should get to speculate. In both Britain and South Asia at the moment we’re being sold an idea of a very fascist utopia with a lot of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric. I think it’s important to remember that there are still other dreams and ideas that can be thought about.

On the last song on the album you read back the titles of every track on the album, almost an invitation to take their lessons from the album and into the real world.

SK: I think about it as a manifesto, and at some level it is instructive if only in the sense of being a reminder. ‘Remember To Look Out For The Signs’, ‘That Clocks Don’t Tell But Make Time’, ‘Utopia Is A Colonial Project’ – they’re all statements. I thought that if I wanted to draw attention to the fact that the entire tracklist can be read in one go as a poem, I’d better say it at the end.

When you read them out, the track titles have a whole flow and rhythm of their own that moves concurrently with the music itself.

SK: I was thinking very hard about how the track titles could be circular when we’re trapped in this way of linear thinking, that people are gonna look at the tracklist from top to bottom or from left to right. That’s what I was trying to achieve with the Karak symbol, too.

It’s the first time you’ve worked with an outside producer, Photay. Why did you decide to bring him on board?

I’m a big fan of his, but I also thought this idea of giving up control on the album was important. Letting him almost remix some of the jams that we were doing and having them becoming the final pieces of music.

That’s a huge amount of trust to place in someone, particularly with such a considered concept behind the album. Were you worried it might get diluted?

Of course I was worried, but having known him for a while now, that level of trust is there. It’s like at a gig, I trust everyone on stage so much. I think there’s something to be said for giving someone that license and authority. It’s rarely ever misused. And, in my own way, although I don’t want to use the word utopia, I did want to create an environment that felt as safe, progressive, and non-heirarchical as possible, where everyone involved felt like they could influence the music too. The idea of giving up control to the music is very important.

There’s an amazing collaboration with the drumming group Kodo.

SK: They’re absolutely incredible! They’re a Taiko ensemble who live on this tiny island in Japan. I sent them the KALAK symbol with a couple of instructions about how arrange the track, and they came back with this incredible masterpiece.

It’s interesting that the KALAK rhythm is something that can be interpreted by anyone, that although the album comes from a personal space, it has that quality of not feeling solely like it’s ‘yours’.

I hope it’s got a life of it’s own, that other people might want to take it on and do something with it. I think it’s also opened up a chapter in my life as to making more work that’s based around it. I don’t think I’ve fully explored its potential yet.

Sarathy Korwar's new album KALAK is out now via The Leaf Label