Electronic Music Meets Fantasy Bharatnatyam Opera: Astral Explorations With Murthovic

Imagine the concept of space exploration being depicted by a fantasy Bharatanatyam dance opera, accompanied by live Carnatic music fused with electronica. Too unreal to believe, right?

This crazy concept has been given life in the form of ‘Antariksha Sanchar’ by the combined forces of electronic producer Murthovic, visual arts director Avinash Kumar and veteran Bharatanatyam performer Jayalakshmi Eshwar.

Though the seed of this idea harks back to a decade-old dance recital of Eshwar, it came into being when Avinash received a grant to create a fantasy video game inspired by the rich culture of South India. The central character, based on the great mathematician Ramanujan, sets out for Mars and this journey is depicted through the dance recital.

The 90-minute long opera uses animated visuals and a live music score, orchestrated by Hyderabad based producer Sri Rama Murthy a.k.a. Murthovic. It has been condensed into an eight-track album titled Antariksha Sanchar: Transmissions in Space, Vol. 1.

The album doesn’t tick conventional boxes, as one could have guessed by now. The only exception is ‘Shri Vighna Rajam‘, which sounds like a standard composition played by musicians but comes as a warm embrace of human life in the haunting astral vastness of the 40-minute record.

The album opens with a mournful violin in ‘Improvisation in Dharmavati‘. It has the heavy tone of departure. A driving beat pops up, reverberating throughout the song, to commence the journey. The music moves, flirts, dances and blooms into greater movements. The violin plays a central role in most of the songs, finding maximum expression in the layered ‘Natabhairavi‘ and the exhilarating ‘Trill Drill.

Amrita Lahiri‘, however, is the playground of the flute. It is flurried and breathless, giving off the vibe of constant motion – a direct reference to travelling. The percussion is layered with the half-muted sounds of a kanjira on a sparse bed of drumming and electronic bass booms.

Though the beats can get a tad monotonous and musical ideas repetitive, the production continuously engages the listener by virtue of its dynamism. At every step, it reveals its roots of being an accompaniment to a dance recital. It moves gracefully, changes directions and moods smoothly while having the ability to make the listener groove.

Hindolam Aur Malkauns‘ deceivingly opens with unhinged violin scratches on a brooding soundscape to evolve into the most soothing track on the album. Minimal drone-like percussion and electronic effects amplify the magical twangs and slides of the sarod to weave a spell-binding aura that is uplifting, psychedelic and dreamy. It moves in circles, twirling like the dancer’s body in the heat of movement.

In some tracks, synthesiser loops add glamour and style. On others, organ tones bring progressive rock elements. The seamless blend with the tanpura drone, almost invisible, plays an important undercurrent to the groovy beats that Murthovic drops.

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As for rhythm, Murthovic keeps it simple, straightforward and lucid. It abides by its primary function – providing skeletal support for other instruments and sounds to project the musical tale. Sometimes, the bass gets fuzzy or distorted to add tonal flavours. When the percussive spectrum does deviate, mostly through the kanjira, it is never overpowering and always recedes to the primal groove.

While the score’s sonic treatment banks on technology, its soul is Carnatic. This mutates only on two tracks – ‘Todi Mill‘ and ‘Half Day‘ where Murthovic really explores spaces with demented fervour. The astral essence is felt the strongest here. Grungy and distorted, the former sees conflicting musical ideas play out in a call-and-answer format while the latter has futuristic leanings.

Cyborg-like-voices, heavy industrial beats, synthesiser riffs and otherworldly sounds ball into a dense nucleus of mind-bending substance. At one point, it becomes a pure aural experience. Out of all eight tracks, ‘Half Day’ holds the promise of a new kind of sound – something which organically synthesises age-old cultures with new-age inquiry. One is reminded of the pioneering electronic wizardry of krautrock practitioners in 1970s Germany.

The most interesting trait of Antariksha Sanchar is its submission to the less brighter themes on the sound spectrum. Never overtly happy, it has undertones of morbidity, danger and shadowy motifs. It reaches deep into the unexplored subconscious of the human mind – dark layers which lurk just beneath our sanitised realities, feeding directly from the forbidding fountain of the unknown.

Though purists might frown at this daring initiative, such projects could pave the way for the survival of the ancient arts and its integration into today’s tech-savvy sensory bubbles.

Vice Asia made a documentary on the coming together of the project. Watch it here:

Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri is a features journalist based in Kolkata with an unhealthy interest in music.