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Three wise men reflected in a fourth's spotlight

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: June 21, 2013

  • Above: Nitin Sawhney in the studio. Left, from top, Tagore, Einstein and Ravi Shankar

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Theoretical physics and Hindu philosophy aren't obvious bedfellows, but they are twin fascinations for cutting edge composer, musician and writer Nitin Sawhney.

He brings them head to head in the context of historic encounters between Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore in the new play he is developing for a prestigious London premiere in two years' time.

In the meantime, Nitin is bursting with enthusiasm about the project and will be revealing more about it – as well as details of his privileged relationship with the late Ravi Shankar – when he makes his Tagore Festival debut next weekend.

"I was fascinated that these two men met and had quite a dynamic conversation," says Nitin.

"Rabindranath Tagore was so prolific as a writer, playwright, poet and musician, and his legacy is huge.

"The inspiration behind the founding of Dartington Hall, and genius polymath of the East, he met with Albert Einstein, world-changing physicist of the West, twice in Berlin – 1926 and 1930. Their meetings created a media frenzy that ignited global imagination and raised some profound philosophical questions.

"Pandit-Ji Ravi Shankar, arguably the foremost sitarist and musical pioneer of the last century, was a hero of mine who also happened to idolise Tagore."

It's quite a coup to entice London-based Nitin down to Devon. He may not be a household name, but he has achieved an international reputation – as well as turning down an OBE, for ethical reasons.

He is firmly established as a world-class producer, songwriter, DJ, multi-instrumentalist, orchestral composer and cultural pioneer; like Tagore, he is a Renaissance man in the worlds of music, dance and theatre, extending his focus into contemporary genres of film and video games. His output as a musician alone is astonishing. He has scored for and performed with many of the world's leading orchestras, and collaborated with and written for the likes of Paul McCartney, Sting, The London Symphony Orchestra, AR Rahman, Brian Eno, Sinead O'Connor, Jeff Beck, Shakira, Will Akram Khan, Nelson Mandela and John Hurt. On Monday he releases a new album, One Zero, the first direct to vinyl recording for 35 years made in front of a live audience at London's Metropolis studios and featuring Joss Stone, among others.

His play – which takes the form of dream sequences and already has actor Ben Whishaw on board – is a rather different project and one he admits has become something of an obsession.

"It is interesting that these two men achieved such a revered status; Tagore's beard is in a glass case at Dartington and Einstein's brain is in a jar in the States," says Nitin.

"We lionise these figures so much that we dehumanise them. I say we substitute their flaws and afflictions for flowers and affections."

He says these two characters would probably be abhorred today for their inadequacies – particularly their behaviour in their private lives.

"History is very forgiving when people have made great discoveries or created great art or written great poems," he adds.

Nitin was close to Ravi Shankar, who first came to notice in the West through his association with George Harrison and the Beatles.

"I was by his bedside when he passed away," reveals Nitin, who has worked closely on musical projects with both Shankar's daughters. "I talked to Ravi about Tagore, who was a man he had great respect for when he met him.

"The concept of discovery rather than creation is very beautiful," he adds. "Ravi believed that music was to be found in the air and when you really play you put yourself in a meditative state."

Nitin was last in Devon to watch Complicite's A Disappearing Number – for which he wrote the score – at the Theatre Royal Plymouth. It told the story of the collaboration between remarkable 20th century pure mathematicians Srinivasa Ramanujan, a poor Brahmin from South India, and Cambridge don G H Hardy – a clear inspiration for Nitin's new work.

Nitin Sawnhey appears at the Tagore Festival at 8pm on Saturday, June 29.

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