Languages, Storytelling And The Continued Stigma Attached To Queerness: A Conversation With Sanjeeta Bhattacharya

Though she is now based in Delhi, singer and songwriter Sanjeeta Bhattacharya is a ‘citizen of the world’ in the truest sense of the phrase. A graduate of Boston-based Berklee College of Music, Bhattacharya’s music is eclectic – ranging from jazz and rock to Latin and folk. She finds languages captivating, and fittingly experiments with them in her own music.

Khoya Sa, Bhattacharya’s first Hindi collaboration produced by Aman Sagar, tells the moving story of two women in suburban India in the 21st century, puzzled by societal notions of conventional love. The pop/RnB ballad highlights that while women are bound so tightly by society, the love within them soars freely.

Bhattacharya’s honey-like, luscious vocals blend beautifully with Sagar’s, and the poetic lyrics perfectly encapsulate the feeling of being madly, deeply in love. This – along with the sitar, guitar and bass – makes the song infectious in its dreaminess, one that the listener will inevitably keep coming back to. The idea, explains Bhattacharya, was to create a modern sound using retro elements.

In this conversation with Sanjeeta Bhattacharya, we discuss her creative process, her love affair with languages and the stories they tell, and her newest song Khoya Sa — out 12th February, 2021.

Q. ‘Khoya Sa’ tells a beautiful story of two women puzzled by the nature of love in modern India. Where did the inspiration for the song first come from?

The song first came about as a straightforward love song about the way you get slightly obsessed with the idea of being with someone, so much that you’re restless without them. The way we wanted to portray it visually however, was different. The idea of a queer relationship is still taboo in many parts of the country and we wanted to show how beautifully ordinary it really is.

Q. What is your creative process generally like?

Once I know what I want to write about, I personalise it and try to relate it to my own experiences. If it’s something I haven’t been through, empathy and imagination helps! I then make a list of phrases and words and weave them together. I sit with my guitar, fiddle around until a melody strikes me, this comes very organically. Sometimes, this process works backwards, where the melody comes to me first and I fit in words to it.

Q. How important is storytelling in music to you?

Storytelling is cathartic to me. In my songs, I speak about what personally affects me and those around me. Love happens to be a subject that covers a wide spectrum of emotions, which is why people write most about it. To wear my heart on my sleeve and be an open book, full of stories, is part of my journey.

Q. You have talked before of your fascination with languages and have sung songs in several languages. How does the language of a song affect your expression? Are there languages in which you feel like you can express yourself better?

There are languages like Spanish and Urdu that roll off the tongue beautifully, and those like Japanese that have words that cannot be fully translated. However, languages are a tool for us to be able to communicate with each other effectively.  What binds us as a race is the emotion behind those words and as long as I can understand, connect and empathise with that emotion, I can express myself fully while singing. When I write, I’m most comfortable still with English but I’m experimenting with Hindi and Spanish

Q. What has your experience of collaborating with Aman Sagar on ‘Khoya Sa’ been like? Do you generally enjoy collaborations?

Collaborations pave way for your initial idea to be messed with, given a new perspective and added on to. Music has always been a very collaborative process for me. For Khoya Sa, Aman had the entire idea for the song solidly in place and I believed it through and through. I loved how he fearlessly experimented with the sound and I know that this particular sound is  brand new to the Indian music scene. Aman is immensely talented and I’m glad I get to support him through it with this collaboration.

Q. What is something that has been inspiring you in the past few months?

These past few months have been particularly disorienting given that a new year is already upon us and there’s so much turmoil close to home. I want to keep pushing myself musically and make sure I address issues that are relevant. When life gets really hard or overwhelms me, I like to cloud watch. There is peace in the vast unknown.

Q. The mainstream music industry is slowly opening up to progressive changes. What is a change you would like to see in the industry in the near future?

I’d love to see big labels and filmmakers, who have a reach amongst masses, supporting more indie artists and incorporating their music more often. Indie artists struggle with reach mostly and there’s so much content that their own gets washed up amongst it. I hope the industry pays closer attention and promotes independent music at a larger capacity.

Q. How has your sound evolved over the last few years?

I released my first single, I Will Wait, in 2017. Since then, I believe I’ve been sonically more experimental with every consecutive release. Red had me rapping and messing around with an RnB/Hip-hop sound whereas Watercolour was stripped down to just acoustic guitar and voices. If this journey has taught me anything, [it] is to not restrict myself to one sound and keep pushing my boundaries.

Q. Do you have any advice for up and coming Desi musicians?

Your uniqueness is what makes you stand out in the crowd. Don’t give it up for anything.  Don’t be complacent, stay true to yourself and most importantly, listen. To yourself, to the sounds around you, to music from around the world. There is so much to learn.

Q. What are your intentions for 2021?

This year, I plan on making a compilation of collaborations with some of my favorite artists who I have the privilege of calling my friends. I want to be more consistent with my releases. I’d like to explore a new territory like acting, remember to be present in every conversation and cherish each hug.

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Saachi Gupta is an LGBTQ+ activist, animal lover and the author of 'With Love, or Something Like That.' She is a strong believer in equality amongst mankind.
Saachi Gupta

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