The Demented Goddess [DG]: Bishi, you come from an Indian Bengali family living in London. In your album’s opening track, ‘Language is an Ocean’ you sing, “Mother tongue dissolves ineternity”. Has your relationship to the Bengali language changed over time – andwould you recognise it as your mother tongue?
In many ways I’m worse at Bengali than I was as a child, but in deeper ways I am better. I was made to feel like an outsider by the Indian community and unreflected by British society. In Kolkata, my Bengali accent was mocked by my Indian community for being too Anglo. Music and the creative arts was where I found my soul and this will continue for the rest of my life. What matters to me is how I feel about my dual cultural status, rather than the shame projected onto me for not being ‘brown,’ or ‘white’ enough. Even when my use of the Bengali language is patchy, it will always flow through me. No one can change that.
DG: Tagore translated ‘Let My Country Awake’ from his Bengali poem titled ‘Prayer’. His English translation, to my ear, carries a resonant vigour quite different to the ornate, emotionally intricate poet in his native tongue. As the presiding genius of the final wave of the anti-colonial Bengali Renaissance, his work epitomises the push and
pull between proud local traditions and modern, outward-looking liberalism. Was it the English or Bengali version of the poem that inspired you? To what extent, if at all, do you feel this tug between tradition and the breaking of bounds, as an artist?
It was the English version, although I have been present at Bengali readings of the poem. When I read this poem, it reminded me of a lot of the themes and sentiments that ran through certain strands of ‘The Good Immigrant,’ collection of essays [edited by Niklesh Shukla]. My feeling was that this yearning for cultural freedom, away from colonial repression, is felt by generations far and wide. For many years, I did feel the tug between traditions and a huge sense of guilt about it. Subconsciously, I was always breaking boundaries out of a sense of creative authenticity, rather than than sticking up two fingers at the establishment. This comes from my curiosity over culture, music, art and technology and how this relates back to my emotions.
[DG:] Your polyphonic vocals in this album are exciting. How do you go about layering your voice in a song? Were there any challenges that particularly puzzled or
Growing up, I was a school chorister. My piano teacher was trying to entice me to audition for the Birmingham Conservatoire as a pianist and he leant me the Mystere De VoiX Bulgares CD, whose work I’d learned about through Kate Bush. This album changed my life forever. I sang with The London Bulgarian Choir for a period of time, learning the Bulgarian singing technique, one on one. When I first started producing on Logic, I was overjoyed at the ability to be able to record those vocal polyphonies on my own and now I can replicate it live with looping technology. During the album’s recording, I got to train with Meredith Monk at her infamous workshops in her Tribeca loft. Meredith Monk has been a real encouragement to me as an artist. This has been the best part of my journey, setting my singing voice free.
DG: There’s a powerful sense of freedom in this album, as you nimbly combine
classical-style singing with propulsive synths and Pet Shop Boys-style urbanity. Did
you find it exhilarating to explore these songs, the moods and ideas, or has it been
From a songwriter and composer’s perspective, I am really fascinated by trauma and pain being expressed as something completely euphoric. In making this album, it’s the first time I took on co-production duties. I had left a long term creative partnership, so I was really vulnerable. When you are starting over again and writing from a place of isolation, you can choose two different directions, bleakness or euphoria. I chose the latter. The Pet Shop Boys are an interesting point of comparison, because I’m unfamiliar with their work beyond the hits, but admire their artistic presentations and attitude to conceptual pop music. You can still be into their work, even if you don’t know the references, which is how music should be, in my opinion. It hits a chord with my own attitudes to music and the AV experience.
[DG]: The album is partly inspired, you say, by “borderless identity” and essay collection The Good Immigrant, in which Niklesh Shukla brought together writers of colour in the U.K (and, with Chimene Sulayman, in the U.S) to write about belonging. What does “borderless identity” mean to you?
This is a really fascinating question. For me, ‘borderless identity,’ has been freeing myself from expectation, shame and embodying my status as a cultural polymath. As a South Asian woman, I am 90% the only one in any recording, touring, performing or board meeting situation. The stats for women of colour are dire. I really fought to create myself, creatively & psychologically from an early age. I started performing in bands, recording professionally and DJing in my teens, against the odds, behind my parents’ backs, sometimes putting myself in danger, even if it was invisible to me. I have fought to create a sustainable career path for myself and help promote other artists along the way. Putting yourself out there only yields results…I find that more doors continue to open, the more one produces work. Ridding myself of the shame has been the biggest shift of all.
Bishi was speaking to our editor, Soma Ghosh.
Bishi’s new album, ‘Let My Country Awake’ is released on her own label, Gryphon Records, 15 October 2021.
A live show at The Purcell Room, Southbank, on October 13th will be followed by appearances with Garbage (Bournemouth), Anoushka Shankar (Hamburg).
Follow Bishi: https://twitter.com/bishi_official?s=20
Follow Soma: https://twitter.com/calcourtesan?s=20