King of Ghosts – Review

This one night only performance by musician Soumik Datta & City of London Sinfonia was an interesting mix of film, and live specially composed music. The first half, offered up three very distinct musicians, framed by a huge backdrop showing evocative scenes from vintage India life to commemorate the UK India year of cultural exchange in 2017.

The trip comprised Soumik, a master of the Sarod – an Indian stringed instrument not dissimilar to a lute, and one which complements a sitar, the unusual spectacle of a bodhrán player and percussionist from Waterford, Ireland Cormac Byrne, and piano virtuoso Al MacSween who began studying Indian improvisation in his teens.

In the first half of this double bill, Around India with a Movie Camera presents some of the earliest surviving footage from India, as well as enchanting travelogues, intimate home movies and newsreels from British, French and Indian filmmakers, drawn exclusively from the BFI National Archive’s early film collection.

The filmic scenes funded by the British Film Institute brought together a wide array of snapshots, family footage, holiday stills and news footage under the title Around India with a Movie Camera. In a democratic approach to telling an unfolding tale of India’s history, it fleetingly shares a man holding tiger cubs, sumptuous images of British colonialism, the arrival in Delhi of King George in around 1911, young children peeling fruit and climbing palm trees in French owned India.

This was a truly visual exploration of distinct parts of India complement by the originally composed musical score with its unique mix of eastern and western flavours. This evening, the last of their UK tour of King of Ghosts, was one which showed the musicians in a comfortable state with each other and a sense of playfulness in their work.

This first half of the show was a glorious travelogue, footage of Gandhi intermingling with Maharajahs’ wives making a nostalgic postcard to a bygone era.

The second half was very different in town with the arrival of City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Bill Barclay, and the loss of pianist Al MacSween. This shift brought a  showing of Oscar-winning Bengali director Satyajit Ray’s original film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne  featuring the sounds of Soumik’s sarod, and Cormac Byrne’s Irish folk rhythms.

Made in 1968, this cult black and white film centres on the magical journey of two unlikely heroes both having been exiled from their respective villages for various misdemeanours. The errant pair, Goopy and Bagha are granted three wishes by the benevolent yet terrifying King of Ghosts – a vintage superhero film of a kind and who is embodied through some great studio flashing light technology!

These cinematic imaginings present ethereal dancing characters, trick photography, a music competition and a battle with the King of Shundi’s brother. This was once an incredibly popular film and is simultaneously playful, quirky and showing pathos too. Safe to say however that the audience was regaled with a happy ending.

I really enjoyed the contrast between the two halves and it was an introduction for myself and I imagine many of the audience to hear the Sarod being played masterfully, sounding in parts not dissimilar to an electric guitar. The two halves of the show combine made for a large investment of time and towards the end of the performance I felt perhaps that it was slightly longer than a standard show making it hard for a tired parent to focus, but nonetheless a worthy production and I would recommend a viewing of this if you get the chance. A worthy inclusion in Rokia Traore’s festival picks this year.

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