With Tavishi, Indian-born musician Sarmistha Talukdar uses science and politics to provoke thought and inspire activism.
GayRVA Staff | March 14, 2018
Sarmistha Talukdar is a botanist, musician, painter, and photographer. Born in Mumbai, India and raised on the other side of the Indian subcontintent in Kolkata, Talukdar moved to the United States about five years ago. She brings all of these experiences to her work in Tavishi, an experimental music project that has grabbed attention around Richmond in recent months with its unpredictable avant-garde sound. Recently, she took the project to a new level with the release of a short film called H O M E.
Talukdar initially started Tavishi to help her find the courage to do live musical performances. “When I decided to perform live music, I was extremely scared,” she said. “I have really bad stage fright because of childhood trauma, which caused me to stammer. I was terrified of performing live. That was when I decided to name my project Tavishi.”
Tavishi, another name of the Hindu Goddess Durga, means feminine strength and courage. “I am not a very religious person, but growing up in a very conservative, patriarchal and religious Bengali home, Durga was my hero. As a child, looking at her fierce, larger than life idols, gave me someone to look up to,” Talukdar said. “In the beginning, it was just to find some courage in performing live. But now it is about finding courage in the exploration of new ideas, pushing myself in uncomfortable creative arenas, and overcoming them.”
Talukdar refers to her work with Tavishi as “sound art,” and brings influences from the culture in which she was raised, using Indian instruments including the santoor, harmonium, and swarmandal, as well as composing in Indian classical notations, scales, and tuning. “I use elements of Indian (folk and classical) music, western elements of noise, and electronics, and sometimes I use research data to generate music,” Talukdar said.
Talukdar’s synthesis of many different disciplines and experiences into her music is by design. “My personal aim as an artist is to amalgamate science, art and music in a form that engages the audience, compels them towards action instead of apathy, as well as provides space for catharsis and healing,” she said. “I feel academia is very distant and detached from real-world problems, which got me into social work and activism.”
By day, Talukdar works as a scientist, who works on understanding and targeting cancer stem cells. “I started working in this field because I lost a close relative to breast cancer as a child and I wanted to do something about it,” she said. “As a scientist, the fact that our Earth is getting destroyed, causing mass extinction and global climate change, is something that I just cannot look away from.”
Talukdar followed the story of the Flint, Michigan water crisis with interest. It reminded her of the damage that happened to rivers in her native India during its years under colonial rule by the British government. “Water is something so essential; it’s a human need and right. And it boggles my mind how people in power can play with something like that,” she said. This story, as well as the Standing Rock pipeline protests, were inspirations for her latest work, a film entitled H O M E, which premiered with a live screening at Soft Web Studio Collective last month.
Tavishi’s previous releases include Boundaries, a full-length released on cassette by Trrrash Records in May of 2017. That release was a benefit for Virginia Anti-Violence Project; the release event for H O M E also acted as a benefit for Advocates For Richmond Youth, a local group working to help youth who’ve experienced homelessness and unstable housing. A core organizer with Girls Rock! RVA, Talukdar has a firm commitment to supporting organizations that do advocacy work in the area.
With a few musical releases under her belt, Talukdar has also collected her photography work into zines. However, H O M E was the first Tavishi project to combine audio and visual elements.
“The idea for H O M E was conceived during a fall hiking trip in 2017,” said Talukdar. “As I was entranced by the pristine beauty of the place, it suddenly dawned on me how privileged I was to be in this beautiful place. This place was home to the Powhatan natives and now the world does not seem to care about their displacement.”
For Talukdar, a native of India now making her home across the world from the country where she was born, “home” felt like a complicated concept. “I moved to US, in search of better living conditions, in search of safer conditions, as a woman and a queer person,” she said. “India, struggles with homophobia, caste problems, safety for women, tolerance for other religions. But I also wonder how much of those problems are fallout of colonialism.” She referred to specific laws criminalizing homosexuality in the Indian Penal Code created during India’s colonial occupation, and the fact that there were no corresponding prohibitions in traditional Hindu writings.
“Richmond has given me a lot of opportunity, to be creative, and exercise my freedom creatively,” she said. “It was something that I felt limited in India. But culturally, I can never identify with the culture of US.” The fact that she found a more accepting environment in which to live as a queer woman in the US is of small comfort to her; in other ways, her existence in this country has been complicated and difficult.
“I am flabbergasted by the entire system of “immigration” in US,” she said, mentioning her inability to travel outside the US since moving here. “Because of these issues I have not been able to visit India in these five years, nor perform music in Europe, where I have been invited to perform a few times.” However, she also acknowledges that what others go through can be even worse. “I often see my black friends speak out about the problems that they have faced, something that brings back a lot of the historical trauma that their families went through,” she said. “I cannot even begin to fathom how triggering it must be for them to keep seeing those patterns happen over and over.”
H O M E includes snippets from multiple interviews Talukdar conducted with Richmond residents about their own struggles to find places where they can exist and be comfortable. “I had the honor to interview great people who do so much work for the community, such as Jafar Flowers,” she said, referencing the local electronic musician and Ice Cream Support Group cof0under. “They really try to bring the QTPOC community together and help those in need.”
This attempt to highlight the voices of marginalized people is something that the film carries forward from Tavishi’s music. “One of my new songs that I have performed live, but is yet unreleased, is called ‘Satyameva Jayate,’ which means ‘Truth triumphs in the end’,” she said. “In this world where we are constantly gaslighted on so many levels, I feel our truths — as people of color, as queer people, as immigrants, as people with a history of colonization, as survivors, as women — often [go] unheard or talked over. I often have to tell myself that ‘Truth will triumph in the end’ so as to not get down, and [to] keep on fighting.”
Tavishi continues to perform regularly around town, with at least one house show coming up later this month, and contributed a track entitled “Rokter Daak” to a compilation entitled Uchronia, which brings together 49 different experimental/avant-garde artists from 32 different countries of the Asian diaspora. The compilation was released last week on Syrphe Records, a label Talukdar has long enjoyed, and is very excited to work with. “It still feels a little unreal,” she said. “But it is a great honor to be included.”
Written by Marilyn Drew Necci and Andrew Goetzinger