In the world of Hindustani music, a fusion artiste is always looked down upon. However, there are a few artistes who conquer all odds and do a commendable job, like Swarupa Ananth Sawkar. She is a versatile percussionist based in Mumbai and the co-founder of an ‘ethnotronic’ band Filter Coffee. She can be seen paddling on the tabla, djembe, darbuka, dhol, drums, duff, and cajon.
Swarupa was born in a family with musical background. “The most natural path for me while growing up was music. I took up singing at a very early age. As a five-year-old, when I used to go to singing classes, a tabla sir used to teach in the next room. That attracted me more than my own class,” she says. Her parents figured out her love and interest for tabla and put her up for training. “That’s how it all started when I was six.”
Swarupa used to learn in a local institute in Dadar, Mumbai. That was when her mother’s friend told about Ustad Alla Rakha’s classes. “My mother took me there when I was 10 and met Abba Ji (as he is known by his students) who was also present in the class. They had a set of rules like age, number of years of previous training etc. I did not meet any of those criteria,” says Swarupa.
“It was just a wish to play in front of him and take his blessings.” However, when Swarupa played in front of Abba Ji, he asked her mother to enrol for the class right at that moment. “That is how the journey began. I learnt under Abba Ji for about four years until his demise and later under his sons Ustad Zakir Hussain and Fazal Qureshi ji.”
Music was always a part of Swarupa’s life. Since her childhood, she would do shows and a few reality shows, which were not famous back then. “In college, I got more exposure as I got to participate in various contests, inter college competitions etc. That was when I realized that this is the profession I want to take up.” Swarupa pursed music side by side, as she took up a job after college. But she did not know what was coming up her way.
Playing her own strings
It all started when a common friend Naresh Iyer told about a gig that was happening. He wanted to put up a band together. He went to Sriram Sampath to play flute and Swarupa played tabla. That was when Swarupa and Shriram met. “We stuck around and made music together for many years. Eventually, our music grew, we grew and we came up with Filter Coffee”, she says.
Being avid coffee drinkers, they came up with the name. Filter Coffee is an Indian ethnotropic collaboration, which ranges different genres providing a new look at Hindustani Classical music by combining traditional tabla, flute and vocals with hypnotic electronic grooves and sounds.
However, they had faced their own share of challenges. “From how to market ourselves to get a gig and get heard, it has been a long journey,” she exclaims. The band toured UK in 2013, playing in London, Southampton, Cambridge, and a few more places. They also performed at the Glastonbury Music Festival in 2014.
Swarupa and Shriram also turned music producers. They came up with an album Raagatronic, which they call their tribute to Indian classical music.
Swarupa feels grateful for everything life offered her. She says, “Every part of my journey somewhere contributes to what I am today. I do not regret anything. Everything happens for a reason and it has been a beautiful journey so far.”