Bishi: Transcending Culture Through the Electric Sitar

Sunetra Senior Wednesday 18th December 2019 06:58 EST

Fusing the genres of electronica and Indian classical to make alternative folk-pop, musician Bishi emerges somewhat of a contemporary rock star. As well as strumming into existence a idiosyncratic signature, she is known for her stunning intergalactic outfits and pioneering presence in the British music industry. 

Her first major instrument being her voice, she would train in the traditional Indian sitar as a teenager. Bishi began boldly on the underground queer & indie circuits. “This was before the more recent acceptance of minority voices that’s becoming more mainstream, I found support in the counterculture. I faced a lot of judgement at school and in the Indian community - it was hard, so music was my escape.” However, the uniquely open artist transformed this personal challenge into a super strength: by forging an entirely unique genre.

Effectively wielding the impressive fusion of multiple instruments in many of her music videos, Bishi is the inventor of the electric sitar, born through a necessity to perform her music live. “Creatives naturally experiment and evolve – amongst training in music and researching tech tutorials on YouTube, I taught myself how to midi - map the sitar through Ableton, and there it was": a manual mix of dual heritage. A few albums later, and Bishi is now the Artistic Director of WITCiH: The Women in Technology Creative Industries Hub, a platform she co-founded to elevate the voices women & non-binary at the intersection of creative tech & STEM. “Nothing compares to the feeling of being able to write, teach compose, produce and perform music,” Bishi commented. “There’s nothing on earth like it. I’ve really enjoyed articulating ownership over that too. I hope I can help other women to do the same with their achievements. It’s been great to manage the sound art aspect of the music alongside the technical mastery, all the while curating & commissioning new female and LGBTQ voices.”

Bishi’s commanding stage presence is also a significant part of her artistry. Radiating a raw, feminine energy that is as elusive as it is strong, the profound source of her inherent creativity is reflected. “Musical craft is as important as presentation. At the age of 14 I was adopted by radical performance art band, Minty, who was founded by Leigh Bowery who, in turn, was friends with influential icons such as RuPaul. Bowery founded the seminal Eighties club called Taboo, which was canonised in Boy George’s musical of the same name. The artistic influence of the gay and queer-friendly community taught me how to create my own world and encouraged ownership through my body.”

This fiery, dexterous spirit extends to the more meditative theme of identity politics which drives Bishi’s work. Coming from a historically artsy Bengali background, she stated: “South Asian women constitute just 3% of the entire music industry – from producers and publishers to the performers and the artists we look up to. As a result, I’ve felt the need to campaign on our behalf” Indeed, “written before the current ‘woke’ age,” as Bishi phrased it, her second album, ‘Albion Voice,’ specifically addresses the outsider status experienced by individualistic British-Asian women like herself.

“As a British woman, I’m viewed as somehow lower or ‘a cheap imitation, while the Indian community might see me as ‘too white.” Bishi further gives talks, sits on various panels and provides mentorships around the goal of increasing the number of brown women being welcomed into her fusion field of music and tech. “I champion inclusion, it’s important to show how multifaceted South Asian women can be. I’ve added to the debate by creating a whole unconventional career.”
Bishi’s dynamic music then speaks directly to a significant social change. “The advancement in tech has been incredible,” she elaborated.

“Prior generations have not had access to the technological democratisation we’re witnessing now. It’s making so much more possible.” This is only boosted by the explosion of social media which has encouraged passionate and personal dialogue. Indeed, it is this zeitgeist that has taken Bishi’s newest album, Let My Country Awake, which will be released in 2020 on Gryphon Records, to an expansive individual space. Transcending even race, “the new work was partly inspired by the essay collection, ‘The Good Immigrant,’ edited by Nikesh Shukla, who’s voice features along with writers Darren Chetty & Salena Godden. It’s about how being a child of immigrants, my own experience as a brown and British, sits within the wider context of the diaspora movement, merging with the accounts of other marginalised voices. My music itself has also broadened in influence to complement that – I’ve definitely travelled into different territory now that I’ve got more into producing music.”

And so, ever elusive yet immediate and moving, Bishi’s art is not only a scion for originality, but also a sign of a contending progressive force in modern times. Indeed, transcending physical barriers altogether, she is part of a movement that is opening up the socio-political landscape to celebrate an emerging personal dynamism and expression of the innermost self. Despite the surrounding political veneer, marginalised perspectives that were once considered alien or “uncomfortable and threatening” as Bishi articulated are now equally seen as an alluring portal to deeper and enlightened thought.

“We’ve come a long way,” the eloquent artist concluded. “For me, focussing on being constructive, creative and taking practical steps to support people is always the priority. Otherwise, the enormity of current politics is overwhelming.” Aptly endorsing a futuristic image, Bishi clearly signals human values moving forward with the reconfiguring of an ideological identity.

You have drawn from your Indian heritage to include lyrics from the great Bengali writer, Rabindranath Tagore. Tell us more about this?

My parents were immigrants who came to country in the Seventies. My mum was actually a classically trained singer and expert in the music and works of Tagore, and helped curate classical Indian performances at Southbank. I think I was very lucky to have been born into the creative world that way.

How have gender politics changed over time?
The mainstreaming of dialogues around feminism & gender have got society talking on all sides, and made space for exciting and progressive voices. The rules of sex and sexuality have definitely changed to be more nuanced, and that’s great, but a lot more work needs to be done to continue to educate people on how to connect emotionally, now that we have tech at our fingertips. The mainstreaming of progressive ideas has both enlightened, and polarised. We have to be aware of discussions and the ways in which we can come together.

You also embrace multi-media performance. How do you use the images to complement your music?
I have worked collaboratively with visual makers, throughout my career. I like to create a multi-dimensional experience in my performance work. In the past five years, I’ve been working with Output Arts, who have been educating me in their process of live coding visuals.

Finally, who are some musical influences? 
Grace Jones, David Bowie, Wendy Carlos, Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson to name some.

Bishi has a BBC Radio 4 documentary out on 26th December 2019. Her forthcoming EP is The Telescope Eye:

T: @Bishi_music
"The artistic influence of the gay and queer-friendly community taught me how to create my own world and encouraged ownership through my body.”

comments powered by Disqus

to the free, weekly Asian Voice email newsletter