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Scratch the surface, spin the world

Jason’s life changed sharply at the age of 19 when his parents’ marriage fell apart. He shifted to a new city, shaved his head, and immersed deeper into music, writes Amitava Sanyal.

india Updated: Oct 22, 2008 17:19 IST
Amitava Sanyal

On the morning his first solo installation work was to be unveiled late last year, Jason Singh had a remarkable change of heart. He cancelled the idea he had been working on for weeks. It was supposed to be a series of urban soundscapes — “like there are ragas for different times of the day” — played along with a video. Instead, what the 34-year-old artist delved into was this one sound that had lodged in his mind some 28 years ago.

“It’s the sound of a woman being beaten in a hallway… seen and heard through the flap of a letterbox,” says the London-born, his bright eyes fixed on an indeterminate middle ground. The work was titled ‘4 McGlashon House’, after the place off Brick Lane where he spent the first 19 years of his life. The woman was his mother.

It has taken Jason Jagdeesh Singh, the eldest of five children born to an immigrant Sikh father and a British-born mother, a long while to reconcile the ‘Jagdeesh’ and ‘Jason’ in him.

At home on the streets

“We lived at home by strong Indian values. But the moment I’d step out, it was a completely different world... I faced the Dark Side,” says the Star Wars fan. What kept him off drugs was a “union of 20-odd kids who would do everything together”. Among them were several wannabe DJs and sons of DJs, most of them from the West Indies — and their music enveloped him.

A young Jason was drawn into the subversive arts and politics of hip-hop. “Hip-hop is a catalyst,” says the now-not-so-young self, his eyes darting around. “Beatboxing, breakdancing, MCing, DJing and graffiti are its parts. The street corner is your stadium, the building your canvas,” he says, looking up at Charles Correa’s British Council building.

The only Indian music that filtered into his impressionable ears came from family gatherings, where “someone would start a Mohammad Rafi song after one Scotch too many”.

But the music would stop the moment Jason entered his own home. That was because his father — a Black Cab driver who played the drums in his youth — came to believe that western music was the devil’s scream.

“Things suddenly came to a head one evening”, and Jason, his mother and siblings upped and left for Manchester, where his mother’s folks stayed. The 19-year-old shaved his head, enrolled at university to study media technology, and discovered that he was both dyslexic and dyscalcic — that is, he could not make sense of too many written words or numbers. “I can never put in 500 words what’s going on in my mind,” he tells this writer with a disarming smile.

Where the twain met

That didn’t keep out the music, though. Jason immersed even deeper into DJing at the beginning of his 20s; and by the end of it, he emerged with an abiding passion for beatboxing — the art of using the human voice as an extraordinary instrument to create a variety of sounds and beats.

All this while, India remained a hazy, romantic idyll etched in mind by his grandparents’ tales of rural Punjab, a place that was “my country and where my problems would vanish”. The only real memory of this land, however, that lingered from his first visit as a three-year-old was of “the smells of burning wood and boiling milk”.

So, in 2005, Jason Jagdeesh landed at Mumbai airport with his girlfriend to embark on a six-week tour of ‘his country’. “And whoa! The dream vanished — I faced racism from an Indian for the first time when a cabbie, who took me to be an African, started plotting in Hindi, which I can understand, to fleece me!”

A reconciliation of sorts came about in the deserts of Rajasthan. “I don’t know what it is in the folk music of that place that made me think of hip-hop… maybe it was the Flamenco-like passion, the rawness… something you create with whatever little you have at hand.” And thus, at the end of a long and winding journey inwards, Jason met Jagdeesh for the first time.