By John Shearlaw

As a double act, Nitin Sawhney takes some beating. The handsome, assured and sublimely talented composer is poised to grab the laurels as the British Asian music scene's first true crossover star - yet until now the majority of those who recognise his name will only have heard him on Radio 4.

With his one-time flatmate Sanjeev Bhaskar, Sawhney helped to propel the hugely popular Goodness Gracious Me from the fringe theatre to Radio 4, and then to the brink of its first, highly acclaimed television series. As a musician, he has been treading the same ground-breaking cross-cultural path, harnessing a range of collaborators to his own extraordinary vision - from Indian classical singers to Brazilian percussionists, from tabla masters playing drum and bass to a string quartet playing Kathakali rhythms. His album Beyond Skin was one of the most rewarding delights of 1999, and in 2000 was recognised as such, when Sawhney picked up the prestigious South Bank Award for Popular Music from Bob Geldof, beating fellow nominees Blur and Fatboy Slim.

Full of adventurous rhythms and ideas, and a lifetime of influences, at its soulful heart Beyond Skin is one man's attempt to express the British Asian experience, and it has proved a more than valid reason for its creator to step aside from a comedy show that was about to hit the headlines.

A consummate collaborator, Sawhney has spent the past decade earning the loyalty and support of some of the world's leading musicians and vocalists. Some, such as the world-class tabla player and singer Jayanta Bose, come from the Indian classical tradition, while others, including Yemeni singer Natacha Atlas and the Brazilian Sanchita Farruque, had their unpredictable talents harnessed for the first time by Sawhney.

Together, on stage or in the studio, these loyal allies become the co-creators of extraordinary music, extending their virtuoso boundaries to embrace what Sawhney terms the "raag". "It's an Indian concept, a musical form," he explains. "It exists in the air, it is all around us. The person holding the raag has no importance - they are simply there to supply the concept. To me, that's the most interesting way to capture the experience."

Add to this impressive output the dozens of advertisements and film scores, a collaboration with Sir Paul McCartney (on his Fireman project), seemingly endless production and remix credits, and a series of challenging live performances in London, Australia and South Africa, and a remarkable picture begins to take shape. Nitin Sawhney isn't just emerging into the limelight. He's been there, almost unnoticed, all along.

"I've been doing it for so long, I'd assumed until recently I was doing it to get famous," he says. "And the really weird thing is that nearly everybody I know is famous." Indeed, long before Sir Paul dug out his A-Z, the list of visitors to Sawhney's south London home, complete with bedroom studio, made impressive reading: Sinead O'Connor; members of Bristol trip-hop collective Massive Attack; Brian Eno; director John Schlesinger; film-score composer Michael Nyman ("though we actually met at the Groucho"), then the former Beatle himself.

"My house is quite studenty. I've always shared with people," Sawhney says (although before he reveals his past influences, you would be hard pushed to guess his age - he is 35). "And suddenly it was like, clear the cups, where's the sugar. It's him, it's really him. People were peeking out from behind the cupboards, total panic." McCartney innocently mistook Sawhney's publicist, then staying at the house, for his wife. "Sorry, wrong bedroom," she laughed.

But despite all the attention, he still has mixed feelings about fame. "I could really only handle it by sending it up," he says. "I didn't want to be known. I don't believe in causes, I'm not a leader or spokesperson. For a long time, my music has been about individuality, a slow search for expression. I haven't got this far to be pushed into a category and forgotten about."

For this multi-talented artist, whose quick-fire conversational references include Jung, Keats, his own take on cultural imperialism and his parents' thoughts on immigration (they both have a voice on Beyond Skin), the past 10 years have, in essence, been a battle for expression. Only now is his heart worn on his sleeve notes: "My identity and my history are defined only by myself - beyond politics, beyond nationality, beyond religion and beyond skin." Which, as he points out, is a very long way indeed beyond the media's ready acceptance of a quick blast of Bollywood and tablas.

"For someone who is against all forms of judgmentalism and elitism, to be suddenly handed an award is odd," he says. "If it's someone's being nice, and it's part of making music more accessible, then it's no bad thing. Then again, it's hang on - who am I? What is my thinking here? If I started off saying, 'Let's change all the stereotyping about British Asian music’, it follows that I'm going to be doubly wary about a bit of recognition."

Sawhney was brought up by first-generation British Indians who settled in Kent - "I was a Hindu made to read the Bible, which I'm glad of now in a way." Trained in classical piano, and later in flamenco guitar, music was always the first line of escape. "I was picked on, beaten and abused, simply because I was on my own and a different colour." At university, Sawhney first played on stage with the highly-rated James Taylor Quartet, fledgling jazz funksters some years ahead of their time. Right from the outset, he developed important friendships "partly to survive, partly because that's what I value most" (the Taylor connection goes back to his schooldays).

For a short time, he teamed up with Talvin Singh in the Tihai Trio - "sort of John McLaughlin-influenced stuff, we were the IndoJazz Warriors." The group, and later the friendship, ran its course. Now the barriers were not those of a kid facing racist abuse (although it was still there), but of an adult musician facing a more subtle form of prejudice, a prejudice that riles him still. "Fusion this and fusion that, Asian Underground. More labels. Yes, I did have a problem with it. When I started out, I'd ring up a record company and they'd say, 'sorry, mate, we don't do bhangra'. Another clichéd term, short for next year's boring, marginalised crap. The whole thing was about reducing culture to fashion. I remember winning an award a few years later, a Best Producer in the Ethnic Minority Media award. I found it really offensive."

A search for an outlet beyond easily defined categories informed Sawhney's first solo album, Spirit Dance, then Migration, which launched the Outcaste record label in 1995. "It was a time of finding out about who we were and creating a fresh outlook for ourselves," he says. The nucleus of Sawhney's performing ensemble, now joined by rapper JC001, was already gelling; his other work subsidised (as it still does) the increasingly intricate live shows.

At the same time, alongside close friend Sanjeev Bhaskar, he started a comedy revue, The Secret Asians. "It was the most, most exciting of times, really - just him and me, getting the chance to look at social issues and change a few perspectives. I was happy being up there, because I didn't see myself as a comedian. I was a musician, a producer, anything but the front man. And it was fantastic, seeing the whole thing take off. I am a product of that whole TV culture of the 70s, all that lazy comedy like It Ain't Half Hot Mum, light-hearted but dangerous. Stuff that made racism acceptable socially and created an imbalance. We were reacting to that - but on our terms.

"Even now I get white geezers, like taxi drivers, the sort who would be comfortable with using the word 'Paki', telling me how much they relate to Let's Go Out For An English [a sketch from Goodness Gracious Me]. It got to them, and it has definitely changed things."

His involvement in the project lasted right up to the filming of the first series. "My lawyer was asking me if it was going to be commercial. And I'm saying, 'huge, mainstream culture', and at the same time thinking: I don't want this, I'm a musician, not a comedian. But do I still do the Bhangra Muffins?"

With all Sawhney's energies transferred back to the recording studio, Beyond Skin became the focus of his questions and doubts. "As a British Asian, you're always going to be asking: is it our context that's shifting - or theirs? I'm now at a stage where I don't associate with nationality. The influences are there, because that's what I grew up with. But changing the goalposts of perception - is that relevant now? Shouldn't we, as people, be getting beyond all that shit?"

Sticking to the same close-knit but outward-reaching circle of friends and performers, he has slowly built a receptive audience ready to accept the many facets of his output. There have been memorable concerts as far afield as Montreux, Turkey and Australia. The South Africa, Glastonbury ("the first time it really, really rained") and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, just as they were mounting the Arts of the Sikh Kingdom exhibition. Next came a sell-out showcase at a London rock venue where Sawhney, the largely silent leader of the ensemble, was moved by the varied audience - and several levels of appreciation. "It was emotionally draining, so much so that I had to take a cab straight home," he says. "Yet, in many ways, it was us moving up a gear, people cheering and responding to different areas of my work. We really have reached something we can build on."

Thanks to Bob Geldof and the taste arbiters behind the South Bank Awards, Nitin Sawhney's profile took one more small step into the mainstream. For the man behind the mask - composer, collaborator, and creative force - that's where he always thought he's been anyway.


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