The Art of Asking Questions

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On Friday morning the lightning began at 3.30am – silent flashes that woke me up just as the rain began to thunder down. One day after an incredible heatwave, London’s own mini-monsoon had arrived. I was ready for a commute into London for the first day of my work for the Darbar festival – a 3 day celebration of Indian classical music that takes place at London’s Southbank Centre.

I have been involved for the past few years in the Darbar festival in some way – usually attending concerts to write reviews for Pulse – a South Asian music and dance magazine. Two years ago I was asked to come and interview some of the supporting artists for Sky Arts, who broadcast the whole event a few weeks after it takes place. It was a great experience – I was very nervous – I am used to print interviews which are much easier to craft later. With film interviews you don’t have as much flexibility to edit and frame someone’s answers as you like – there’s only so much you can do in an edit. So it’s really a lot to do with making a good connection with the interviewee and asking questions in a way that will lead you in the direction you want to explore.

This year I was approached to interview again, but this time the artists were pretty big names. I was quite overwhelmed to be given the responsibility – hence I was a little flustered when an hour before I was due to start, I was still stuck on an overheated Circle Line carriage with someone’s armpit in my face. This was after flooded roads and a derailed train had delayed my journey before I’d even boarded the tube!

Anyway – to cut a long story short – all was well. The artists I was interviewing are all mostly very well known, bar Vishal Jain, a young dhrupad singer. Aruna Sairam – a powerful and distinct female voice of Carnatic (South Indian) music; Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra – legendary brothers who have performed khyal music of Varanasi for over 50 years; Shubha Mudgal – another highly distinctive voice and an exponent of khyal and thumri; and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan – a master sarod player, in the sixth generation of an esteemed musical lineage.

Whilst I normally would’ve been quite awestruck, because I knew I had to do the job, I slipped into a different mode and felt quite at ease. The hardest thing was only having an hour or less for each interview, yet knowing how much I could ask, given unlimited time. I was prepared with a list of questions for each person, but felt my way through it and learned a lot about interviewing in the process.

A few things I learned:

  1. Answers take time, and don’t always go in the direction you want. Depending on the person, an answer to even a simple question can be long and rambling. Generally people want to feel they’ve given a good answer, but it’s a rare person who uses few words to convey something – more common is to answer in a ‘thinking aloud’ way – exploring the topic and arriving at some conclusion point (optional!)
  2. (Relating to point 1.) Have more questions prepared, but only expect to get through 5 or 6 in an hour. So don’t leave your top priority questions til last.  Nuff said.
  3. It’s good to have an idea about where you want the interview to go, but don’t be too rigid. Sometimes the greatest responses and anecdotes can come out of a free flowing conversation that is ‘going off the rails’ – as with life, it’s ok…just keep calm and…
  4. LISTEN. Seems obvious, but when you’re thinking about the next thing you’re going to ask, and watching the clock, it’s surprisingly easy not to do. Not listening can make for a very stilted conversation, and often missing out on ‘cues’ which will lead you deeper than surface level answers. This should probably be point number 1, but in case you weren’t paying attention, I put it in the middle.
  5. Don’t interrupt. Most interviews are not Jeremy Paxman style – thank god. Interrupting usually throws people ‘off the horse’ and it can be hard to get back on again for the rest of your allotted time. Even if the answers are as rambling as a lost sheep…c’est la vie. (I won’t say who, but one of my interviewees was almost comically long winded. I asked only 3 questions in an hour and some of the camera crew nodded off!)

There are plenty more things I learned, but perhaps I’ll save those for another day.

Overall it was a real privilege to interview such dedicated and masterful artists. Each was very unique in their character. Though I was most excited to interview the two ladies, having listened to them for many years, my favourites to speak to ended up being the esteemed Misra brothers. With twin heads of white hair and completely matching clothes (even shoes), I was charmed even as they entered the room. In conversation I found them to be gentle, humble, and full of joy and love. Their eyes lit up as they described their feeling toward music, “It’s all about love, sharing love,” they said. They would chuckle occasionally, as they shared childhood memories of growing up and studying in Varanasi. I say they – but for most of the time, Pt. Rajan Misra spoke. I was unsurprised to hear that he was the elder brother – only by five years, mind you – but his younger brother treated him with utmost respect and love. “I am so fortunate to have my brother as my guru,” Pandit Sajan-ji said, with a broad smile and an affectionate glance toward Rajan-ji. I won’t spoil the stories they shared…but will be sure to share the films when they are finished.

The rest of the weekend was spent at the Southbank Centre assisting with a film being made about the festival. This meant – yes more interviews – this time ‘point and shoot’ vox pops from audience members and interviewing other artists in the backstage corridors and dressing rooms. There was a real buzz, and it was exciting to be part of it. After two days of chasing people around the massive building to speak on camera, the cherry on top was catching Anoushka Shankar unexpectedly in a green room (I promise I don’t play Pokemon Go, but it was something like stumbling on a Meowth).

The festival is well worth attending, so keep an eye out next September when it will be back. In the meantime, the films we made will gradually be posted on Darbar’s YouTube channel – worth perusing too for beautifully shot short films of musical performance.



Soundcheck for Aruna Sairam and Jayanti Kumaresh at the Royal Festival Hall


Interviewing Shubha Mudgal for Darbar

One Comment

  1. Wonderful to know views of someone who herself is one of the best devotional Keertanist. And to see through eyes of west how influential has been the Indian Classical Music outside India.

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