What does it take to be a multidisciplinary creative? According to producer/ songwriter/ filmmaker Suryakant Sawhney, it’s a mix of natural inclination and discipline. Starting out his career in music fronting jazz band Peter Cat Recording Co, he moved on to pursue Hindi music solo, as Lifafa. Along with his wife, Surabhi Tandon, he also runs a video production house called Miya Biwi. Ahead, we try to get behind his creative process.
You were studying filmmaking in San Francisco when you started your career as a singer. What made you switch to music as a profession?
In college, I didn't really feel like I was going to become a filmmaker. I think in general, the idea was to start something on my own and not work for somebody else. When I started in film school, I didn't have the money to make movies, and it wasn't my style to go and pitch to people. It made more sense to go into a field that is sort of more internal, for me, and I could rely on myself. And [music] just happened naturally.
But why music? Was it something you loved as a child?
I've still not really understood my relation with music in that sense. Because I mean, I obviously liked it, but I guess every kid likes music.
But not everyone can sing well.
No, I think the difference for me is that I became more of a writer and then singing was an extension to that. So for me, essentially, the skill aspect of music is singing, but the real, artistic, creative aspect is writing.
Singing is just one of the things for me. I didn’t necessarily want to keep doing music into my 30s; I like to keep changing. I don't know… if you are what they call a creative person, essentially, you get these signals from somewhere in your head, and you've got to answer them in some format.
In this case, it became music for me. And what I mean by that is… I don’t know… I hear music in my head if I’m not doing anything. It’s sort of a call for it to be brought into existence. When I can’t hear music in my head that means that I’m not ready to write. So at that point in my life, I guess I was just hearing a lot of music in my head.
What prompted your transition from Peter Cat to Lifafa?
As I'm getting older, I'd like to do other things. I just realised that there’s a whole part of me, which was sort of pending, which was: I really wanted to write Hindi music.
As you're saying this, one thinks about how so many people have that feeling that you’re talking about—to try something new.
Yeah, it’s called the mid-life crisis. [laughs]
But they don’t act on it out of fear or being unsure if they’d be good at it. Did you have any such doubts when you started?
I think I always felt like I could be good at it. I'm the type of person who if I realise I'm not gonna be good at something, I don't do it. That's my nature. And I instinctively felt like I had a grasp on music. A certain way of making music in a natural way, and it just sort of evolved with time.
The process is still very abstract, but essentially, you’re sort of married to becoming a disciplined human being. People who aren't good at something: there's obviously two reasons for that. One, they might not just be naturally inclined, or have the aptitude for that. The second one is usually the discipline. A small period of discipline required to develop the skills. And then after a point, you reach a roadblock, and then to cross that roadblock, double that discipline required. Like it gets exponentially harder to get better at something, you know.
So I don't think many people have the time in their life to take that time to get as good at something, especially if there’s a lot of other stuff happening in their life.
How did Miya Biwi happen? At what point did you realise you wanted to go back to filmmaking?
It was just thrown at us honestly. I think I just like making companies [laughs]. So I thought I’d make a production house. Basically we started Miya Biwi back in 2017 or 2018. I had very little cash as a musician, and it became a way for me to make a good income on the side, and also help me sort of meet other people. Also, just being in a different world sort of gives you different inspirations. And like I said, there was always a desire to form a new business.
And how is it being in business with your partner? You run Miya Biwi with your wife Surabhi.
So once you get past the initial hump, really figuring out where you can't cross into each other's territories and where you just sort of let the other person be, you're fine. It's literally like marriage. So there's compromise but there are boundaries that you can set and it works out. I mean, if the company has to do well, egos have to be dissolved.
How do you separate these two disciplines as a creative? Does a different Suryakant show up for a video shoot versus the one who makes music?
I’m most married to my music. There’s a difference of intensity or “control freakishness” that I have for my music that I simply won’t have for my video work, because I just don’t care about it as much. It’s not my primary love. The way I approach it is with a much more open mind, working with other people, sharing ideas, space and stuff. But when I’m working on my music, it’s a weird, sacred, hard-to-share, private space for me.
Any other creative profession you’d like to explore?
I really want to start cooking. I don't know, maybe in my forties I will become a chef.