The NS Interview: Nitin Sawhney, musician

“I wouldn’t like anything with the word ‘empire’ in after my name”

You've played a wide range of roles in the arts. How would you chiefly classify yourself?
I'm a producer and a composer. I work with lots of different forms - theatre, film, dance, video games, orchestras, albums.

Is there anything you wouldn't like to do?
Lion taming? I like to push myself. I used to try to do one challenging thing a month that would be out of character. I was scared of heights, so I did trapeze for a bit at a circus place and I learned to fly a plane.

Your new album intersperses narrative with song. What's the thinking behind that?
It started as a script. The idea was to try and find a way of expressing what I felt during the last general election. Whenever there's an economic downturn, they try to blame immigrants first. It's a device of political opportunism, that parochial small-mindedness that surfaces every time there is hardship. I wanted to try to personify it in some way, through a character.

It sounds very political.
I wanted to avoid being political. It's much more of a human story. It might be a metaphor for political ideas, and it might have been inspired by political events, but it's about a character, the epiphany of a man who's caught in his own cage. It's an ode to Little England.

Do you think British culture is inclusive?
Integration shouldn't necessarily mean that we need to assimilate people; it should mean that we are able to accommodate lots of different ways of thinking.

What did you think of David Cameron's speech on multiculturalism?
That was absolutely disgusting and so inappropriate. The Tories are using immigrants as the scapegoats to distract attention from their doing a lot to rip apart the fabric of society.

How did you find being involved in the inception of Goodness Gracious Me?
Sanj [Sanjeev Bhaskar] was a very good friend of mine. We started off a double act a long time ago. At that time, there had only been a series of programmes that were very stereotypical and derogatory to Asians and made them the butt of the joke. My thinking was that we needed to find a way of subverting stereotypes, and that was something that we started doing with The Secret Asians and Goodness Gracious Me. Then it started taking on a different agenda and I walked away from it. Not that there was anything wrong with what they did - it was just very different from my way of thinking.

Do you think British Asians are pigeonholed?
The media do that a great deal. At one point things were moving on, but then 9/11 happened and political opportunism on the back of that created an atmosphere of fear of "the other", which then led right into 7/7 in 2005. Those two events did more to put back the acceptance and understanding of multicultural England than anything, and we all suffered.

You turned down an OBE. Why?
I wouldn't like anything with the word "empire" after my name. One of my heroes, [the Bengali polymath] Rabindranath Tagore, gave back his knighthood to the British after the Amritsar Massacre. I felt very strongly about what had happened in Iraq, and I thought it would be hypocritical to take any award that said "empire" in the wake of this country invading another country and killing women and children. I don't want to be part of that world. Having said that, I didn't know who put me up for it. I was very grateful to whoever did, so I didn't make a big deal of it at the time. I just said, "No thank you."

What do you make of the coming cuts to the arts?
How are you going to stimulate an economy if you starve everyone of anything? By cutting the arts, you're cutting the lifeblood of inspiration for people. That's how you preserve a sense of hope. They've already crushed the hope out of a generation with the student cuts.

Is religion a part of your life?
I don't believe in any orthodox religion. I have my own perspective, which is based on a weird combination of ancient Hindu philosophy and theoretical physics. That sounds quite mad, but the two are actually quite compatible. Hinduism in my world doesn't work as a religion; it just works as a philosophy.

Is there anything you would rather forget?
No. Everything is about experience and experience makes you who you are, so I don't want to obliterate any memories. I'm always trying to recover memories so that I can learn from them or develop something from them. Memories are how you inspire yourself creatively.

Was there a plan?
I try to stick to my intuition.

Are we all doomed?
We're not doomed as long as we have collective responsibility and respect.

Defining moments

1964 Born in Rochester, Kent. After quitting a degree in law, works on the radio version of Goodness Gracious Me
1994 Releases first album, Spirit Dance
2001 Fifth album, Prophesy, wins a Mobo
2006 Receives honorary degree from South Bank University, London
2007 Turns down an OBE
2009 Collaborates with the dancer Akram Khan to stage Confluence
2011 Releases Last Days of Meaning