For the best part of November 2008, an enormous array of India’s varied arts and cultures took over the Dutch capital’s auditoriums and public spaces in the Amsterdam India Festival. It was, I was reliably informed, the largest India festival ever in Europe. It featured India’s finest in music, dance, theatre, film, fashion, photography, visual arts, architecture and multimedia, as well as workshops, lectures and debates.
Under the banner of Blended cultures, a reference to the invigorating mix of the traditions and the new Indian arts, the Festival opened with an unscheduled concert by bansuri maestro, Hariprasad Chaurasia and tabla legend Zakir Hussain. Before the performance, Hariprasad Chaurasia received a royal decoration as Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau, for his contributions to Indian classical music and his work at the Rotterdam Conservatory.
Being an enthusiast for traditional raga music, I attended several classical concerts. Zakir Hussain and his Masters of Percussion programme offered a great panoramic view of North and South Indian raga and percussion, as well as East-West fusion with British virtuoso violinist, Daniel Hope. After all these years of performing, one can only be impressed by Zakir Ji’s charisma and his sincere dedication to music.
The next evening: six hours of raga music that included Irshad Khan on sitar and Ashwini Bhide on Hindustani vocal. There was also a special treat by The Kirwani Quartet, with Hariprasad Chaurasia on flute, George Brooks on saxophone, Sandip Bhattacharya on tabla and Gwyneth Wentink on harp. They gave a performance displaying real mutual understanding, inspired solos and beautiful melodies, with the harp adding a fascinating new flavour to the music.
Next up was a series of double bill concerts, featuring two artists per evening, a popular festival formula nowadays. This format works for people who are new to the genre, but for regular listeners the reduced performance time was limiting. Still, it was great listening to a fantastic line-up of artists: Ulhas Kashalkar on khayal vocal, the Gundecha Brothers on dhrupad vocal, Sanjay Subramaniam on carnatic vocal, Chitravina N. Ravikiran on veena and Amjad Ali Khan on sarod.
The longest concert was a memorable ‘Evening of the Strings’ that began with the Raga Mala Quartet founded by Dutch Delhi-based cellist Saskia Rao de Haas. The other members were violinists, Lenneke van Staalen from The Netherlands, Zoltan Lantos from Hungary and viola player Tanya Kalmanovitch from Canada. They played ‘Muhkani’, a forty-five minute string quartet by Saskia Rao de Haas, that displayed and combined many beautiful sonorities and tonal colours of Western and Indian music. Minimal music melodies fused with complex Indian rhythms to create a rich harmonic tapestry within the framework of a raga. Muhkani, which means facial expressions, is based on the structural build-up of a north Indian raga and offered many opportunities for improvisation for all the players during the performance.
The evening continued with more traditional strings; sarangi player Dhruba Ghosh played the beautiful night raga, Jaijaivanti. It was followed by a brilliant carnatic programme presented by brother and sister violin duo Lalgudi Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi.
Outside the many varied performances the Festival included another immense undertaking: a three-day conference on ‘India and the World: The Performing Arts’. Hosted by the University of Amsterdam, featuring seventy-five papers presented by eminent researchers.
With 75,000 visitors, 5,000 more than expected, the festival proved to be very successful, both from an artistic and a commercial point of view. And I, for one, would love to see something like this again in the years to come.