Home-grown and overseas talent from the world of Indian classical music took centre stage at the Darbar Festival in Leicester in April 2008. On an unseasonably cold morning, Anjan Saha went along to see if the marathon three-day event lived up to its promise.
Despite the short walk from the train station, it was a relief to come into the warmth of the Phoenix Theatre, a functional, unassuming arts venue tucked away at the edge of the city centre. Entering the auditorium, I took in the scene: subdued warm orange and red lighting; a sculpted backdrop reminiscent of the splendours of powerful honey-coloured forts; carved brass elephants standing guard on the corners of the stage and sumptuous barrel-shaped cushions resting on rich ochre-coloured paisley sheets. It was a set from a Mughal court – indeed a ‘Darbar’ – a place to hear music.
During three days the audience was propelled on a conveyor belt of 18 performances and witness to an array of instruments: the ghutam, the sarod, the sitar, the surbahar, the violin, the flute, the santoor and more. Musical genres tripped over each other in a series of outstanding concerts. Dhrupad: spartan, austerity sung by Uday Bhawalkar; tappa: brisk, vibrant and redolent of camel drivers of north Indian deserts sung by Shashwati Mandal Paul; virtuoso tabla and sitar concerts by Pandit Nayan Ghosh; emotionally-charged carnatic vocal by Sanjay Subrahmanyan and a superlative finale by sitarist, Purbayan Chatterjee, displaying a maturity beyond his years.
Each person will take away their own ‘festival moments’ to cherish and tell and re-tell. And who said that classical music doesn’t rock? There was the ‘Dylan turns rock’ moment when Irshad Khan on surbahar, exchanged musical friendly-fire with tabla player, Sukhvinder Singh (Pinky) as they tussled in an over-exuberant improvisation. It captivated the youngsters. Others covered their ears. “Turn it down,” said an elderly man, “it’s too loud!”
British musicians did themselves proud. The raw and emerging talent of British tabla player, Bhupinder Singh Chaggar, delighted the audience with a fiery solo. At the end the packed audience of 300 stood in unison to applaud. Bhupinder raised his arms like a champion boxer playing on his home turf. “Soon the flow of tabla players will be from Britain to India,” remarked one tabla player in the audience. The evening continued with a breathtaking performance by Kaushiki Chakrabarty, daughter of revered artist Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty and winner of the BBC World Music Award in 2005. Her liquid voice held the audience spellbound as it effortlessly glided through the musical scale, singing in both North Indian and South Indian traditions.
Catching up with her the next day, she said “Darbar is unique. It’s rare to see all the artists staying throughout the event and sitting in the audience to watch you. It’s great for us, and the audiences, because it brings out the best in you.” Aspiring British artists take note: “Work hard and have faith. My father used to tell me ‘If you are the only one who can sing a particular thing, they have to come to see you.’ So make yourself a unique performer in every respect.”
The marathon stream of music was only interrupted by breaks for nourishment and afternoon “Audience with …” the artists sessions. One was led by percussion masters Bikram Ghosh and Pete Locket, and saxophonist, Jesse Bannister of Sunev, a group blending in elements of jazz, Indian and Arabic sounds. Greeted by whoops and cheers, normally reserved for a folk band, Bikram, who once toured with Pandit Ravi Shankar, says “Many young people are put off by the complex classical taal rhythms. They are more comfortable with groove, bite-sized rhythmical chunks, with an emphasis on the low-end bass.” An excuse for bad art? “Not at all, classical music remains my reference. It allows me to try out new sounds.” But for me, compared to the rich feast of classical music, Sunev’s performance fell short. Each artist was individually strong, but the sum, which over-emphasised percussion, did not equal the parts. “Fusion,” said Bikram, “is a work in progress and we are on a journey of experimentation.”
Considering the scale of the festival it may be a surprise that it is largely run by two people as a labour of love. Artistic Director, Sandeep Virdee, says: “We think it holds its own alongside anything around the globe. It’s a fantastic platform for British artists, and for audiences to see such a diverse range of music from both North and South India in just three days.”
Another revelation is that the festival – which one journalist described as ‘being in its prime’, is only in its third year and arose out of fate. The first festival in March 2006 was a tribute to Sandeep’s father, Gurmit Singh Virdee. Gurmit ji, who had passed away the previous year, was a talented tabla player, an inspirational teacher, and long-term Leicester resident who did much to raise the profile of classical tabla. Few may realise that many of the UK’s tabla players were at some point taught or inspired by Gurmit ji. Students joined hands with tabla doyens, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, Pandit Kumar Bose, and a succession of other maestros to play tribute. Within 24 hours of the start, the organisers decided that the Festival needed to become an annual event.
This year the organisers took a leap of faith by programming in more young, upcoming talent. “We wanted to challenge many people’s reference points that classical Indian music is only played by elder stalwarts of the likes of Ravi Shankar and Amjad Ali Khan,” says Sandeep. “One could argue that the younger generation are at their peak in terms of physical and mental powers. Younger people also need to be on stage as they can better relate to the younger audiences that Darbar wants to attract.” Others may point out that there is understanding that comes through age, one’s life experiences and doing patient sadhana for several decades, which manifests itself in music that has greater depth, resonance and maturity.
For the time being, however, the festival is attracting a younger crowd, albeit a mainly South Asian one, and is giving a high profile to British artists. Marketing is also raising its profile. BBC Radio 3 broadcast two one-hour programmes in May, and later this year Sky Arts is broadcasting six programmes. Darbar Director, Kulbir Natt says ultimately Indian classical music will only prosper if we attract more audiences: “There is a wider audience for this music, but we need to raise our game in the quality of our marketing and artistic product, and raise the profile of both the artists and the music in the media.”
British artists like sarod player, Tarun Jasani, who opened the festival, is certainly open to more opportunities: “It’s a struggle to survive. Recently, I had to drive from London to Dover at 5am to play for fifteen minutes. And the work is often like that, even senior musicians drive from here to there for a workshop, you’d be surprised. There is hardly time for riyaz (practice). Given this, a platform such as Darbar makes a very useful calling card.”
And while the dust is still settling on this year’s festival, Darbar is already looking ahead. Next year, after three years in Leicester, the festival takes on a bigger national footprint as it moves to London’s South Bank, the soon to be opened Curve in Leicester and The Sage in Gateshead. Whether the magic of a small intimate venue will be lost in a big city remains to be seen.