Darbar’s reputation as the most diverse, high-quality Indian music festival outside of India was upheld by its cracking first night. After a late start, Joydeep Ghosh took to the stage. He is not a big name and his hefty instrument, the sursringar, is even less known. Tuning took quite some time and the mixed audience shifted in their seats a little, but once he really started playing, all were captivated. The sursringar is the older brother of the sarod, and has not-often-heard rich bass tones that are reminiscent of Japanese stringed instruments like the junanagen. In the formidable hands of Ghosh it was a toy – long, ‘one-pluck’ held notes with subtlest ornamentation; languidly gliding over the fingerboard, yet with surgical precision as far as pitch. In the alap his oscillations murmured like a conversation between lovers, evoking gasps from the audience. Credit to the sound engineers for being able to pick it all up. The later jor and jhalla evoked a river as the sunset meets the water, creating a blaze of gold – this was dazzling playing, including the absolute treat of Shubh Maharaj’s tabla accompaniment. It was an electric combination that had the audience laughing in disbelief as the two anticipated each other’s rhythmic changes. Riveting.
Next came the turn of the Mysore brothers. Amazingly, this was their UK debut, although they are world-renowned as virtuosos of the Carnatic violin. They started with a deep yet delightful composition in Ragam Kanada, moving to ‘Sadapalaya’ in Mohanam. Their strident bowing seemed to carve the music out of the instruments, and not even their rapid-fire fingering or strings breaking could upset their composed presence. Besides their astounding musicianship, they were absolutely charming – like two South Indian Groucho Marx lookalikes, they clearly deeply relished each other’s playing in that uniquely Indian way – shaking their heads, tutting, raising their eyebrows and emitting a disgusted-sounding ‘hah!’ every few minutes. They moved to Ragam Purvikalyani where the endlessly inventive phrases were executed at a devilish speed. The final piece was a Charukeshi ragam tanam pallavi. Both sober and spellbinding, it rose to an epic, mind-boggling crescendo, aided by the fantastic mridangam of Srimushnam Raja Rao and ghatam of RN Prakash. It was unfortunate that the concert went on so long that the staff turned on the lights and people began to leave, but this will surely not be the last time we see these two in the UK.