Asian Music and Dance

Iconic Sitar to Mesmerising Carnatic Ragas

This double bill concluded the third day of the eighth Darbar Festival, held between 19 September and 22 September 2013. In varying ways the evening reinforced our sense of why the subcontinent’s music stays inspirational – and that aspect of what Darbar (‘court’ referring to the pre-Partition hierarchies of patronage) is all about: namely, discoveries.

Sitarist Anupama Bhagwat opened Saturday’s concert, accompanied on tabla by Peterborough-based Gurdain Rayatt. Bhagwat was born in 1974 in Bhilai in south-eastern Madhya Pradesh (since 2000 Chhattisgarh state) into what she calls “a musically-inclined family” and she began her initial musical training aged 9. Four years later, she was accepted to study further with her guru Bimalendu Mukherjee (father of sitarist Budhaditya Mukherjee) of the Imdadkhani gharana. Sometimes known as the Etawah gharana, after the place in modern-day Uttar Pradesh where it subsequently put down roots, this school plus style of playing is particularly associated with sitar and sitar’s more gravel-voiced cousin surbahar. Alumni include Vilayat Khan, Imrat Khan, Shahid Parvez, Shujaat Khan and Imrat Khan’s son, the sarodist Wajahat Khan. 

The musicians discovered that London’s autumn climate played merry havoc with their strings and skins. Especially during the first piece, the early evening rāg Shri, their instruments took it in turns to slip out of tune. Yet out of adversity grew assurance. As a model of musicianship battling the odds, Bhagwat and Rayatt’s performance was inspirational.

During the main course of the recital, Jhinjhoti, Anupama Bhagwat shone as she moved through the mela (‘fair’) during that evening rāg’s movements. She was as fluent at alap as the all-too-frequently undervalued (or marginalised), rhythmically unmetered jor movement. She has an evident gift for tān phraseology – tāns being musical figures kin to Western arpeggio. She ended the recital with two compositions by her guru. Apparently, neither has a title (though historically there remains a long-standing custom of bandish-style compositions remaining innermost ‘ours’). 

Anupama Bhagwat is, head and shoulders, the choicest next-generation sitarist to cross my path in years; and watch out for Gurdain Rayatt.

Though it is often anglicised as the softened ‘Carnatic’, the source of Karnatic – as in Karnatic music – is said to be karna, meaning ‘ear’. Aside from being one of Karnatic music’s most unmissable voices, Sudha Ragunathan is one of the most must-hear voices in the whole sweet universe. 

In the first half of the 1990s Winston Panchacharam’s Amultham label put out some of the most revelatory albums of Karnatic vocal music in the west to appear since M.S. Subbulakshmi’s breakthrough LPs, including Sudha Ragunathan’s Tamil Melodies from Amutha Isai Vani (1993) and Kaleeya Krishna (1994). Those Amultham albums remain on my background playlist. In the meanwhile, Sudha Ragunathan has grown inordinately more accomplished as a song interpreter. For most of Darbar’s UK-based audience she was probably one of those hear-before-you-die vocalists.

Religiosity is not for me, but listening to Sudha Ragunathan it is possible to suspend all faith beliefs and just luxuriate in the sheer musicality of what she sings, knowing that deeper possibilities are skittering through better-informed listeners’ minds or soaring over many listeners’ heads. She makes me curious about Hinduism, even though the nuances of, say, the Kannada, Sanskrit,Tamil and Telugu lyrics that she sang eluded. The kriti (Hindu hymn) ‘Nagumomu’ in the South Indian rāgam Abheri – with its entreaties to Rama on the occasion of missing His smile – may well contain enough faith paradoxes to last another lifetime. And so on.

From the opening varnam set in Khamas, in this case a species of étude called dharu varnam mixing and matching both Indian solfeggio and lyrics, she put her instrumental accompanists on their mettle. These were not run-of-the-mill accompanists. They were the percussionists Patri Satish Kumar on mridangam and R.N. Prakash on ghatam and Jyotsna Srikanth on violin. Srikanth observed afterwards that she had no inkling of what was coming next. Everything was played, as she put it, ‘on the spot’. 

A huge sense of spontaneity permeated the Darbar recital. Some material such as saint-composer Tyagaraja’s ‘Shobillu Sapthaswara’ in the South Indian rāgam Jaganmohini is a hallmarked repertoire item in Karnatic recitals. Its lyrics include as a central tenet of faith: “O Mind! Praise the divine forms of the seven musical notes, which glow in the navel, heart, neck, tongue and nose of the human body…” Elsewhere the musicians were just flying. Their ragam tanam pallavi centrepiece was masterful with Srikanth’s violin solo a minor masterpiece of the enduring kind.

The concert built and built, helped perhaps in part by the instruments seeming not to be dogged to any major extent by the tuning problems that had beset Anupama Bhagwat’s recital. (Room acoustics adjust.) Sudha Ragunathan sang her heart out. Jyotsna Srikanth played some of her most edge-of-the-seat violin – accompaniment and solo – in years. The percussionists just flew. 

Both acts in the Iconic Sitar to Mesmerising Carnatic Ragas programme soared. This was the finest Indian classical music concert of 2013 thus far and one cannot imagine a finer. 



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