Asian Music and Dance

Indian Voices Day – BBC Proms

Promising a showcase of vocal styles, ‘Indian Voices Day’ began with some sublime morning khayal. It ended with audiences bouncing off their seats in a provocatively programmed Indie-pop concert. Sandwiched in between was a mini-mela of folk music and dance, brass bands and the Proms Bollywood Family Orchestra. 

Prom 41 began (and unfortunately ended) with Asima, a Keralan male choir and percussion ensemble. While some of the choral melodies, which combined Vedic chanting, classical styles, folk, acapella and western harmonies were easy Sunday morning listening, the upbeat numbers – more percussion than harmony with various south Indian drums and a western drum kit – appeared out of place with the mood created by the morning ragas. 

The khayal recitals, by some outstanding musicians, were compressed into short time slots. Pandit Ram Narayan and his daughter Aruna Narayan presented a duet on sarangi, an instrument many consider most closely emulating the human voice. But just as Pandit Ram Narayan was beginning to weave his spell, the recital had to end. Audiences appealed for more. Pandit Ji pointed to his watch as if to say he’d continue if he had anything to do with it.

Khayal vocal took to the stage next with Manjiri Asnare Kelkar singing Lalita Gauri. Her evocative voice seemed to caress the furthest reaches of the vast auditorium. But once again, just as her voice began to work its charm, it was time for a scheduled break. Audiences muttered: “They should have played longer; why don’t the artists say something? And where’s the atmosphere?”  After the break, Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra presented a beguiling recital of khayal with ragas Lalit and Bhairavi, once again cut short. 

Later, while listening to the Proms on the BBC’s Listen Again service, the mystery of the artists inability to talk to the audience and short time slots became clear. The pauses were filled by pre-recorded interviews to provide a seamless Radio 3 programme. The paying audiences, meanwhile, heard some wonderful music in a rather sterile and soulless atmosphere.

There was no shortage of atmosphere and engagement in the afternoon free concert in the grounds of Kensington Gardens. With several hundred people sprawled out in front of a marquee, the Proms took on the air of a mini-mela. On stage the Bollywood Brass band playing tunes from Slumdog Millionaire, the Proms Bollywood Family Orchestra, folk music and dance from Rajasthani and Gujurat and Asima making another appearance – this time in a more appropriate setting. With ice-cream in hand and the sun beaming down it was time to sit back and enjoy, or stand up and dance!

Back at the Hall, the Proms made way for Bollywood music. Sadly, not the fondly-remembered songs of years gone by, but modern Indie-pop with a dose of reggae, hip-hop, and latino beats. On stage, Shaan – youth icon, entertainer, TV talent show host and Bollywood film playback singer – declared that he was about to “wash away” all those classical notions we might have gathered about Indian music during the course of the day. He certainly did that. Over the next three hours, Shaan strutted the stage as his mostly young fan base cheered along to the string of modern Bollywood hits ending with a magnificently uplifting ‘Jai Ho’ from the film Slumdog Millionaire

Somehow, however, Shaan seemed a bit over-awed by the occasion and provided several unintended comedy moments: thinking he was at Wembley Arena, forgetting the words to a song and several times forgetting which song was up next. And while the foot-stomping, hand-clapping songs carried the show through to a glorious climax, Honey’s Dance Academy provided the glamour, glittery flowing costumes and out of synch dance routines that at times looked like caricatures of the real thing.

Walking out of the auditorium and walking down the Exhibition Road I felt cross and disappointed. The brochure writes about the Proms presenting ‘the best classical music to wide audiences in informal settings’. But although the evening’s music was great fun, there was little about it that was classical. Prom 42 brought in the crowds but did little to present the glorious classical traditions of Bollywood cinema and sat rather uncomfortably alongside the great classical music being presented in the rest of the Proms season. 

I felt disappointed for the audiences who might have taken a gamble to listen to music that is not traditionally part of the Proms season. They would have gone away with an impression that Bollywood film music is nothing but pop music. It is that but it is also so much more. 



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