Asian Music and Dance

Jeevan (Life)

In this intimate concert promoted by Milapfest, Dharambir Singh presented his own work– Jeevan, an exploration of the cycle of life through raga. A disciple of Ustad Vilayat Khan among others, Dharambir has been teaching and performing in the UK for three decades and is one of the most respected in his field. He was joined for this concert by one of his most senior students, Roopa Panesar, and later by his son, Kaviraj Singh.

Saving the title piece for later in the evening, the artists began with a ragamala of different types of Malhar – a family of ragas traditionally associated with the rainy season. To help the audience differentiate between the subtle variations between each raga and the gradual rhythmic progression, a background projection identified the changes as the music flowed on seamlessly. This was very helpful, and demonstrated an admirable commitment from Dharambirji to making the music ‘equal opportunity’ – accessible to everyone. 

The Malhar mala was simply a joy, both to watch and hear. The alap began with Miya ki Malhar, with both Singh and Panesar playing side by side. They took turns to delineate the raga, each subtle and delicately nuanced, but with distinctly different voices. It was lovely to see teacher and student together – their mutual respect and love for the music and each other was palpable. As they moved to a slow gat, the play between the two sitars was enchanting. Like lovers journeying to meet at an agreed place and time, each traversed a different path, exchanging melodic patterns and ideas, gradually building to the occasional magical moment of perfect synchronisation. True to the character of the raga, their playing also recalled rainfall, as it changes character and dynamics over a cycle of time.

Moving through the exuberant Surdasi Malhar, to Jayant Malhar – dazzling but solemn and resolute, to an ati drut gat in Meera Bhai ki Malhar, the changes were clear and relishable thanks to the projection. The experience was also enhanced by the discreetly changing colours of the under-lit stage, and the dynamic tabla of Sukhwinder Singh. The collaboration between the three performers as the speed moved to the breathtakingly fast jhalla was fantastic – each contributing something unique and equally wonderful.

After an interval Kaviraj Singh joined the group, and Jeevan began. No introduction or explanation was given, but again the projection announced the different ragas, and this time also named the different stages of life along with adjectives that described a selection of attributes of each, e.g. ‘Birth: pain, joy, sombre, celebration’. Some might say that attaching so many prescribed elements to the raga hampered individual interpretation. This was sometimes true of the long lists of adjectives that often felt superfluous, but overall I found it a creative and stimulating way of approaching a concert, allowing access to the concept of raga for the untrained ear, as well as a fresh take on the traditional for the more experienced.

While every musician shone in their own right, an outstanding addition in the second half was Kaviraj Singh’s soothing santoor and effortless vocals. He set the tone for each new raga/stage of life with a few lines of a related song, upon which the others built the continuing exploration. The beauty of the overall experience evoked audible sighs and gasps from the audience, and reaching the incandescent finale, Liberation in Khamaj, the atmosphere was charged. As if sitting within the eye of the melodic storm, each musician possessed a humble and unassuming stage presence that gave the music a rare transcendence – unbound to a performer’s ego.

 I left the venue to find the rain thundering down, and it felt as if the music had escaped the auditorium and continued into the night – the Malhar downpour completing a life cycle, as it fell to the earth.



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