Pelva Naik’s afternoon recital was a reminder of how important the Darbar Festival is now. Its track record for bringing over new acts or acts new to the UK is exemplary. Accompanied by Pratap Awad on pakhawaj and Gunwant Kaur and Priya Parkash on tanpuras, this singer made her UK debut opening with a Kafi family, afternoon rāg called Brindavani Sarang in the pretty much standard for dhrupad (literally ‘fixed poetry’), twelve-beat tāl or rhythm cycle, chautāl.
A gloriously slow-flowing piece and performance, its main line ‘Dhana Dhana Brindawana…’ references a pilgrimage site in modern-day Uttar Pradesh. “Brindavan [or Vrindavan] is a place in north India near Mathura,” she explained afterwards. “Govardhana and Gokul [of the lyrics] are very strongly associated with this whole phenomenon of Lord Krishna. He was supposed to have been there, situated there. It’s a simple description of how grateful Mathura is, how grateful Govardhana is, how grateful Gokul is, having the Lord’s blessings on these places. It’s more than poetry: it’s like a vision. It’s a visual of how fortunate these places are. It’s a celebration of time, space, culture, reality. It’s very abstract. It creates a picture.” Even without that after-knowledge, even with only picking out odd expressions in Braj Bhasa such as Yamuna (the River) and the peepal (the sacred fig or bodhi tree), hers was a most affecting performance. Over the course of the hour she sang it, it felt lean; yes, with vocal consolidations but without any trace of padding.
The second piece in Suha, part of the Megh or Cloud family of ‘watery ragas’, was, she announced, a composition by Mian Tansen. A musician of the court of Jalal ud-din Akbar, his life story is piled with accretions of the semi-legendary and fantastical kind. ‘Shubha Mahurata’ – supposedly composed and sung for Akbar – lasted about ten minutes. Muhurat means an auspicious time. True to dhrupad’s precepts, Tansen was glorifying the Mughal Emperor and reminding that dhrupad was not an exclusively Hindu preserve. Her conclusion was a dhrupad-related, romantic dhamar composition in Bhoop, set in fourteen beats. With it, Pelva Naik demonstrated her command of the dhrupad canon in the round. She is a singer I wish to see again.
Agreed, 2015 saw the senior maestro Shivkumar Sharma making a return visit to Darbar, but Darbar is generally lax about bringing back acts. A television screen may provide retrievable art but Sky Arts coverage of Darbar is no substitute for the immediacy and intimacy of one of its concerts. Proximity to the whites of the eyes or figurative white knuckles is what improvised music such as this is all about. The live experience takes music to an altogether different plane. Chances within the next ten years to see how Pelva Naik – and Pratap Awad (who also accompanied Bahauddin Dagar so ably and, as with Pelva Naik, with such restraint) – develop would be most welcome.