Asian Music and Dance

Raga Mela – An Indian Feast with Western spirit

Raga Mela: the BBC Concert Orchestra playing new compositions, Bollywood songs, a fusion group and several hundred excited schoolchildren. 

Audience: parents keen to see their off-spring at the Royal Festival Hall; fans of the playback singer, Kavita Krishnamurthy Subhramaniam, and curious onlookers eager to see an experiment in bringing two different traditions together.

Presented by Nikki Bedi, the evening, devised by Kuljit Bhamra, the Artistic Director of Sound and Music, was a bit of a curate’s egg as far as pushing back the boundaries of music was concerned. On stage, Kuljit Bhamra explained that part of the thinking behind Raga Mela was to bring more South Asian audiences to auditoriums like the Royal Festival Hall to hear orchestral music and to make the experience less alien. Well, it succeeded in that respect.

Less satisfactory was seeing how musicians and composers presented the different classical traditions. There was a variety of stage sets: a triad of musicians playing traditional Indian instruments in a familiar setting; a fusion group bringing together music, instruments and styles from different genres and four compositions by composers who attempted to amalgamate elements of Indian raga music within a western orchestra. At least that was the plan.

The compositions varied from the contemporary classical without any obvious Indian to the contemporary classical with what seemed like a hint of Indian flavour. They would have appealed to different sectors of the audience. 

For me, coming from a background that includes both the western and Indian classical traditions, I found myself struggling to identify the raga in two of the compositions. 

‘Rasafeh from air’ by Charlie Usher had a lot of orchestral textures. I could hardly recognise the raga in the contemporary western context. Matthew Sergeant’s ‘Turrell’ was a composition based on raga Puriya Dhaneshree. Again from a very contemporary point of view, it was appealing. But where was the raga? 

Graham Ross, composed ‘The Saffron hour’. I enjoyed the composition. It depicted the majestic nature of raga Darbari. It ended with the tranquillity of the bowed vibes. 

Finally, ‘Malkans’ by Richard Glover, investigating the use of psychoacoustics and perceptual techniques within micropolyphonic composition, was the next piece performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra. This soothing piece was well received. The raga was prominent and the composition had a lot of sustained notes with a held 4th and string harmonic on 7th degree of the scale. 

Moving away from the classical setting of the orchestra, composer Fraser Trainer presented a version of raga Bhairav with a variety of western and Indian music with his ‘Fusion Group’. The group was a mixture of young and professional musicians. Personally I liked the way the composition developed. As this was a mix of amateurs and professionals, playing various instruments, it had this amazing balance of innocence and mature voicing. I felt the musical colour of the composition came through very well. It was uplifting, rhythmic and melodic.

On the more traditional scale, Kuljit Bhamra presented a composition called ‘Raga Mela’ using violin, vocals, tabla and sitar in a set-up that would be familiar to enthusiasts of Indian classical music, accompanied by BBC Concert Orchestra. Based on various pentatonic ragas, the piece was more convincing and all the ragas were well chosen and interweaved.

But for many in the audience, the children were the stars in making this an enjoyable family event and one that would, hopefully, encourage people to come again to the Royal Festival Hall. 

Parents took great delight, pride and a little amusement, hearing their little darlings provide the backing chorus lines to the memorable Bollywood track Ichak Dana from the film, Shree 420 and Eena Meena Deeka from the film Aasha. Both songs were led by the versatile, soulful voice of Kavita Krishnamurthy Subhramaniam. Backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra Kavita sang a variety of classics from Khamoshi, 1942: A Love Story and Devdas either side of the break.

One left the auditorium feeling a bit “ah well” and thinking that while the attempt to use ragas in western classical musical context is interesting and worthwhile, maybe a little bit more work needs to be done by all concerned. Definitely a work in progress! 



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