Asian Music and Dance

Reflections from Alchemy Festival 2012

Alchemy Festival 2012 has been and gone but where has it taken us? What were the highlights and how did they fare on the wider cultural scale of things? Jahnavi Harrison shares her musings on the Alchemy experience. 

Rain is thundering down on the Waterloo Bridge. There’s not much sign of anything special happening on the other side of the river – only one brightly-painted rickshaw (with now soggy seats) hints at what is unfolding inside the Southbank Centre.

Today is the last of Alchemy – the annual, two-week festival of South Asian dance and music that was born three years ago. In the Clore Ballroom, a space that has hosted most of the free events, a large audience is applauding a series of London-based Indian dance troupes. Competing for attention is a trapeze performer on the left side of the foyer, and the rattle of dholak and ankle bells from the Rajasthani street performers on the right, who are raising smiles with their hip-shaking, shimmying marionettes.

“…this is a festival that allows South Asian art to be four-dimensional…”

The UK boasts more quality Asian arts events and festivals than any other country in the world. From Dartington’s Tagore festival to Darbar, arts organisations and venues never seem to tire of exploring Britain’s unique, long-standing links with the Indian subcontinent. Arguably, to choose ‘Asian arts’ as the artistic thrust of a festival is a rather worn idea these days. But Alchemy-goers have nothing to fear. Far from a thin demonstration of ‘traditional culture’, this is a festival that allows South Asian art to be four-dimensional – presenting a living, breathing cross-section of what the cream of South Asian-influenced artists from around the world are creating.

Many festivals choose to focus on just one or two aspects of South Asian art, but Alchemy is a broad, ambitious attempt to cover all bases. Even on just a purely practical bums-on-seats level, it is smart. Almost every event I attended was packed, including those free of charge. Over two weeks, everything from Sufi poetry to yoga and contemporary Indian theatre was presented to an audience just as diverse. Care was taken to programme events that appealed to both London’s existing Asian arts fans as well as those completely unfamiliar, yet nonetheless discerning.

Catalysing Collaboration

More than just showcasing artists, the programmers commissioned and pushed for some special Alchemy firsts. Some were unusual pairings between familiar artists, like the Raghu Dixit Project with Gauri Sharma Tripathi and Bellowhead. The novelty of the mix was perhaps less surprising given that the latter two are Southbank Artists in Residence. This show may have been the most hotly-debated of all.

“On one side of me, a couple were riveted and exclaimed at how amazing it was…others reasoned that…presenting experimental, surprising work is exactly what a festival of this kind is for.”

In the first half, the artists presented a retelling of an Indian folk tale. The format felt charmingly old-fashioned – just three dancers, a basic stage design and a great cast of musicians. But with just three days to prepare, it was clearly a work in progress. On one side of me, a couple were riveted and exclaimed at how amazing it was during the interval. Another lady I spoke to said that it was plain cheeky to put something thrown together at the last minute as the prime showpiece for an audience of 800-odd paying public. Others reasoned that rather than well-rehearsed pieces guaranteed to make a positive impression, presenting experimental, surprising work is exactly what a festival of this kind is for. The piece definitely has potential, and choreographer Tripathi reported that the artists will continue to work on eventually presenting a full-length musical.

A similar concern was raised by Pulse reviewer, Archita Kumar, who felt of the Purbayan Chatterjee/Shankar Mahadevan offering, that “although there was a very high level of musicianship from all the artists on stage, one could sense a lack of preparation. This resulted in heavy reliance on improvisation to carry the pieces through.” Others felt that the art of improvisation particularly characterises South Asian music and was therefore to be expected, especially from such accomplished musicians.

“Hearing a sarangi riffing on ‘Girl from Ipanema’ to a lazy dholak swing is certainly not an everyday experience…”

Opinions were less divided over the collaboration between the Sachal Jazz Ensemble and twenty UK-based jazz and classical guest musicians. It was a touching sight to see them all assemble on stage – most of the Sachal musicians are in their later years and shuffled on stage with a refreshing air of humility and unselfconsciousness. They had the crowd toe-tapping and hooting with their unique repertoire of old jazz standards by greats like Henry Mancini and Antonio Carlos Jobim, as well as their own compositions. Sometimes the cultural collision between the two influences was so unexpected that it was almost comedic, but their creativity was charming. Hearing a sarangi riffing on ‘Girl from Ipanema’ to a lazy dholak swing is certainly not an everyday experience, and Alchemy organisers can take due credit for bringing these YouTube sensations to the UK for the first time.

Unlocking Creativity

Festival organisers also endeavoured to open the treasure of South Asian arts to new audiences. The programme boasted a considerable range of free events, covering lesser-known arts like Arabic calligraphy, or the Pakistani music and dance recital curated by Sonia Sabri Company, as well as evergreen favourites like yoga and Bollywood dance. Some unusual workshops cropped up in the ‘Art Of’ series – a trilogy that explored the Art of Seeing and Listening for concert-goers, and a two-day seminar ‘The Art of Writing’ for budding arts reviewers. Each boasted accomplished presenters, like multidisciplinary artist Ansuman Biswas whose presentation on listening took his audience on a layered sensory journey that led to an almost spiritual climax.

“Ansuman Biswas…took his audience on a layered sensory journey that led to an almost spiritual climax.”

The public was also invited to join a Bollywood film project – shot over one week onsite. The script was written by Nikesh Shukla, with choreography by actress Shobna Gulati. Though surely a great idea in the boardroom, the end result didn’t have quite the punch that it could’ve – though it was tongue-in-cheek, formulaic doesn’t equal funny and many audience members felt that though time was short, its production values were unnecessarily poor. Still, this could definitely be a hit next year with more preparation and perhaps a fresher approach.

Young people were given special attention in the YUVA showcase on the last day of the festival. Though a very large audience had gathered, the standard of dance was so high that it seemed a shame the young artists weren’t invited to perform as curtain raisers for some of the bigger dance events. India Dance Wales students danced the story of Welsh gold miners through traditional bharatanatyam, demonstrating engagement with British history and culture without compromising classical form, and the pin-drop silence in the face of the composed grace of the Odissi Ensemble showed that there is an eager UK audience for the rarer classical forms too.

Creating Atmosphere

A festival is as much about ambience as its performance offerings and though the weather this year prevented much outdoor transformation, the foyer space had some great additions. Bollywood-style posters were being painted, featuring London landscapes and chaste clinches. Innovative music project Charity Shop DJ was resident, playing vintage Bollywood records from Mumbai markets throughout the festival. DJ Jules said that people had stopped by to riffle through the records on offer, often sitting down to reminisce over where their lives had been the last time they’d listened to them.

Another major presence in the space was the residency by arts and culture organisation, ‘Jiyo!’. Traditional crafts-to-die-for were displayed in a dedicated area, and really showcased some of the more rarely-seen arts outside of India – like Andhra Pradesh leather puppets, Bihari Madhubani paintings and exquisite textiles. The stand-out feature was having the artists themselves present to demonstrate technique and help to sell their work with a smile (though disappointingly, bartering didn’t seem to be invited).

One of the most unusual uses of the space was ‘Looking For Kool’, a one-woman theatre experience by Sri Lankan-born actress and writer, Rani Moorthy. The piece took audiences down into the labyrinthine basement passages to meet ‘Mrs U’, a survivor of war who recounted her experiences in a poignant, heartbreakingly funny monologue. Many who saw the piece rated it the highlight of the whole festival, and some from British-Sri Lankan backgrounds were particularly moved.

As always, a roster of engaging lectures and presentations supplemented the evening performances, as well as film and displays of arts and crafts. One of the most promising aspects of the festival is that it creates a platform for British Asian artists, not just to interact with those from further afield, but to have a chance to showcase their unique art within a context where the preconceived notion of what being Asian means disappears.

With one of the biggest arts centres in London behind it, plus a who’s who of the Asian arts scene on the advisory board, the Alchemy Festival will hopefully live up to its name – becoming a dynamic, creatively-charged lab with golden results.



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