Asian Music and Dance

Sandeep Virdee – Heavyweight Champion of Classical Music 

The Darbar Festival celebrates its sixth year with a landmark series of concerts at London’s Southbank Centre. Festival Director Sandeep Virdee makes a convincing case to Jahnavi Harrison on why this genre of music deserves a place within the classical music programme of a national concert hall.


andeep Virdee is a man on a mission. He is a ubiquitous presence in London’s South Asian arts scene usually to be spotted by a trademark black turban, moving purposefully through the crowd. We meet at London Bridge, not far from where the seventh annual Darbar Festival will be holding a much sought-after place at the Southbank Centre. It’s a coup for Indian classical music and a triumph for Sandeep, its unruffled champion. But after founding and hosting the acclaimed Darbar Festival for six years, he wants the world’s attention – or at least the Sunday papers, for now.

“For the first time, we’ve involved a PR company for Darbar and I was having a grumble saying that this Festival has been going for so long – why don’t we ever get a mention in the Sunday papers? She [Darbar’s PR representative] said, ‘What do you expect? They don’t know anything about the art form – if they don’t know, they can’t report on it.’” So why, after so much praise from within the South Asian arts world, has Darbar pretty much missed the radar of the mainstream media? “It’s about education,” says Sandeep. “We don’t educate people enough on the genre.” Despite this, the Festival has truly gone from strength to strength since its inception. From its humble beginnings in Leicester in 2006, it will, this year, form part of the Southbank Centre’s classical music programming. This marks perhaps one of the most tremendous shifts for Indian classical music ever seen in England. 

“…pigeonholed as world music…”

“I’ve been going to the Southbank Centre for twenty-five years and I used to think ‘Where’s all our stuff?’ Credit goes to Jude Kelly for making such a strong decision, because now they’ll be inundated with all the other classical genres who say that they want to go in there.” It is marked also that the Southbank Centre has agreed to differentiate between Darbar and its glitzy cousin – the Alchemy Festival. While Sandeep was also involved in creating Alchemy, he was always keen for there to be a clear divide between the two events – something like making sure the classical Proms and the Royal Variety Show aren’t happening on the same night. “I really do believe Indian classical music is one of the best art forms in the world. Period. It has always been pigeonholed as world music, and I bitterly oppose that. For me, it is a classical genre and needs to be recognised at the top with any other classical genre.”

“… Sky Arts and BBC Radio 3 has raised its credentials.”

Smart choices have been made by the Darbar team. Early involvement with Sky Arts and BBC Radio 3 has raised its credentials and breadth of exposure. Sandeep admits that Darbar’s average age audience base is much younger than any of the other South Asian arts organisations. “It could be because of marketing – clean, Western-style. Production quality – it comes down to what colour microphone cables you use, where they run to, lighting, everything. In this day and age, presentation is critical. Our marketing strategy is not targeted at a South Asian audience at all – we are really out for the multicultural population of Britain.”

So why has it taken so long for Indian classical music to be recognised as the incredibly rich art form that it is? With Indian food, yoga and Bollywood becoming more and more integrated into mainstream British culture, there still seems to be a disconnect when it comes to classical arts. Like others, Sandeep brings up Ravi Shankar. “Through his involvement with George Harrison people got blitzed by it, but unfortunately if you go to a Western newspaper these days they are only interested in Ravi-ji and nothing else – and that’s unfortunate. We have failed to actually get out there and tell people more about our classical tradition. If you were to cut out a map of India you could literally pick it up and put it over Europe. After partition, it really should’ve been turned into the United States of India – then we could really comprehend its diversity, scale and size.” More than just the usual scapegoats, Sandeep admits that “we haven’t been very good advocates”.

When I ask which Indian musicians have had an influence in the broader music world in the last decade, he has to think for a minute. “Classically, no-one. Perhaps Anoushka Shankar, but if you discard the natural backing she gets it would be a different story. Contemporary – a few. I don’t want to sound negative, but Indian classical music is at a really difficult point. You have about a dozen maestros from the North and South who have been known for about the last forty years. They have made a tremendous contribution but the next generation hasn’t been allowed to come up in their own right, so there haven’t been any ambassadors of Indian classical music for the next generation. I think the younger artists have developed Indian classical music further but not got the same recognition for it, and that is a huge challenge for us. How do you get the halls filled up with those people who are not known as names?” Of UK talent he says the difficulty is that there are “only a handful of them at the same level”. Hari Sivanesan, Roopa Panesar and Soumik Datta have all performed in recent years. “We have to do it in a certain way though – we used to get them to open the Festival but it was too much pressure and artists buckled under the nerves.”

“…I should focus on quality, irrespective of lack of reputation.”

It’s something that Darbar is trying to change – inviting unknown artists and holding a strict no-repeat policy that allows fresh talent to be sourced each year. “I start every year with a blank sheet – you think every year that it will get easier, but it doesn’t!” This year six musicians will come to the UK for the first time, and for a festival organiser it’s a big risk. “Promoters are only interested in how many seats will sell. One year we brought a guy called Venkatesh Kumar, and I had only heard him on YouTube – I was very nervous, but two minutes into his concert the first few rows were absolutely floored by his abilities. I decided that, as a curator, I should focus on quality, irrespective of their lack of reputation.” It is fitting that Sandeep credits his father as the source of this aspiration, as the Festival was started in his honour. “As a child he would say to me: ‘You think you know just these musicians. In India there are literally hundreds who are never going to be given the space and time.’ He was incredibly open.”

Sandeep hopes to capture new audiences this year through increasing opportunities to make first contact with Indian classical music. “It’s not enough to say that there’s a great concert happening. We’re trying to get it out of the concert hall and into people’s homes. The programmes made for Sky are literally the same scale and amount of work as the Festival project itself. We hope it carries on and we’re able to do more educational work.” Perfect timing, then, for the launch of the new website later this year, which aims to be an educational resource for both newbies and seasoned listeners. Documentaries and workshops are also on the cards. “Beyond just being moved by something, I want people to understand the framework, how it’s constructed. I’ve gone into HMV’s Western classical section and thought right, let me try to understand something about this, and you just see aisles and aisles and think ‘Oh my God! Where do I start?!’ I know others feel daunted by Indian classical music in the same way.”

It seems that with such a multifaceted approach, and with Darbar-affiliated concerts taking place elsewhere in the country throughout the year, it could become an arts organisation to rival big players Milapfest or Akademi. However grand his master plan is though, Sandeep is sure that being primarily a yearly festival is vital right now. “We get a larger marketing exposure because it’s a one-hit wonder, and secondly it allows us to take a huge risk with artists.”

With its attention to detail and stellar artists, Darbar is a festival not to be missed. Concerts are scheduled from as early as 9.30am over three days. “People thought I was absolutely nuts to request concerts in the morning. When it happened, they were absolutely gobsmacked that people were running from their trains at 9.30 on a Sunday morning to get there!” The performers are also requested to play appropriate ragas for the time of day, as well as to stay for each other’s concerts – for ‘peer pressure’, Sandeep adds. The Festival also boasts the more rarely-heard dhrupad, Sandeep’s personal favourite. “I think it is the only form of music that has endless combinations – the most versatile interesting musicians are the Dhrupadiyas and we always make sure to have at least two.”

Whatever the measure of success, this Festival is definitely making headway with virgin audiences. “Last year an Englishman came to hear Harjinderpal on santoor – afterwards he said it was one of the most moving concerts he’d ever been to. Two guys also just came along for a Thursday concert – they found they couldn’t leave and stayed the whole weekend!”

And what about lassoing-in the press? The man with a mission is on the case. “This year we are sending a number of mainstream journalists back to India to immerse themselves in the genre right before coming back to report on the Festival!” Watch this space.



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