Asian Music and Dance

Sunil Kant Gupta (bansuri) and Jyotsna Srikanth (violin)

This double bill of Hindustani and carnatic music kicked off with the UK debut of Sunil Kant Gupta, who has trained under many esteemed gurus, including Pt. Subhash Roy and Ragunath Sheth. He began by introducing the audience to his personally modified instrument – a traditional bansuri with an attached device at one end that allows the player to reach one additional lower note. While this may sound relatively insignificant, Gupta calmly announced that it provided a much greater scope for flexibility when playing certain ragas. Without much further explanation, he proceeded to demonstrate by quickly sketching out a variety of ragas. Nods and quiet tuts from the audience signalled their immediate appreciation for his subtle, masterful style. 

Gupta spent the majority of the next hour playing a detailed exposition of Raag Yaman. Beginning with a nuanced alap, he carefully crafted an aural experience that gained power and momentum gradually, never failing to delight. His skilful gamaks evoked some beautiful imagery: falling leaves, a flutter of wings, lines of light drawn in each direction and the sudden onset of rain. At the start of the concert, storyteller and compere Vayu Naidu told a brief folk tale about the magic of the bamboo flute, able to speak the essence of sacred, special words through its music. Accompanied by the tabla of Sukhwinder Singh (who stepped in at a moment’s notice after Satyajit Tawalkar was detained in India), Gupta’s flute brought the beautiful story to life.  Unfortunately, though Singh’s tabla had moments of breathtaking brilliance, it often seemed unnecessarily loud and showy – overshadowing Gupta’s dignified playing. After completing the bandish and fast-paced jhalla sections, Gupta closed with a few short folk Bengali dhuns, demonstrating a deep sensitivity that resonated long after the concert’s close. Some senior musicians in the audience later remarked that it was refreshing to hear a flautist who didn’t emerge from the Hariprasad Chaurasia school – a style of playing that has received a great deal of attention and coverage.

Jyotsna Srikanth’s recital also came as a surprise to the audience, who were expecting to hear the vocals of Ranjani and Gayatri. Ranjani was present but unfortunately Gayatri also had visa difficulties, so the late-night listeners were instead treated to the fluid and dextrous sound of Srikanth’s violin. She presented a full traditional carnatic recital, flanked by two mridangams (a fact which prompted the emcee to pronouce Srikanth a lioness!). She began with a jaunty, crisp krithi – Manavyala in Nalinakanthi – that filled the dark space with energy and vibrancy. In Saraswathi Namostute in Ragam Saraswathi the more ornamentally dense style of carnatic music was evident.  Especially when contrasted against the earlier bansuri of Gupta, I sometimes wished that Srikanth’s alaps had the same slow building, meditative quality. Undoubtedly her effortlessly fluid torrents of notes were breathtaking, but could become a little overwhelming at times.

At one point, Srikanth sweetly asked the audience if they’d like ‘a fast piece or a slow one’ – to which most called for fast, and so the pace continued. Raghuvamsa Sudha in the complex Ragam Kadhankuthuhala was a joy to watch as well as listen to. The two mridangists took turns to accompany the dizzying variety of sangathis, playfully throwing the rhythms back and forth and anticipating her nuanced phrases perfectly. Occasionally one of them would improvise something striking, and they’d both chuckle, provoking laughter from Srikanth without interrupting the flurried movement of her fingers. 

The nicest element of the performance was the knowledge of its spontaneity. Srikanth had no concert prepared, and one of the mridangists had arrived just a couple of hours before the start. Over and above their technical mastery, one was left with that wonderful sense that audience or no, they’d still be joyfully playing on.



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