Exotic Sounds at London’s 2012 Darbar Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Darbar Festival 2012Various artists, Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London, 28.9.2012 & 29.9.2012 (CC)

28 September – Double Bill: Rare Ragas and dhrupad
Manjiri Asnare-Kelkar (khyal vocal); Vishwanath Shirodkar (tabla); Tanmay Deochake (harmonium); Murad Ali (sarangi)
Pushpraj Koshti (surbahar); Shrikanth Mishra (pakhawaj)

“Darbar” is the largest festival of Indian Classical music outside India. The year 2012 brings its seventh incarnation. It is special not just because of the musical quality, but because it mixes – or unites, probably more accurately – Hindustani and Carnatic music. Or, put more simply, music of North and South India respectively.

I only attended two concerts, but that in itself added up to around eight hours, not all of which was music – Indian concerts tend to start late and intervals can be extended. The first was a double bill of rare ragas and dhrupad (a Hindustani vocal style). The ragas came courtesy of Manjiri Asnare-Kelkar, a singer possessed of simply astonishing breath control. Asnare-Kelkar (b. 1972) already has a number of commercial recordings under her belt. Her voice is massively expressive, and has that edge which is characteristic of the region. The amplification levels meant this could become somewhat uncomfortable, but partially that was because your reviewer was placed right in front of one of the huge speakers. Yet the sound was magical, a heady mix of voice, sarangi (a bowed North Indian string instrument), harmonium and tabla (Indian drums). That there were four indisputable experts on stage was beyond doubt.

The vocal lines are certainly florid, but not embellished in the Western sense. Another logic is at work here. Throughout, a feeling of shared, intimate music-making was at the core of the experience – the Occidental equivalent is chamber music, of course. Vocally, Asnare-Kelkar was impeccable, but one also has to acknowledge, in particular, the solos of the eternally-smiling tabla player Vishwanath Shirodkar. Gestures act as gentle markers in an on-going musical continuum. My choice of the word “continuum” is careful: endings are rarely definite in this music, in the sense that there is the feeling that the music could, actually, continue on forever.

The final item we heard juxtaposed a fast beat with slower-moving, lamenting vocal lines and included a superb harmonium/tabla duet. It was wonderful.

Although, allegedly, Dhrupad is not particularly popular in Indian concerts, the decision to highlight it here was more than vindicated by the excellence of  Pushpraj Koshti’s outstanding playing of the surbahar (a kind of bass sitar) and Shrikanth Mishra’s drum (pakhawaj) playing. The sound of the surbahar is absolutely beautiful (try this YouTube clip) and the second half of this concert was simply mesmeric. The mesmeric beat of the drum against what is in essence a super-sitar, was miraculous Unlike much Indian music, that begins slowly and speeds up, this music showed little signs of accelerating. Instead, one was lost in a nirvana created by the fact that Pushpraj Koshti seemed to conjure up an entire orchestral palette from his instrument. When crescendi did become part of the equation, the effect was nothing short of monumental.
29 September, 2012 – Double Bill: Saraswati veena to Hindustani groove
Chitraveena Ravikiran (veena); Jyotana Shrikanth (violin); Shrimushnam Raja Rao (mridangam); Neyveli B. Venkatesh (kanjira)
Shruti Sadolikar-Katkar (khayal vocal); Vishwanath Shirodkar (tabla); Tanmay Deochake (harmonium); Murad Ali (sarangi)

Chitraveena Ravikiran must surely be one of the world’s virtuosi on the veena, a stringed instrument. Here we found Carnatic music, which was contrasted in the second part of the concert with Hindustani. Ancient Indian texts used the term ‘veena’ to refer to almost any stringed instrument; what it evolved into over time is a fretless stringed instrument which one can liken  to a huge Hawaiian guitar – and which shares with that instrument the ability to slide exotically between notes. There is a gourd on the left hand side, and the instrument comprises some twenty or more strings. The instrument is remarkably vocal in nature, something which effectively hypnotised the capacity audience.

The level of Ravikiran’s virtuosity soon became obvious. Stamina and speed met in a succession of memorable pieces. Jyotana Shrikanth’s violin improvisations sat perfectly in context, providing a timbral contrast – the sound is rather edgy to my Western ears. When the tempo slowed, to a tala of 18 units per cycle, for a piece that meditated in sound on Lord Krishna, the effect was heart-stopping. The extended violin solo over a very barren foundation was incredible; the set ended with a festive piece that nevertheless incorporated a masterful use of silence.

Finally, a couple of familiar faces returned to the stage, namely Tanmay Deochake on harmonium and Vishwanath Shirodkar on table who were joined by Murad Ali on sarangi and the legendary Hindustani khayal vocalist Shruti Sadolikar-Katkar. The pieces we heard here were more extended. Sadolikar-Katkar’s voice is strong and expressive, delivering long, florid lines not only with assurance but with practised authority. The long melismas filled the entire range of her voice; her lower register is solid and effective. A feeling of lament shot through the entire experience.

I left, not thinking about how much music I had heard, but thinking about how much music I had missed in the concerts I was not able to get to. The highlight of what I heard? The Surbahar. And as to what I missed, well maybe next time …


Colin Clarke