Kites soar high on Uttarayan

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As a 3 or 4 yr old, I had this hunch one day that an orange colored kite that got snapped in  battle with another landed on the open terrace of the house in which I was born. On going up the flight of stairs, indeed an orange kite was lying at the door way to the open terrace. And that was the earliest kite-link I could recall and the fascination continues to this day. It is the maneuverable paper/fighter kites that interest me and not the ‘dumb’ polythene ones.

Hours of my school day evenings and weekends were spent on terrace-top, watching  kite-battles, flying, and even got hold of the ones that swung my way. A polythene one will always be packed for beach outings, no matter where in the world. Procuring large and colorful Pakistani and Afghani battle-lost-kites from elsewhere, I would be the lone kite-flier in the great-lawn of Central park, New York on the weekends. Maneuvering the kite close down to the weekenders lying on the lawn would make their faces lit up in glee.

Fly a kite Fly a kite

Such a pretty sight

Sheer pull of string injects life into

As it soars up touches heaven and

On nose-dive back to earth

Right left and somersault

What control have I but on let go the string

Free at last and out of sight !

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But nothing quite prepared me for what’s below –

Kites literally fill the skies of Gujarat during Makara Sankranti, also called Uttarayan festival. Uttarayan, the ascent of Sun into northern hemisphere, entering the tropics thus heralding the beginning of warmer months is celebrated here in a unique manner and kites take prime time and are ubiquitous. The timing for this sport could not be any better as the skies are spotless blue and the breeze is right enough to lift the kites aloft. The whole state shuts down its regular shop and hits the rooftop

On alighting the flight in Ahmedabad, I am blown away by the colorful adornment of entire Sardar Vallahbhai Patel terminal with kites. As the taxi speeds toward the city, a bit of craning at the window reveals a sky dotted with varying hues. Kites are not just in the skies alone, but on the hands of almost everyone on the street, cutting across age, gender and faith. Trees flower nothing but kites during this time and the power-lines are embellished with trapped ones. Bill-boards and bulletin boards carry kite designs and even the idols at the temples are decorated with kite-like ornaments.

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Taking advantage of this fervor, Gujarat Tourism has been organizing International Kite festival since 1989, just for two days before Sankranti as Sankranti day and the day after are altogether a different ballgame in town. The participants constitute kite flying clubs and individual enthusiasts from world over. Some 140-150 fliers from 25 plus countries that range from USA to Japan and from different states in India unleash the strings. Revelers come in droves to Sabarmati river front to take in the sights of kites of all shapes, sizes and colors, deftly maneuvered by both Indian and International fliers. The kites are in animal, from teddy bears to dragons, floral and in various other intricately crafted designs, and some even carry social messages. An eagle-like kite is swiped at by a bunch of live eagles, causing a flutter among the crowd. Some kites are so humongous and require a team of ten or more to handle. The kite fliers need to be preregistered to get in the arena. A tourism event like this is of course packed with food-court, handicraft shops, Gujarat state pavilion, games for children and rock music shows. If the legs get tired at this day-long event, the beautifully laid promenade along the Sabarmati river is the place to relax the muscles. Ahmedabad has a kite museum too where kites from 24 countries are exhibited. Gujarat Tourism does an excellent job of organizing this event with the same precision and care as they do for festivals like Navrathri, Rann Utsav and so on, not surprising for it functions in one of the most progressive states in the country.

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Unlike the well-behaved polythene kites at the river front on the first 2 days, the skies of Sankranti and the day after are ruled by mean-paper-fighter kites that are out to cut anything and everything near with the aid of ground-glass-coated manja (abrasive) string. This breathtaking spectacle has to be experienced from the pol. A pol is a self-contained neighborhood with cluster of adjoining houses that have open terrace, swathed in gated narrow lanes in the old quarters. There are roughly 600 such pols still left in the city of Ahmedabad, spared by the developers. The pol certainly has an old world charm and the people who live there do reflect a warmth that may be missing in the skyscrapers. As I wander through the lanes, a Gujarati family invites me to their terrace top for a life-time experience, something I have not imagined even in my wildest dreams. As I reach the rooftop, climbing four levels of dark narrow stairways, I can not believe what I see – the sky is a canvas of thousands of kites and colors and every single terrace is filled with humanity to the hilt, thus setting the atmosphere electric. And the noise level, caused by excitement and stereo speakers set up add to the mayhem. As my host family feeds me the kites to fly, not a single one on my hand lasts more than 5 minutes as the crisscrossing manja of nearby kites cuts the string, allowing no room to step aside. There is a constant parade of snapped kites in the air, sway in flowing rhythm, while the ones traveled its distance shower all around us. Kite-fliers pay scant attention to these side attractions and are fully focused on the kites on hand. Besides, such freebies have no appeal as the families stock up 300 plus kites of various sizes and 10 plus manja-spools called phirkis for the 2 day festival. Kids running after cut-kites in other cities of India would have a field day here and end up having a handful. Triumphant cries constantly emanate from the terrace that emerge victorious in cutting other kites.

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The day on the terrace starts around 8 in the morning for the entire family, while friends and neighbors join in too for group flying, thus making the occasion a social gathering which otherwise is hard to come by in these busy days. “Its a total holiday for us and we spend the whole day at the terrace” says Mrs. Parmar, a resident at the pol. A sneaky lunch break at noon includes Gujarati delicacies like Jilehbi, fafda, till-ladhu, chikkis and the traditional mixed-veggie dish made only on this day called Undhiyu. While the kites battle it out up in the skies, a Chai (tea) break is taken in the late afternoon. And as the light start to fade, a dramatic transformation sweeps across the sky, as the kites’ place is now taken by thousands of Chinese lantern that sail gently in the direction of the wind. Such lit up sky leaves a sense of surrealism as we look up in awe. The traditional Tukkal or illuminated box kites, tied in series on a single line and gets launched in the sky has now given way to these relatively easier-to-handle Chinese lanterns. Fireworks too join in this galaxy of lights. When the line of lanterns starts to recede, it is time to crank up the music and shake the legs before calling it a day. The day after Sankranti follows similar schedule but with more gusto, more kites and more lanterns as it is the last chance to exhaust the stocks on hand, as most prefer not to carry forward old stocks into a new year. The city has a massive cleaning job on hand as manja thread and torn kites are scattered all over the place.

During Uttarayan, exclusive kite markets called Patang Bazar open up and the larger ones are at Delhi Darwaza and at Raipur. These 24-hour brightly-lit markets hit the peak the night before the big days as the crowd throng here in festive spirit and lap up the supplies in packets of huge numbers. The spending spree is simply mind-blowing. The markets carry kites and accessories, such as manja-spools and protective finger-bands that help prevent cuts on fingers when flying high-tension kites. As opposed to readily available manja-spools for common enthusiasts, serious fliers go for quality, custom-made manja on the side-walk that comes at a higher price and wait-time. “We are a family of seven and we start making the kites three months before the festival. Our kites price range from Rs.40 (about $1) for a packet of 20 pieces to Rs.600 for a packet of 5 pieces. The manja-spool range from Rs. 150 to 200 for 1000 yards” says a shop owner.

 
Kites have a long history in the region. Indian kings found the sport both entertaining and as well an expression of their prowess, but it probably took its time before reaching the masses. Today, kite manufacturing is a serious business worth around Rs. 500 crores ($100,000,000), as claimed by the then Chief Minister Modi himself during one of the inaugurations of the festival.

Whether you are a kite enthusiast or not, the festival is worth the stiff-neck and you will no doubt find yourself flying a kite in no time. A Gujarati family at the pol will only be too happy to share their festivities even if you not know them before.
Other details like next festival date, places to eat and stay and nearby sights can be found at http://www.Gujarattourism.com

The piece was carried in India’s national daily and in an Israeli magazine –

http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/come-fly-a-kite/article6730646.ece

http://www.esra-magazine.com/blog/post/kite-runners

note : still never miss when I sense something up in the sky…… do crane and look up !

 

Fes Festival of World Sacred Music 2015

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await the princess

‘India, Ah..Shahrukh Khan..Chennai Express’, a greeting that starts with an inquisitive frown but ends in gratifying smile, was what I repeatedly heard from the time I touched down on Moroccan soil. It made me realise that going from the land of Bollywood has an endearing factor in certain places. I was in Fes, also called Fez, for the 21st edition of the well-known World Sacred Music Festival, a festival that set the tone for many across the world under the same tag.

Founded in 1994, the festival has enjoyed growing success year after year. In 2001, the UN designated this as a major event for promoting cultural dialogue through music. It is only apt that it is held in a city that is in the distinguished list of UNESCO world Heritage Sites. For nine days every year, the sacred sounds from various cultures across the world, comprising hundreds of musicians from over 25 countries featured in about 50 concerts, would radiate from numerous venues in the city.

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architecture galore….

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Bab Al Makena opening

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the famous ‘blue-gate’

The drive from the airport dotted with trees was indicative I was in olive country. After the ritual of unpacking in the riad, a traditional home turned guesthouse, I headed out through the mind-boggling narrow, winding alleyways of old medina (city), that felt like a work of Aladdin’s genie. I was on time-travel, literally walking through 1300 years of Moroccan heritage that lined with shops selling anything from camel meat to ceramics, olives, handicrafts to carpets. Amid children playing in the lanes, throng of traditionally dressed people, donkeys and mules with their loads threaded down Tala Kebira, the main thoroughfare of Fes.

Gasping for air, I finally made it to Bab Al Makina, a large open-air square and part of the Royal Palace, the venue for the opening evening. The security was tight as Princess Lalla Salma was going to chair the festival opening. Once the capacity crowd gave their respects to HER MAJESTY, the spectacle unfolded on stage with the artists and on the ochre walls of the Makina with projected images using innovative multimedia technology. Scores of artists for the evening came from various African countries, in keeping with this year’s theme of paying tribute to Africa and celebrating the travels and works of couple of Moroccan icons of the past centuries, whose journeys shaped the historical relations between Fes, Andalusia and Africa. The audience in thousands were in rapture all through the evening as they were taken on a similar journey to the sites and landscapes that charmed these two explorers of the past, with the aid of music and dance melding in an exciting series of tableaux. Though it was a bit nippy evening, the grand inauguration not only provided the warmth but a clear indication of what was to follow in rest of the festival days.

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Batha Museum eveninngs

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While the top acts and the ones with local patronage were hosted at Bab Al Makina, afternoon concerts were at Batha Museum, a former palace, under the cascading foliage of a Barbary oak with a dense garden as the backdrop. The shows here included Kurdish to Scottish and Flamenco to Malian and more. India’s Debashish Battacharya playing with Ballake Sissoko, a Kora player from Mali, showcased the ragas flow from the banks of the Ganga to River Niger. The museum was also the venue for the forum that took place over five mornings, where the intellectuals dissected subjects such as Spiritual paths and trade routes, Linguistic pluralism and other contemporary challenges pertain to Africa.

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Dar Adiyel

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Sufi Nights

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Then there were couple more venues where ‘Night in the Medina’ shows held – Dar Adiyel, an 18th century residence for the Governor of Fes, and Sidi Mohamed Ben Youssef Cultural complex. These places were signposted in the medina for easier access, but there were no reverse signs to get out which made some get lost in the maze. ‘The more you lose your way in the medina, the more you discover’ is the popular comfort-saying there. But it shouldn’t deter anyone as help is always lurking in the form of young kids in the corners, who are constantly looking for ‘lost souls’ to bring them out for a small price.

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Bhagavata Mela

Mellatur Bhagavata Mela troupe gave the audience an introduction to this 500 year old dance theatre art form by performing for the first time outside India. While the informed ones and the Indophiles were in subliminal state, a lady from France walked up to me and said ‘I have seen better shows on my travels in India’. It is probably not fair to expect the electric atmosphere of the Melattur agraharam when the team is trimmed to a bare minimum for factors demanded in international tours. A packed Bab Makina saw an Arabo-Andalous melodic evening on the penultimate day but the much loved Hussain Al Jassmi of UAE brought on a high-octane finish to the festival with the young and old among more-than-capacity-crowd were on their feet all through the show.

Free fringe concerts happened at the magnificent public square called Boujloud square that attracted 50,000+ in an evening; Sufi Nights were held at Dar Tazi gardens. These shows were big draw for the locals who came in large numbers after their day chores were done with.

Weather can be variable in Fes and it is better to pack layers, something water-proof and a sun-hat. Getting to the venues is always on foot. Since there is no afternoon shows on festival Wednesday, it is the best time to take a day-trip of your choice out of Fes. It is better not to get to the festival expecting all ‘sacred’ as the artistic director Alain Webber said ‘well, I need to mix in a bit of commercial acts in order to make the festival viable’. For vegetarians, enough options on the menu and there is even a veg-riad. Being an Islamic country, dress code is in place though I saw western jeans and veil walked together.

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outdoor market

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medina alleyways

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As you walk through the medina, you plunge into the sights and sounds – traditional industries such as soap-making, flour-mills, tanneries, textile weaving, metal ware; bollywood songs meld seamlessly with Reggae and local Gnawa strains. Fes is famous for artfully painted ceramics, rugs and carpets hand-made by women in the Atlas mountain, spices, jewellery, leather goods, antiques, dry fruits and so on. Century old madrassas, mosques, Andalusian architecture, museums are all within the medina gates. And no one leaves Fes having not climbed the tanneries’ terraces despite the stench! Fes merits a visit on its own right for its historical and magical charm, but a combined trip during the festival would be a visual and aural treat.

Festival site – http://fesfestival.com
Info – http://www.fez-riads.com

FOR MORE PICTURES, Please visit my Dropbox below  –

https://www.dropbox.com/sc/vtz7p8b17eg3x3y/AABpQPE57c9cRSl5BleZk9SSa

A report on the festival by yours truly was carried by the national daily – Please click  the link below –

http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/matters-of-melody/article7387424.ece

“Arabian Days”

Into the Souk.....

Into the Souk…..

Long ago, much younger with lots of dreams, but with least desire to find myself in the land of the sands – an offer came knocking at the door to be in Kuwait. Let alone the oil-money, the experience of being in an Arab world for the first time on a couple of year project turned out to be an eye-opener. After a decade long gap, the urge for the scent of the sands found me in Bahrain for a short week stay. I was not going to pass up the chance though it was for a day in Qatar last month. 2015-05-20 20.04.15 2015-05-20 19.47.07 2015-05-20 19.44.33 2015-05-20 19.44.17 There’s something mystical about this geographic location on our planet that is fascinating – eerie silence, endless stretch of sand, Bedouin and their gingerly camels, timely prayer calls of the muezzin, men in their dishdasha  and  their women clad in black with dark-eyes peering through the veil, despite the sweltering heat though protective during sand-storms – again, another façade of creativity by nature ! 2015-05-20 19.37.28 2015-05-20 19.33.12 2015-05-20 19.30.52 2015-05-20 19.30.25 2015-05-20 19.29.52 Of course the ‘landscape’ of the entire middle-east has seen vast changes since my days in Kuwait as I set to explore my time in Doha, Qatar. 2015-05-20 19.29.17 2015-05-20 19.28.54 2015-05-20 19.27.37 2015-05-20 19.27.07 Not many options in terms of ‘sights’ and the possibility of exploring the tradition is limited too as the society is inclusive. But the Arabic rhythm combined with hand-clapping is the catchy aspect of the culture as music in any place will always find an escape-route. The Islamic Museum and Souk Waqif in Doha are places worth the visit. The museum has a vast collection of expensive and exquisite Indian jewelry (no wonder we do not find them here in India !)  of the centuries gone by. 2015-05-20 19.26.36 And the Souk is the place to do time-travel as it offers the feel of Arabian markets of the bygone era, selling garments to spices, handicrafts, brassware, lanterns, carpets  to herbal oils.

History in the neighborhood

Given the history and culture stretching back to unthinkable time here in India, it is no surprise we stumble upon the remnents close to our urbanised environs. A bunch of us, like-minded enthusisasts, left in the early hours of one cool morning to travel back in time. Breakfast by the farms, in a make-shift shelter meant for farmers to upload the freshly harvested veggies to towns, was enough to propell us away from the city of Chennai and into the past.

1. Mela Chitambur

This hamlet houses a Jain monestery that serves as the head for the faith in southern Tamilnadu state. Since the faith is an off-shoot of Hinduism, the temple here shares several commonalities with Hindu architecture and beliefs.

at the Jain temple

at the Jain temple

2. Thirunathar Kundru

On top of this hillock are couple of inscriptions in Brahmi and Tamil dating back to 6CE and 8CE. The inscriptions are at the spot where couple of Jain monks observed sallekhana, a prescribed practice of fast-unto-death to purge thier karmas. The writing says 57 days of fast before one of them passed on and the other right next says 30 days. A notable feature of this inscription is the presence of probable-root of the letter ‘ஐ’ in the Tamil language. To commemarate the event, a bas-relief of 24 Thirthankars or Jain spiritual masters are carved overhead on a huge rock.

intense reading of innscriptions

intense reading of inscriptions

the writing in stone..

the writing in stone..

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the landscape around the inscriptions

the landscape around the inscriptions

3. Nehanur Patti

A place of massive stone works carried out by nature. Underneath the adukkankal (Tamil) or what appears like stones piled up one over the other, are brahmi inscription dating back to 4CE and pre-historic cave-painting of roughly 1000 BC. The Brahmi inscription talks of the existence of a Jain school and the name of the founder –

” Perum pogazh sekkanthi thayiyuru sekkanthanni se vitha palli” (sekkanthanni, mother of sekkanthi of Perumpugozh village has built this school)

adukkankal

adukkankal

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a phallic rock shaped by nature

a phallic rock shaped by nature

a brahmi reader

a brahmi reader

the writing that talks about the established school

the writing that talks about the established school

and the pre-historic cave painting is found in a dugout roof and looks like done by someone of artistic inclination, reclying on the rock surface as a way of relaxing right after his hunting expedition followed by gratifying lunch. They might have been painted with lime as they are white in colour.

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4. Mela Ulakur

Right in the middle of residential houses of this village stands a stone sculpture of Jyeshta Devi, the goddess of misfortune. Jyeshta Devi worship was at its peak in southern India during 7-8CE but soon by 10CE, she went into oblivion. This sculpture dates back to 8CE or may be even earlier as this goddess is bellieved to have existed in India as far back as 300BC. Today though, numerous images exist but not worshipped. It is believed women paryed to her in the past more to keep her away from their homes. Her image too is not one of beauty associated with many Hindu goddesses but of flabby belly, pendulous breasts and her attendants holding broom. As the villagers here not aware of history, continue to worship her in good faith.

Jyshta Devi and her attendant

Jyshta Devi and her attendant

5. Passumalai

A steep climb on the hillock reveals stone-beds for the Jain monks and a meditative sculpture of their 24th Theerthankara (teacher) Paswanathar on a rocky wall right across their beds so that the monks could be in constant meditation upon their master. The Brahmi inscription here speaks of a man by the name of Mosi made these beds at the request of another by the name of Sangayiban “Sangayiban eva Mosi seida adishtanam” and the likely period is 3CE

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Paswanathar

beds for the monks

beds for the monks

6. Thondur

Here’s the best part of the day – we get down from the bus and walk in single file on the trail, flanked by paddy fields and honestly not knowing what on earth could be lying in wait – viola, our jaws dropped at the sight below –

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a huge rectangular sculpture in the midst of rice-fields where in the Hindu God Vishnu reclyning atop Anantha/Adisesha, the serpent that symbolises eternity, surveying the proceedings on the front. It is indeed an awe inspiring sight because of the ambiance, as such sculptures of the gods are generally found inside the temples. The head of Vishnu is rested to our right which is contrary to normal-left and this may be done such for some specific purpose. There is a speculation a nearby battle field had some significance to it as there might have been a belief a Vishnu in reverse would cast misfortune on the enemy. I’m told there are only two such head-to-the-right Vishnus found in Tamilnadu and the other being in the town of Kanchipuram (Sonnavanam Seida Perumal). The ornamental stone work on the front is again a part of the jigsaw puzzle. The dating of the sculpture could be in the period of the Pallava king Nandivarman III (846-869CE). The crown on the head of the sculpture matches with the ones found in Combodia and that could certainly point to the Pallava’s link to Combodia. The popular Ankur Wat was initially built by a Pallava origin King.

It’s inevitable that speculations run high on such trips. Taking the very script of Brahmi – what is the origin – the Ghandara Script Kharosthi or the Semitic Aramaic or the Indus valley script found its way back in different form after the civilisation ended ? Did Brahmi influence another ancient dravidian language Tamil at all ? Outside of what’s written in stone, it’s hard to pin-point the happenings of the past, by the so called historians or otherwise, but there certainly is no dearth of fun in time-travel !

St.Thyagaraja’s Aaradhana (death anniversary) at Thiruvaiyaru 2015 – thoughts !

St.Thyagaraja

St.Thyagaraja

​As for the music festival in Thiruvaiyaru, the place of composer St. Thyagaraja, please refer my piece done for Songlines magazine elsewhere in the blog.

Almost after 8 years is this trip. The ambiance outdo the music here – sitting on the banks of Cauvery ,the river in full-flow, young village kids frolicking in the currents, my back to the audience so  the music forms the backdrop, legs suspended on bank-walls, under a tree with cool breeze flowing, imagination taking back to Chola times of 1000+ years  with warriors on horse back trotting on dirt roads in the opposite bank and the trees over there having withstood and witnessed the times gone by, water snakes gliding along the shore with occasional head-pop, and a young Nadaswaram (Oboe) -student next to me talking about his single-minded approach to his dreams, travelling 140 kms. one way by bus/everyday to get to his music school and will do it for the next 3 years before his graduation, and it is a dream-come-true for him to make this maiden visit to Thiruvaiyaru along with his guru (teacher) ;

Cauveri

River Cauvery

Pancharatnas

Pancharatnas in progress

The unsung musicians (pun intended) do have a better appeal for me than the crowd-pullers of Chennai sabhas (concert halls) during the December music festival, as the top acts seem to indulge in ‘talent show’, forgetting this is a dedication to a divine composer;

More than the Pancharatnas (5 gems of the composer) particularly the way it is sung in today’s timbre, the Nadaswaram session as the grand finale is indeed breath-taking but gets no appreciation as the crowd disperses once the ‘star-studded’ Pancharatnas come to an end..

St.Thyagaraja’s neighbouring villagers with their knowledge in music and on musicians could give the sabha-hoppers of Chennai a run for their money – the reach of music is a result of organising such free/mega event in such sleepy town, though once a year !

Sufi Sutra Music Festival

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Lately, the usage of the term Sufi in India, be it in music, dance, fine arts, festivals, amongst young and Bollywood, makes one wonder if the term is indeed understood or  it  is only a fad that sweeps across the country without really getting a sense of what it’s about. I get asked questions when I say going to a Sufi festival, both from within and without India, and from musically inclined contacts – what is Sufi, are Qawwali and Sufi same and so on. Perhaps the association of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Bollywood brought about this wave in India, or it is the ‘secular’ India suddenly waking up to a sect of Islam, not sure as I was away from the country and started hearing the term here only on return.

Mystical dimension of Islam is Sufism. This school encompasses music and dance as part of the meditative process to attain that union with the divine, though the link between music and divinity existed since time immemorial, be it in shamanism or animism. Another school of Islam opposes music lest that it has the potential to intoxicate the mind and lead one away from the path of attaining Allah. Well, that is my limited take on the term.

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Having said that, the focus here is the music festival. World music is still hard to come by in India and understandably so for the mind-boggling variety and wealth of music around. After all, the origin of music ever is said to be Sama-veda, one of the four Vedas of Hinduism. But, these Sufi festivals are indeed a welcome treat for they showcase performing arts from other cultures, though a Langa group from Rajasthan and a Qawwali group are invariably part of such festivals, probably included more to justify the ‘Sufi stamp’. In addition to very many obscure Sufi festivals across the country, the three major annual ones, at least I know of, are World Sufi Spirit Festival at Jodhpur with a regal touch, both in terms of venue and admission price, and backed by the likes of Aga Khan Trust and the Royal family of Jodhpur; Ruhaniyat, an itinerant gig that packs 5 or 6 groups in just one evening; and Sufi Sutra, a free for all festival that lights up the city of joy – Kolkata (Calcutta). Having done the first two in the circuit earlier, this year I soaked in the music at Sufi Sutra.

At the first look, the venue of the festival was rejuvenating with lots of green and flowers. It was Mehar Kunj, a park adjoining the popular colonial landmark, Victoria Memorial. The walkway inside the park was lined up with billboards of the participating bands. Black and white photographs of historical Calcutta took up a small niche. The stage and the seating looked as it would at any other outdoor concert venue. A band that was scheduled to perform in the evening was rehearsing on stage with no audience presence as I was guided to the morning workshop session at another section of the park with sprawling lawn.

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The workshop sessions were quite informal and provided opportunity for visiting bands to introduce their genre, both verbally and musically, as a prelude to their formal act in the evenings. It was also the time to interact with the audience and answer queries they might have, jam with local musicians and get the rich exchange and learning curve going. While the audience indulged in circle-dance, media was busy with photo-ops and interviews at back-stage with artists who were done with their morning slot. Two bands were presented at these sessions. Handicraft artisans had spread out their exquisite wares along the periphery of the lawn giving the event a multi-faceted touch.

The evening scene was quite a transformation from what I saw in the morning, as the crowd swelled to capacity, illumination ran up the trees in all hues and the stage was set with state-of-the-art sound and light equipments. Constant supply of steaming tea and the music more than made up for the dip in January evening temperature. Three bands performed in the evenings at this three-day festival.

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El Bola (Spain), Mu (Portugal), Radiant Arcadia (Denmark), Win Bang (Iran) Barkbroder Extended (Sweden) and Arnob & Friends (Bangladesh) were the bands participated this year.

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In my books, Sufi Sutra beats other festivals on all fronts – ‘music for all and music for peace’ motto, great venue and decor, friendly staff, opening avenues for local folk musicians and handicraft artisans, laid-back atmosphere, providing opportunity for people to get their feet wet in World music by keeping the festival open for all and of course, which festival offers you limitless supply of no-charge-tea ! Given the limited resources in India, it’s quite remarkable that an organization could venture in uncharted waters (world music) and stage something like this – Kudos to Banglanatak.com team for pulling off such an act that I would say exceeded some of the outdoor acts I have seen abroad.

Though the city of Kolkata didn’t have a call for me all these years, in the last 1 year I found myself there on 3 occasions – first, to ‘reconnect’ with my time in the Amazon at Sundarbans, as its called the Amazon of Asia, second for the Sufi Sutra festival and quite recently for the World Hare-Krishna festival (ISKCON) – so, it’s certainly turning out to be a happening-city! No metro (subway) in the world can beat the clean, ad-free, efficient and air-conditioned ride for a mere Rs.5 – though a new kid on the block, no wonder it was voted as the #1 metro in the world on the PBS documentary I watched a few years ago! And the eco-friendly clay tea-cup used at the street-side shops was a welcome sight yet walking through the labyrinths of Kumartuli where the potters churn out gleaming Gods and Goddesses was simply magical !

An artistic director of one Sufi festival rightly asked me once why there was such Sufi-craze in India with so much of Hindu music in its bag, while his counterpart at another festival rightly answered that Hinduism embraced all faiths with open arms. Yet, I personally wish to see India stages a festival on the lines of Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, sans Indian classical but providing platform to multitude of regional and state-wide genres of Bakthi (devotional) music and as well invite rich world sacred music traditions that include tribal, shamanistic and animistic categories. Abhang, Nama-Sankeerthan, Samprdhaya Bhajan, Oduvar tradition, Thirupugaz singers,Theru-koothu,Yakshaganam,Garba andDhandia, Kummi and Kollattam, Bauls of Bengal, three styles ofChhau, Somana Kunita, Pavai dance, Bishnoi bhajans, Bhagavatha Mela are the art forms that are much older than Sufi or any such traditions and many of which trace their roots to Sama-Veda. These are just right off the top of my head and the list will be endless if dig deeper across the country. These art forms are currently pigeon-holed to respective regions and that too on a very negligible scale. With plenty in the backyard, if India doesn’t showcase these hoary but dying traditions to the world on a common platform, no one else will and they are not likely to get invited to Iran or Pakistan as we find bands from such countries here, nor for that matter at the money-spinning, agent-oriented World music venues and festival destinations. Probably the first organisation in India, Prakrithi Foundation in Chennai, has started hosting an annual festival in the clichéd caption ‘Thiruvaiyaru Sacred Music Festival’ on the banks of river Cauvery, with a little mix of other flavours but only adding more classical vibes to that town Thiruvaiyaru that already has a strong association with that genre.

Following is an interview by yours truly of Win-Bang, the band from Iran that was featured at the festival, carried by the daily Deccan Herald –

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/389167/sufi-music-young-voices.html

 and also in World Music e-mag INSIGHT in Germany –

http://www.insight-worldmusic.blogspot.in/ (please find the photo below at their site and click)

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The Mad Mad Chennai (December) Festival

100_0369 Come December, the city of Chennai in Southern India resonates with music and dance. What had begun as a festival organised by one or two musically bent groups or Sabhas back in the 1920s, today it has exploded into a matrix of mind-boggling jamboree, thus making it probably the largest and longest running festival in the world – it runs the entire December and percolates well into January. Yet, large part of the world is still unaware of this massive expression of classical art, but the informed ones lap it all up. File0005 Interestingly, a festival of this magnitude has been happening with not a penny from any government body, but funded entirely through private, corporate sponsorship and the Sabhas. File0003 A typical festival day lasts about 14 hrs., interspersed with demos and lectures on the subjects and genre. Newbies to established find platform thus blazing the way for new talents to surface. File0004 There appears to be no end to the stretch of this festival as the overwhelming response seems to be only on the ascend, year after year. File0002

Here’s an overview of the festival, written a few years ago by yours truly for a Hawaiian based publication –

ChennaiMusicNDanceFest (if unwilling to click this PDF, below is the text )

The Best Keeps Getting Better

For nearly 80 years, the annual Chennai Music Festival has amplified tradition with talent and innovation
Anantha Krishnan, Chennai

It’s the middle of December and the festival of music and dance that I have come to witness is just about to begin. One of the largest music celebrations of its kind in the world, it features a month of performances that take place all over the city.
Unlike the classical Hindustani music of North India, the Carnatic music of the South is more structured, lyrical, ornamental and strict. Due to these formalities, it offers less opportunity for improvisation but is more representative of time-honoured tradition. “Carnatic music seeks more to enlighten than entertain because of its Vedic origin. This is an art for God’s sake and not for art’s sake, ” says one knowledgeable musician.
Lord Siva’s “original band ” is said to have consisted of celestial musicians playing mridangam (drum), tambura (drone), cymbals, vina (stringed instrument) and flute. Today, a traditional South Indian classical performance might feature these five instruments along with the ghatam (clay-pot) and the violin. In South India, music and dance have developed as an adjunct to worship. Devotion is the driving force of this art form, which is comprised of songs in Sanskrit as well as in all of the main southern languages: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. According to South Indian tradition, the purest form of teaching has always been the oral method, in which training is passed along personally from teacher to student. Because of this, many of the great South Indian compositions have been lost simply because they were never written down.
Bharata Natyam is the featured style of dance at the festival. It is the oldest of the four major dance traditions of India and the main classical dance of the South.
The Chennai Music Festival offers a rare opportunity for new artists to be discovered and for established performers to hold their ground in the hearts and minds of the festival’s dedicated attendees. Celebrated annually since 1927, this grand music extravaganza has always been organized and promoted by Chennai’s Music Academy, an educational institution that was formed one year after the first festival took place and is today the oldest and most respected music institution in South India. There are over 40 such schools in Chennai alone, and they all join the Academy in offering more than 1,000 music and dance performances during this festival month. The concerts themselves are graded, with juniors performing in the afternoons and seniors in the evenings. The afternoon slots are generally admission-free and not crowded, but the evening concerts are packed. That’s when the stars come out to shine.
Though violin has long been part of the South Indian classical ensemble, there has been a recent trend toward bringing in other Western musical instruments, such as the mandolin, guitar and saxophone–as well as a variety of keyboard instruments. Carnatic music is still the style of choice and the expectations for excellence have not diminished. While these new instruments are very popular, they are still considered a novelty.
The dancers are also experimenting. There are new dance categories with names like
“dance-drama ” and “celluloid classics.” This last division features young high-steppers performing dance sequences from old Tamil film classics. One of a handful of overseas participants this year included a dance group from Singapore performing traditional Chinese dance.
Finally, there is one non-musical specialty of the festival that cannot be neglected. Distinguished and distinctive South Indian cuisine like dosai, vadai, pongal and uttappam can always be found in a variety of preparations at a number of Chennai’s famous eateries, casually referred to as “canteens.” I must say that these canteens are as much a crowd-pleaser as are the performers. Certainly they make as much or more money. When I asked one plump fellow what made him step into one of these establishments even during the high point of an excellent concert, he replied with gusto: “It is in the tradition, sir. A music-lover will have his snacks while visiting the festival during the music season. The music and the canteen go together.”
Canteen visits and instincts for socializing can make an audience forever mobile and audible in a concert hall during a performance. This can be somewhat disconcerting for those who are not used to it–especially connoisseurs from the West who are accustomed to a certain reserve in the art of music appreciation.
A young man named Gopu, sitting next to me, said, “This is the way a Carnatic music lover experiences a concert. It does not make him any less of a fan. Yet as these artists of today travel the world and get used to the quietly disciplined venues elsewhere, they are starting to demand similar behaviour in Chennai halls as well.”
During this festival season, there are a number of bhajan groups out and about. These dedicated souls are not formally trained. They qualify for their music only through their heart-rending devotion. Yet they are unforgettable. Many a morning, I woke up to this joyful singing. Peering down from my hotel window, still in my pajamas, I regretted not being right down there on the dusty road to catch these joyful and carefree renditions belted out by bhaktas (worshippers) so fully immersed in the bhava (devotion) of their music they hardly noticed the sun rising.
Because the death anniversary of the great South Indian composer Thyagaraja coincides with the festival, many committed musicians now travel on pilgrimage to his burial place on the banks of the river Cauvery in the tiny hamlet of Thiruvaiyaru. These ardent souls can be heard singing the saint’s legendary compositions far into the night.
Even when the festival is over, Chennai residents are reluctant to let go of the party spirit. Certainly, at times like this it seems this ancient musical tradition will live forever. Yet as my taxi goes scarily winding and speeding toward the Chennai airport, I ponder the despondent thoughts expressed by one music lover who was concerned that the arts of South India were dying. Even as he was talking to me, I could not help but think: “Although some legends of music may appear to be lost, new genius is undoubtedly in the making, and great innovations are certainly on the horizon. Nothing great is ever lost.”