Beats in the wilderness

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The piece was carried in a national daily

http://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/rainforest-music-festival/article19553075.ece

 

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And here is the unedited version with pictures and video clips –

Music in the Forest

Lush green forest cover and peaking Santubong mountain form a glorious backdrop to annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia. Though music has travelled in the form of festival from confined concert-halls to various open-air venues, at this unique setting of 17 acres of forest land, the festival has taken a quantum leap since its beginning 20 years ago. The 3-day long festival held in the month of July hosts renowned musicians, both indigenous and international besides medley of activities.

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A couple of hours flying from Kuala Lumpur lands me in Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak and the base to get to the festival. Shuttle buses are organized from the city-centre, with the focus on reducing carbon emission, for the 35km ride to Sarawak Cultural Village, a ’living’ museum and the venue for the festival. People show up in droves at the gate in the opening hours of the morning but an efficient entry system in place keeps the wait-time to minimal.

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Workout

All-day events begin in the morning and wind down well past midnight. There is something for everyone to keep the zing going. To sustain the energy-level for such a long stretch at the festival, it is better to kick-start the day with one of the Wellness-programmes that focus on mental, spiritual and physical through yoga workshops, meditation sessions and Tai-chi. Yoga enthusiasts can get to choose from various types such as hatha, budokon, vinyasa and yin but ‘bring your own yoga mat’ is the norm here. For movement-oriented, Zumba, Bodycombat, Tai-chi, Capoeira and traditional Malay art of self-defence called Silat are the choice.

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Activities

The festival ground is designed such, a boardwalk around a water-body would make sure catch all the sights and sounds. Talks on wealth of plants in the rainforest, personal-care oil extraction, soap-making from natural ingredients are at Sarawak Biodiversity centre. Cheering kids holding mothers’ arms lead me to Pustaka Bookaroo, where children get initiated into arts, crafts and music, justifying the festival claim that it is family friendly. There is a heavy emphasis on Sape, a local ‘boat lute’ of 4-strings made of hollowed-wood, through history and exhibition, art of making and playing workshops, to preserve and promote local musical heritage. Rainforest World Craft Bazaar is an alluring stop over for souvenir hunters as it spreads a wide range of arts and crafts of indigenous people from garments, pants, batik, beadwork to tapestries for which the raw materials are sourced from the forest. Indeed, tree-bark clothing are also up for grabs. Inking the skin with an ethnic tattoo here would stay indelible even after returning home.

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Music

The festival aims to showcase music and dance rooted in cultures from around the world. Two stages, ‘Jungle and Tree’, aptly named for they are flanked by forest trees, are the focus for the prime-time mega acts. This year, over 25 bands from South Africa, U.K., Guinea, Cape Verde, Columbia, Belgium to Tahiti are featured. The bands play back to back, alternating the stages with no breaks, creating a seamless musical transition though the sounds are distinct as they cover a range of genres. When the venue live up to its name and the skies open, revellers literally ‘dance away the evening in the rain’ as they come all prepared to slide on the muddy ground.

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As Sarawak is located just north of the equator, it is hot and sweaty. The only air-conditioned refuge at the grounds is the Theatre stage that hosts afternoon shows that are chamber-style, intimate and classical for seated audience. The music here is soothing and help unwind and take a break from all the walking done.

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Then there are ‘Mini Sessions’ that host over 20 sessions in 3 days featuring lecture-demos, interactive dance workshops and thematic performances on ‘percussion’, ‘wind’ ‘strings’, ‘keys’ and so on by bringing together musicians, based on the theme, from various bands. Each musician gets to demonstrate his instrument individually and the session ends on collective synergy with them all play together to enthral the now informed audience. These shows are held in the replica of traditional houses and halls of the Sarawak ethnic communities that are part of permanent exhibits at the Sarawak Cultural Village.

Participatory and free-style Drum Circle in the afternoons draw an exuberant gathering where some 100 percussion instruments are handed out to pound out the rhythms.

 

 

Food

A wide choice of Asian cuisine is on the platter, from scrumptious fried snacks to savouries and ice-cream to fresh juice to beat the heat. But for growing number of vegetarians and vegans, the options are very limited and that is something the organizers need to pay attention in the future years, as part of their green initiative like tree-planting, recycling and food-waste management. Food marts are equipped with seating area and entertainment zone for the buskers and clowns to stir up the appetite. Cooking demonstrations, workshops and food-tasting satiate the culinary drive in those who choose to explore beyond the dining tables.

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From a modest 300 music lovers in 1998 today the festival attracts over 20,000 from across the continents and has become an eagerly anticipated event in the annual musical-calendar. “I have been coming here for many years and the music offered used to be lot more traditional but now that has taken a turn and attracts more of young and hip dancing crowd” says Kumar, a Malaysian resident. Taking advantage of being in Borneo, I hit the forest trails to catch the sights of two well-known endemic species, Orangutan and Proboscis monkey, to cap off my sojourn.

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Details

Both Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines fly to Kuching

stay – 3 resort hotels, a hostel and a campsite near the festival grounds,

plenty of hotels in the city-centre

website – rwmf.net

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Momasar – a Rajasthani village festival

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Stage for home-grown folk arts

As my taxi changes gear from highway to village-dirt-lane, a street dog barking furiously runs along for it finds a foreign moving object in its neighbourhood in this early hour of the day. We outdo the dog by a long way, and I could hear strains of music wafting in through morning stillness. I ask the driver to head in that melodic-way. Musicians belong to Islāmic faith singing Hindu bhajans in the courtyard of quaint Hanuman Dhora temple at dawn opens the festival. Villagers sitting cross-legged on the blanket are taking in the bliss. White-clothed and turbaned elders walk in at their pace while head-covered women in bright red Rajasthani sarees gather in a corner on the blanket. A few SUVs to my left and camels inside house walls to my right. Desert sand underneath my feet and peacocks trot at higher elevations looking for breakfast, this hour is indeed sublime !

Momasar

A village 160 miles north-west of Jaipur in Rajasthan is hosting the 6th edition of Shekhawati Utsav, organized by Jaipur Virasat Founndation that works to keep and promote traditional art forms of the state. The festival runs for 2 days, staging 200 artists from various regions and attracts a few thousand crowd to this remote hamlet, mostly from nearby villages and also a handful of die-hard fans from abroad.

We break for tea and simple refreshments at a local temple-hall. I meet up with a group who come from US and various European countries. “Marc and I chanced upon this festival last year and this year we are here to play. Yes, we were suggested city gigs but we settled for this unique village one” says Markus from Germany. In a first, this edition would feature a non-Rajasthani band in Marc Sinan and Iva Bittova. Energized by tea and with the help of a local guide, we stroll through the maze of lanes for local attractions such as temples and century old charming havelis that are painted with frescos, belonged to wealthy merchants of yesteryear.

Music at rural settings

I enter Patwari ki Haveli, an exquisite heritage building of Momasar, for ‘Music in the afternoon’. A group of women sing welcome-songs at the massive door. An array of activities in the courtyard include men spinning yarn from drop-spindle, rope-making demonstration and young students of wood-craft display their creative works. “This reflects the motive of our Foundation – preserve and encourage tradition in all forms” says Vinod Joshi, Director of JVF and the force behind this festival, which also serves him as a pay-back to his birth place. Along the wall, Kathodi performers present a unique image as two men blow into a mouth-piece of a vertical wind instrument, a man on scraper and another rubs a thin metal rod placed over a brass plate to produce the drone effect. “They live in the forest and make their own musical instruments” says Joshi. A flight of stairs in the haveli brings up a compact hall that is open to the skies where the 80 year young Safi Mohammed sings with gusto often tossing and turning the tanpura on his hand, more than strumming on it.

A quick stop for snacks at the temple hall and as the light starts to fade, we head to a farm. Though it is dark, I could get a sense of the expanse of the place and feel my respiratory system is more at ease now. As the wind blows across under starry sky, a dimly lit make-shift platform offers space for more folk art traditions. A red-turbaned, white dhoti clad man with anklets thumps his feet and waves his arms around to the beats and singing of two men playing on maante drum, a large clay-pot – their silhouette leave a surreal feel. While Marc and Iva sounds are a novelty in village-ears, the day ends at Taal Maidan, an open-air ground, at midnight with “Kuchamani Khayal”, a folk-theatre tradition from the Nagaur region of Rajasthan and is very much on the decline.

Curtain downs with a bang

Second day begins with ‘Baal Mela‘ that features a few thousand young boys and girls from 13 different schools in the village to get them re-acquainted to their rich roots and help them understand that tradition and progress could go hand in hand. “This is very crucial for the future of what we are now involved in” says Joshi, who sounds keen on covering the entire spectrum in his quest. The children get to see artists who do not make it to center stage this year, yet perform amid children’s’ competitions and workshops.

On the grand finale evening, hoards of villagers stream in one direction, young girls giggle their way in, boys bond with arms around shoulders while women look in unwind-mode with their day chores done with. Now my taxi struggles its way through this mass in this otherwise no traffic zone. As I reach brightly lit Taal Maidan, the place is buzzing, children play in sand chasing each other, flies and bugs have a field day around high wattage lamps and even crawl on people, excited in their sudden-found-illuminated-lives. The stage that exudes Rajasthani decor is all set for the show. An endless kaleidoscope of folk forms that include Dhol-thali, Kalbeliya, Gair, Bhapang, Kachhigodi, Sahariya Swang dance unfold on front that last well into the wee hours.

Though a comfortable hotel stay is some 25 miles away, the festival affords to experience folk art at its provenance. While Langa and Manganiar musicians are hot invitees on world stage, JVF aims to bring the world to their homes.

 

This piece by yours truly was carried in India’s national daily –

http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/A-stage-for-home-grown-arts/article16644617.ece

 

Fes Festival of World Sacred Music 2015

 

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await queen’s arrival

‘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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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.

the famous blue gate

the famous blue gate

 

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Batha museum evenings

 

 

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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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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market

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medina ways

 

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

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

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​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) ;

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River Cauvery

Pancharatnas

Pancharatna 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

DSCN0764Lately, 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.

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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.

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 SabhasFile0002 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. File0003 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. File0004

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.”

World Sufi Spirit Festival

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Jaswant Thada mornings

 

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Mataji temple dances

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Mataji Temple dances

 

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kalbelia

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kaleri

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Manganiers

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Rajasthani bagpipe

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Quawwalli

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Nile musicians

Please click below for video clips –

the above, at a different angle –

And please click below for an article on the festival by yours truly in an India’s national daily –

note : the paragraph that starts with ‘Zenana Deodi courtyard’ and the one that follows are to be read together, as the editor was at fault in splitting it at a wrong place

http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-sufi-spirit/article4580576.ece