Bangalore is arguably the music capital of India and Malleshwaram has been the center of fine arts for generations now. In Malleshwaram is the iconic violin-shaped auditorium, Chowdaiah Memorial Hall – the holiest of holies for Indian Music. It is no surprise that the organizers of Bengaluru International Arts Festival (BIAF) chose this venue to kick off proceedings for the third edition of this annual arts festival which is said to be among the top ten in the country.
I arrived way ahead of time despite the excruciatingly slow traffic. There was the customary lamp-lighting ceremony, which was followed by welcome addresses by co-founders Dr. Suma Sudhindra and Kuchipudi exponent Veena Murthy Vijay. Then there were short and witty addresses by chief guests Mr. Ashwath Narayana and noted music director Hamsalekha. It was heartening to see that along with the usual shawls and garlands, all the VVIPs got a gift of a sapling: a gesture to encourage a greener Bangalore.
First on the agenda was the lovely Sonal Kalra’s Sufi Gospel Project from Delhi. I was consumed by curiosity about the “Sufi-Gospel” genre, wondering what they had in store for us. It turned out that the most obvious inference would have been correct. – their music is a delightful confluence of the East – Sufi, Bhakti, Thumri and the West – classic hymns, gospel jazz, negro spiritual.
The Sufi Gospel Project comes highly recommended just after four months from their debut and they will also be opening at the India Show that is to be held in Toronto later this year. The first piece was their rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ which began with alaaps on Rajesh Prasanna’s flute and Ahsan Ali’s vocals. Sonam Kalra then joined in with two verses of the widely beloved hymn. The music transformed seamlessly into a Sufi song with Ahsan’s impassioned wails of ‘Maula’, before giving way again to another verse of ‘Amazing Grace‘: only this time in Urdu! In all, this first piece was a spectacle in execution, thanks mainly to Alex Fernandes’ mastery on the keys. I was already beginning to wonder whether they had their CDs for sale in the lobby.
The next song was called ‘The Confluence’. The opening bars took me back many generations, perhaps into a royal durbar. This magic was created by Ahsan Ali, this time on the Sarangi, and Amaan Ali on the Kanjira. I could never have imagined that the essence of the song was actually an old Negro Spiritual, ‘Down to the River’, in the guise of a Bhakti song. Sonam Kalra’s voice was absolutely languorous as the band easily mesmerized half the capacity of the audience into a hushed silence.
Next up was a Ray Charles’ gospel jazz number, ‘Hallelujah! I Just Love Him’. What really stood out in this song was the solo section: first the flute, followed by the sarangi, the tabla, Daniel Paul on the bass and finally Alex Fernandes on the keys. Gandhi’s favourite hymn ‘Abide With Me’ was next, which magically transformed into an ancient Kabir song, ‘Moko Kahaan Dhunde Re Bande’, which had Sonam Kalra and Ahsan Ali crooning together to form a soothing, lilting harmony. The Sufi Gospel Project wrapped up things with their rendition of Bulleh Shah’s ‘Chal Bulleya Chal Othe Chaliye’, a fitting upbeat farewell to a delightful little show.
Next Up was Laya Lavanya, an Indian percussion ensemble lead by Vidwan Anooru Anantha Krishna Sharma. The cast for this show included three tablas, a kanjira, a chenda (temple drums), a madal, drum pads, congos, a mridangam and two morchings. It was clear that this was going to be a treat to my already heightened senses. I didn’t manage to get everyone’s names, but I did recognize Pramath Kiran, the live wire percussionist who played at this year’s Fireflies Festival with Dr.BC Manjunath’s Spinifex. The fact that the individual introductions of all the members of this super-troupe took ten minutes is testament to the fact that this was a collection of the very best of India’s Carnatic percussion vidwans. Anooru Anantha Krishna Sharma (or, Shivu, as he is also known) introduced us to the concept behind this project. ‘Laya’ means tempo and ”Lavanya’ means beauty. While the troupe was busy tuning their instruments Shivu kept the audience engaged in a delightful banter consisting of humourous personal anecdotes. This concert was very different from the kacheris (traditional carnatic concerts) that we are so accustomed to, with the performances more familiar and contemporary.
The entire performance lasted about forty minutes and comprised of just one composition, in adi tala, which transported the audience into magical lands from a faraway time. The opening movement was a Konakkal, but in five part harmony! The message was loud and clear. These stalwarts of the ancient art were going to give us something quite unorthodox and extraordinary. Two of the artists did a short burst with their morchings, and the stage was set for the next thirty minutes. The solos were perfectly executed in turns while Shivu looked at his fellow musicians with an almost benevolent pride. The pauses between the solos were filled with the soft rasping sound of audience keeping time, patting their thighs (another thousand points to Chowdaiah Hall’s acoustics.)
In entirety, the performance went from sedate and mesmerizing to aggressive and thrilling and back again. Anooru Anantha Krishna Sharma was brilliant as expected, and so was every other vidwan. Pramath Kiran was undoubtedly the star of the show, playing the drum pads, morchings, congos, and two other unfamiliar instruments.
Last on stage was Vijay Prakash and troupe. Vijay Prakash first shot to fame in a singing reality show in 1998, and has then gone on to record for many films in many languages. He has worked with all the big names in the Indian film music industry, including A.R Rahman, Ilayaraja and Shankar Ehsaan Loy. He has also performed with the likes of Zakir Husain and Sivamani, at events as big as the Kala Ghoda Festival and at the Prithvi Theatre Festival. Event anchor Deepthi urged the audience to come and occupy the seats in front because this performance was something “not to be missed.” I was quietly hoping that the evening wouldn’t turn into another “Bollywood night”, but after the first few songs, it did. I sent a distress message to my editor and bailed out. Not that I had any grouse with the quality, but the hushed awe and sanctity that was created by the proceedings so far were torn apart by this unfortunate choice of genres. Among their first few songs, I particularly liked ‘Lat Uljhe Suljha Ja Baalam’ and the sound check (!), which had a superb flute solo.
Overall, it was an evening well spent. I was secretly thankful that not all roads led to Chowdaiah that evening, because I was looking forward to an intimate experience with these ancient arts (selfish, yes). The BIAF was kicked off in grand style, and I look forward to more such events in the future.