Celebrating Indian music and dance with live concerts and classes, Getintothis’ Glyn Akroyd takes in a week of diverse culture.
Now in its fourth year Milapfest’s Indika is a week long celebration of Indian music and dance, with evening concerts running alongside daily educational classes for the elite young practitioners of these arts. Performances are by guest artists, tutors and students and we have taken in four of the evening concerts to try to get a flavour of what Indika brings to Liverpool.
Saturday’s performance, Mad & Divine, features dancer Rama Vaidyanathan who plays out the story of two female saints, Janabai (devotee of Vishnu) and Lalleswari (devotee of Shiva), who broke the social constraints of 13th and 14th century India to express their love for the supreme. The dance depicts their journeys along differing paths towards the mountain top of enlightenment. Vaidyanathan is accompanied by four musicians (vocal, cymbals, percussion and flute) seated cross-legged on a low stage. Dressed in a luxuriant robe of green, red and gold she enacts Janabai’s story as a mime, her exaggerated facial expressions and hand gestures as important as her sharply expressive footwork.
It is perhaps difficult for the uninitiated (us) to decipher the precise detail of Janabai’s story but what is obvious is the universal comic/tragic context and the sheer quality of Vaidyanathan’s movement. Her journey as she walks ‘like a deer that vanishes into the forest’ in her quest to ‘feast her eyes on the form of the supreme being’ is beautifully illustrated as she pads across a single spotlit circle which dims as she nears its outer edge only for another welcoming circle of light to appear before her, which she crosses before a third illumination is offered.
The story ends with a beautiful vocal lament and it is interesting to hear Indian classical music in its original form, without the ‘beats’ that so often accompany it in its modern Western setting of sampled exotica. Besides, Indian music has its own ‘beats’, it is inherently and complexly rhythmic. The tabla’s crisp patterns work in tandem with the cymbals, the different tones of which represent the sounds of the dancers footfall, and these rhythms are overlain with floating woodwind and the vocal gymnastics of Sudha Raghuraman who, even seated, manages to be animated, beating out the rhythms on her thigh throughout. These rhythms are shadowed, and this is a feature which runs through all the dance performances we witness, by the dancers ankle bells, the sound of which helps to accentuate certain movements, adding staccato bursts or sustained, shimmering passages of tinkling sound.
After the interval Vaidyanathan returns as Lalleswari, clad in a pure white robe. Gone is the comic mimicry of Janabai’s story, to be replaced by a more serious, sensuous series of footsteps, pirouets and hand gestures. A repeated cadence gets faster and faster, staccato bursts of sound and movement see Vaidyanathan snap into her poses with athletic grace, quick pattering footsteps are followed by languorous, fluid whirls. Even the simplest movements and gestures of the fingers are delivered with a precision which highlights the discipline and training that lie behind the performance, which, not for the last time this week, elicits a standing ovation.
The following day sees attention shift from the seasoned performers of Mad & Divine to the young musical practitioners of Samyo, the National Youth Orchestra for Indian Music. They are aided and abetted by several of their tutors and one of the joys of the evening is the obvious rapport shared between the two. Again the musicians are seated cross-legged on a low stage, a bewildering array of string, woodwind and percussion instruments before them.
There is an air of expectation amongst another almost full house and, following an introduction which informs us that the ‘stories and musical landscapes’ we are about to hear are either written for the occasion or receiving their first British airing, they strike up an upbeat tempo fittingly dedicated to Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of the Arts.
Two complementary pieces, Urban Mantra and Mind The Gap, take us on a journey from India to London. Following recorded sounds of Indian city life, Dr Rajeeb Chakraborty, plays the opening passage on the sarod (Indian lute), slowly and evocatively plucking at the strings to produce a deep resonant sound which is laid over the ubiquitous drone that underpins much of the weeks musical offerings, providing a steady palette over which the other instruments can paint their elaborate, colourful washes. A sonorous, floating recorder is added before vocals, percussion and saxophone kick in to create some delightful, playful changes of tempo before a repeated, slowing mantra takes us into Mind The Gap and the London Underground with its mesmerising virtuoso sarod solos, and voices and instruments working in perfect unison.
The rest of the performance flies by in a flurry of wonderfully discordant vocal exchanges, crisp, snapping percussion, sampled soundscapes and what, to our untutored ear, sounds like a medieval black mass (too much Hammer horror!), before a dervish like finish brings a cheering audience to its feet. A joyful evening and what promise for the future lies in the hands of these young musicians.
Wednesdays double bill features a piano/violin premier entitled Touch, performed by Anil Srinivasan, the week’s featured artist and an innovator of the piano in Indian classical music, and Italian violinist Alberto Sanna. A confluence of East and West is promised. This is billed as a multi-media event and we see Srinivasan walking towards us on a large screen. As he approaches the camera he turns right and disappears off screen to emerge, seconds later, through the stage door to huge applause and laughter, yet another example of the camaraderie that exists between pupils, teachers and performers at the week’s events.
Srinivasan plays with a delightful lightness of touch and after a few minutes we scribble a note that says ‘no discernible Eastern influence’, for, to our ears, we are in the territory of Bach and Chopin. On screen a ghetto blaster is clicked on and a brief recorded vocal ushers in a change of direction and Srinivasan plays some bluesy/ragtime passages – a hint of Berlin or Carmichael.
Alberto Sanna is described in the programme notes as an ‘expert in early modern Italian music’ and as he joins the performance it is obvious that this is no dry academic description but one that equally relates to his ability to play. His initial passages seem straight out of middle Europe and have a haunting, melancholic air. ‘Oh those Moldowallachian blues’ lamented Patrick Leigh Fermor as he crossed the Bulgarian plains in the 1930s (The Broken Road, 2013) and this delicately nuanced performance illustrates his sentiment, tugging at the heartstrings before both piano and violin up the tempo and move further west via the type of chamber music heard at the court of the Sun King, both musicians complementing each other perfectly. The music contrasts markedly with the visual depictions of Indian rail journeys and landscapes and at the finale the two protagonists leave the stage and are seen wandering away on-screen to great applause.
A quick word afterwards with violinist Sanna reveals that our earlier scribbled note was some way off the mark – the music we had just heard, with ‘no discernible eastern influence’, has trodden a circuitous path, being based entirely on Indian Carnatic scales (nottu swaras). These Carnatic scales were, in turn, based on Indian interpretations of the jigs and reels introduced to the sub-continent by Scots and Irish soldiers in the 17th and 18th centuries and here they are, returned to these shores in their latest incarnation. So much for scribbled notes – it sounded fantastic.
Seejith Krishna performs Bharatanatyam, a three part interpretation of the classical southern Indian dance tradition. He begins to a recorded musical/vocal accompaniment and his facial expressions and hand movements are immediately reminiscent of Rama Vaidyanathan’s Mad & Divine mimicry. The footwork is incredible, fast and dextrous as a tap dancers, but with a flat, slapping sound as bare sole strikes the floor accompanied by the shrill tinkling of the ankle bells. Nowhere is the marriage of music and movement better illustrated than in the sudden stops, the timing of which are immaculate, and which are followed by a statuesque silence.
There is an operatic air as the pieces unfold, Krishna melodramatically clasps his hands to his chest or looks out, wide eyed, into the audience as his hands flutter, bird like, around his head. At times the percussion is so fast the individual notes blur around the edges to become almost one continuous sound and a stirring finale sees Krishna whirling and kneeling, his rich blue, red and gold robes picked out by a single spot.
The final evening is opened by the Madras String Quartet and, in contrast to Wednesdays Touch, the first violin notes, played by VS Narisimhan, are immediately recognisable as ‘Indian’. They are sounds we would perhaps normally associate with the sitar, to the average western ear the most recognisable Indian instrument, but whether your knowledge of Indian music is defined by Carry On Up The Khyber, George Harrison, Nitan Sawney or Bollywood, this is a clearly identifiable part of our cultural landscape. The second violin, cello and viola accompany Narisimhan’s lead with more traditional western harmonies and the contrast between the two is both discordant and exciting and it is affecting to hear a familiar sound played on an instrument it is not normally associated with. As the performance expands there are hints of reels, of Texas swing, of 17th century chamber music. The drone is again offering its mesmerising, hypnotic foundation. One section evokes the wild heather and lochs of the Highlands, it is music to take you home, wherever that may be.
All the musicians display a mastery of their instruments whether soloing or as part of the ensemble, soaring lead flights are followed by delicate pizzicato tip toeing, the melody of Krishna has the audience humming along until it slips off a cliff edge and floats into discord. A Rajastani folk song, with its joyfully played and received call and answer between violin and viola draws another, entirely deserved, standing ovation.
Prashant Shah walks out onto the floor accompanied by a tabla and sitar player and from his introduction it is obvious that we are in the hands of a charismatic and affable performer. Shah is performing a Kathak (Sanskrit for ‘story’) dance, an ancient form from Northern India which has been modified and developed over the centuries. It is notable for its slow to fast progressions, footwork working counterpoint to the musical accompaniment, and the use of ‘bols’, rhythmic words, which onomatopoeically reflect the sounds of the music.
The bols are hugely enjoyed by both performers and audience alike and there is an ‘end of term’ feel to events as Shah invites a guest performer from the audience to perform with him, the ensuing call and response more commonly associated in western music with gospel or soul, and the audience clapping along. The vocal dexterity matches the controlled gymnastics of the dance, Shah using the whole of the floor in a blur of whirling, leaping shapes, his whole body at times seems to become another percussion instrument as his feet strike the floor before a final sustained shaking of his ankle bells sounds eerily like a rattlesnake warning amongst the rapturous applause.
Another packed house has witnessed this final performance, an audience, it must be said, that is drawn mostly from attendees, staff, and family and friends of those on the week’s course. Judging by the sheer quality, diversity and uplifting nature of the performances we have witnessed maybe it is time for Indika to spread its wings.
We walk out across the courtyard, past the fountains dancing in the moonlight and into the Great Hall where Anil Srinivasan sits at a candlelit piano and playfully draws Indika to a close.
Pictures by Getintothis’ Glyn Akroyd.