Simon Broughton visits the music festival that is bringing classical music into the stadium
Where, in the space of just five days, can you hear some of the greatest names in Indian music – Hariprasad Chaurasia, Kaushiki Chakraborty, Shivkumar Sharma, the Gundecha Brothers and Amjad Ali Khan? In Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata? No, they were all at the Bengal Classical Music Festival in Dhaka, Bangladesh (November 27-December 1). Over the space of five nights there were 37 concerts and around 160 artists. Not only that, they were playing to audiences of up to 50,000 people. And interestingly, Dhaka is taking the unprecedented step of making Indian classical music and dance a stadium event, not by cheapening it, but offering the highest quality.
“As soon as I walked on stage there was an incredible connection with the audience,” said singer Aruna Sairam (pictured above). “There’s a real renaissance happening here.”
Organised by the Bengal Foundation, the concerts run 11 hours each evening from 6pm to 5am in the vast Army Stadium. Even your diligent Songlines correspondent didn’t manage to catch everything, but there were no early nights.
Indian classical music was spread all over the subcontinent, of course, but since partition in 1947 has received markedly less support in Pakistan and Bangladesh than in India itself. Abul Khair, Chairman of the Bengal Foundation, says he realised how many great names of Indian music were born or grew up in what is now Bangladesh – Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Nikhil Banerjee. “These were gurus who popularised classical music all over the world. So I realised it must be in the blood of the people of Bangladesh, otherwise why were so many maestros born here? Music runs in our blood because we are river people – there are 700 rivers here.”
The concerts were free, but still everyone was astounded by the audience numbers. While you didn’t get the lovely intimacy of London’s Darbar Festival, you did get superb sound and a vast number of young people. It was the place to be and the performances were relayed on screens, which really helped if you were way back. Santoor player Shivkumar Sharma, who’s become a Simon Rattle look-alike, lamented the predominance of Bollywood and rock in India and said: “if only they could come here and see the reception of classical music.”
Standouts for me were Karnatic singer Aruna Sairam from Chennai, who is an unstoppable force of nature. Accompanied by violin, mridangam drum and ghatam clay pot, she seared through a sequence of fairly short ragas that elicited whoops of delight at two in the morning. Also the exquisite Kaushiki Chakraborty, who won a BBC Award for World Music in 2005. Both singers refrain from the exaggerated vocal acrobatics that can be so off-putting.
Each night finished with a big name performer, with sarod player Amjad Ali Khan on magnificent form to close the whole festival. He played two of Tagore’s favourite ragas for the Bengali audience. But it was the duet of singer Ajoy Chakrabarty (father of Kaushiki) and slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya (pictured above) that most intrigued me. Chakrabarty began singing a phrase so low it felt like an earth tremor and Bhattacharya followed with a melody that gently lifted it upwards. When Chakrabarty returned, his melody followed the lead and moved higher to lighten the mood. Bhattacharya then came with a growling basso profundo solo on the lower string of his specially-created instrument. After about 20 minutes Chakrabarty’s voice reached a high note that sounded perfect and transformative. He raised his hand as if holding a leaf in his fingers and then let it drop.
I was hopelessly tired at 3:30am when it began, but by the end 90 minutes later, I’d been totally reinvigorated. A metaphor for the classical music scene in Bangladesh perhaps. It’s something I’ll never forget.
Find out more about the festival at www.bengalfoundation.org/event/bengal-classical-music-festival-2014/
Simon Broughton travelled to Dhaka courtesy of the Nawab Abdul Latif Trust UK
Photos courtesy of Bengal Foundation