Indian links at WOMADelaide 2012

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Pt Shivkumar Sharma’s santoor leads the Indian experience at WOMAD. LP AYER reportsNo other city’s name has such a nice ring to WOMAD (World Music and Dance) as Adelaide does, since it adapts very well to the event ‘WOMADelaide’.  Presenting different sorts of music, arts and dance, WOMAD encourages people to experience the music of cultures other than their own as a way of developing global understanding.

Womadelaide is much more than a musical extravaganza. Besides being a feast to the ears, the event caters to the tastebuds with ethnic food stalls providing rich fare, along with arts and craft shops offering trinkets of all kinds. A number of people turn this into an extended family picnic with many pitching their tents. This year the festival, held from March 9-12, was particularly significance as it celebrated 20 years. Unlike in the past, even the weather gods provided perfect climate comfort.

Started in 1992 as a biennial weekend event, Womadelaide morphed into an annual festival in 2003 and expanded to a four-day treat in 2010.  The sylvan setting of the 34-hectare park flanked by the zoo and the Botanic Gardens provide an unrivalled atmosphere. Sitting on emerald green lawns under tall plane trees and massive Morton Bay fig trees and enjoying soul-stirring music from the East in moonlight is something to be experienced! At the other end of the spectrum, thousands of attendees of all ages waving and clapping their hands while turning and twisting their torsos in a kind of trance to the rhythm of African music is pure ecstasy. In between these two tangents run a variety of musical sounds produced by artistes from countries ranging from Mexico to Mongolia.  This year, there were 645 performers from 35 countries. Every year India gets a fair share, given its rich and diverse forms of music and musical instruments.

In the past, some notable Indian artistes who performed included Amjad Ali Khan, Asha Bhosle, Dr N Ramani, Manjiri Kelkar, Musafir Gypsies of Rajasthan, Rajendra Prasanna, Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar, L Subramaniam, Sultan Khan, U Srinivas and Zakir Hussain. This year, three different segments of Indian art forms – classical music, dance and filmi music – were presented by artistes from three different parts of the globe –  Shivkumar Sharma from India, Shantala Shivalingappa from  France and Bombay Royale from Australia.

Speaking with Indian Link, Shivkumar Sharma revealed that he was the first to bring the ‘santoor’, a folk instrument from Kashmir traditionally used to accompany sufi music, to the public arena. This dulcimer, looking like a square metal briefcase, has 100 strings that are tapped by a pair of walnut mallets resembling thin forks. This instrument is widely used in Iran, Greece and China.

Shivkumar had his training in vocal and tabla from his father Pt. Uma Dutt Sharma, who introduced him to the santoor some sixty years ago. “Indian classical music is food for the soul and traverses beyond pure entertainment to provide spiritual bliss,” says Sharma convincingly.  A recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, he won the first prize at Reza Shah Pahlavi’s World Festival of Santoors in Teheran. It was interesting to note that Sharma was accompanied on the tanpur by Takhhiro Arai, his Japanese student.

Two members of the audience at his Adelaide event, Murali and Sharada noted, “At the start Shivakumar encouraged his audience to close their eyes to help them connect with their souls during the ‘alap’ – an improvisation without tabla accompaniment.  He chose the raga Charukesi for elaboration. His alap and the following 10-beat jap tal and 16-beat teen tal gat compositions clearly brought the full flavour of the raga. Yogesh Samsi’s tabla was outstanding, with the lively rhythm nicely complementing the santoor’s soothing sound.  During the gat improvisation, the pair was engaged in delightful musical ‘dialogues’”.

Shantala Shivalingappa, born in Chennai but brought up in Paris, specialises in the ‘kuchipudi’ style of dance that originated in a village of the same name in Andhra Pradesh. Having learnt this form of dancing from renowned master Vempatti Chinna Satyam, she also worked with some prominent names like Maurice Bejart, Peter Brook, Pina Bausch and as such, is a blend of eastern and western influences.

Shantala’s dance was preceded by the accompanying orchestra group comprising of a vocalist, a flautist and two mridangam players. They selected a rare scale in Carnatic called ‘rati pati priya’, and sang a popular composition Jagajjanani, sukha paani, kalyani. One of the mridangam players, apart from supporting the singer, got the audience involved by encouraging them to clap their hands to match his diverse range of beats, a rarity in such concerts. This was well received.

Shantala started her programme dancing to the composition Sidhdhi vinayakam in raga Arabhi. Varnams and thillanas are important parts of the Carnatic music, written mainly for dance performances. Shantala chose a taana-varnam Omkaara pranava in raga Shanmukha priya as her main piece, exploring the relationship between life, nature and the primordial sound of ‘Om’. Next, she performed a tarangam that involved dancing while delicately standing on the ridge of a brass plate, the highlight of kuchipudi. However the audience could not see the intricate footwork as they were sitting a metre below the stage. The beautiful moonlit night’s recital concluded with a romantic thillana set in Raageshri, a raga that brilliantly expresses longing and love; the thillana’s pace and rendering were breathtaking.

Another group with Indian flavour was The Bombay Royale, a Melbourne-based band reviving 1960s and ‘70s Bollywood soundtracks by such iconic names as RD Burman, Anandji-Kalyanji, Asha Bhosle and Mohammed Rafi. Lead singers and founders of the band in 2010, Parvyn Singh and Shourov Bhattacharya were backed by the cream of Melbourne’s notable bands like LABJACD, The Public Opinion Afro Orchestra, San Lazaro, Mr Savona, Vulgargrad and Illzilla playing various instruments with Sam Evans on tabla  and Josh Bennett on sitar and dilruba. It was a mix of a few film songs with the background orchestral sound of an extravagant disco!