The Indika Festival, promoted by the locally-based arts development trust Milapfest, is now firmly established as the largest festival of Indian arts in Europe. The week-long festival coincides with an educational programme that sees British-based students of Indian music and dance converge at Liverpool Hope University’s Creative Campus under the tutelage of some of the contemporary masters of the multifarious Indian styles, and features a series of concerts at the campus’ Capstone Theatre.
Emerald-green lighting stabs through swirling smoke before a deep, velvety red backdrop and the musicians are resplendent in traditional Indian dress, richly coloured and patterned. Tonight’s opener, TARANG, looks on paper to be something of a risk – the first performance of an experimental musical style, dubbed Great British Gharana by Milapfest (a Gharana being a particular musical style), it is the developing sound of these young musicians and their mentors, initially trained in the Indian classics, rubbing up against the contemporary world-wide influences of the modern musical diaspora and adapting, adopting, rejecting, as they go. The evening kicks off with a short video, shot only days ago in the Capstone Gardens, of Tarang’s arrangement of Brubeck’s Take Five. The music is playful, joyful, a perfect precursor for what is to follow.
It’s a short set, they have five pieces completed (and are working on five more before releasing an album), but what the performance lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. The first piece sees a traditional Western violin part playing a repeated motif underlain with the tabla, strings (sitar, veena, sarod) and a variety of percussion instruments, and takes us immediately from the Celtic fringes of the Atlantic to the shores of the Indian Ocean. The drone that underpins both Indian classical and folk music, traditionally played on the fretless tanpura, is here provided by a harmonium, its rich tone swelling and receding throughout and enabling keyboard flourishes to be added to the richly layered instrumentation.
As the evening progresses the confluence of East and West, ancient and modern, is explored. Vocal traditions combine exquisitely, no more so than during a passage that weaves a traditional Indian vocal part around a lovely interpretation of the Flower Duet from Delibes’ opera Lakme. The use of a cajon adds a modern bass drum sound to the percussive beats of the third piece and drives the rhythm alongside the lightning-quick finger-work of the accompanying percussionists. Another delightful innovation is the use of a Hawaiian pedal steel guitar, which adds a ringing tone to the deftly played Indian notations that embellish the underlying rhythms.
The tempo of the pieces is well varied, slow contemplative passages building to epic, layered soundscapes or ecstatic, feverish whirlwinds which, after a thrilling finale, have the audience on their feet clapping and cheering.
SABRANG, an even younger vocal collective, line up to perform a series of classical and folk songs, continuing the intriguing theme of the evening, choral music being a little-explored area of Indian music.
The choir are backed only by a single, handheld percussion instrument and the harmonium, which gives them plenty of space to allow the vocals to soar over the ubiquitous drone and an initially simple rhythm. The three- and four-part harmonies are delightfully sung, one piece based on a pentatonic raga featuring alternate smooth as silk and chattering staccato passages. There are songs of the fields that proceed in mesmerising, trance-like fashion, to ease the pain of a hard day’s labour, amidst the slow, lilting beauty of Gujurati and Rajastani folk ballads. The pace subtly quickens in the final piece, which features an intricate hand-clapped chorus and a vocal crescendo which again has the audience on their feet. Conducting duties are shared between resident and visiting teachers and the sustained applause from students and their families when they are introduced is indicative of the positive nature of the event.
Once again at Indika it is not only the virtuosity of the musicianship that delights, but the sense of joy in performing, in learning, in teaching, and in the bonds that these activities engender.