The combination of approaches and artistes at the just-concluded Swami Haridas Sangeet evam Nritya Mahotsav in Vrindavan resulted in a mishmash

To any classical musician, especially (but not exclusively) an exponent of Hindustani music, the name of Swami Haridas, believed to have lived during the 14th-15th Century, is held in reverence. Mingled legend and inherited information tell us that the saint composer was among the most significant voices of the Bhakti movement, a guru to legendary musicians Tansen and Baiju Bawra and a great propagator of the Dhrupad genre of music. A festival in memory of this legendary guru, whose music and philosophy both have come down to us through his shishya parampara, has been held annually for the past century and a half in Vrindavan, the playground of Lord Krishna — where Haridas settled towards the end of his life and where his samadhi is located. The Swami Haridas Sangeet evam Nritya Mahotsav – 2012 concluded this past Sunday in Vrindavan, marking the 151st edition of the event, which is organised by the Sangeet Shiromani Swami Haridas Samiti under the leadership of Gopi Goswami.

How ironic, though, that the day observed as his birth anniversary, Radha Ashtami according to the lunar calendar (also the birthday of Radha whom the saint worshipped), which fell on the second day of the Mahotsav, saw a restive crowd rudely clapping (obviously not in admiration) during a soulful alap being sung by some of the most celebrated artistes of the country. Perhaps — and one would hope — the disturbance did not reach the artistes since the audience area was very large and the troublemakers not near the stage. At any other venue, one might have dismissed this behaviour as bound to happen occasionally in a country smitten by commercial films and where every musical term, be it bhajan, ghazal or classical, is understood as prefixed with ‘Bollywood’. And that it happened in a festival purportedly paying homage to a luminary inextricably associated with Dhrupad music also could have been seen as a sign of the times. Where one feels the organisers too should take some responsibility for this state of affairs is in the overall selection of artistes and in the presentation (revolving spots, multicoloured beams, stencils on the ceiling, et al) that befits a ‘Haridas Nite’ more than Sangeet evam Nritya Mahotsav.

It is highly laudable in this age for a festival to survive for 150 years. But in helping it survive, to exploit the ‘tamasha’ element of classical music and dance, which in Swami Haridas’ tradition were a vehicle to reach the Divine, for the entertainment of the largest common denominator, does not make sense. Undeniably, whether to play to the gallery and to be an all out entertainer, or pursue a spiritual approach to music is the choice of each individual artiste. But when the dais is resounding with spiritual quotations and the example of the saint composer himself, who shunned Emperor Akbar’s invitation to the court in favour of communing with his Lord in the serenity of his hut, the gap between word and deed becomes too wide to bridge. And when, after audience expectations have been set with dance and music taking recourse to what at best are demonstrations of skill and at worst are gimmicks, a serious artiste comes along with a meditative approach to the art and gets an unsavoury reception, the organisers too need to rethink.

Goswami says the effort is to maintain the dignity (garima) of the festival while keeping it interesting (rochak). In the latter category were presumably artistes like Hemant Brijwasi (of “Little Champs – 2009” fame). Also Surbhi Tandon, who wowed spectators with compositions that depicted “ghode ki chaal” and “sher ki chhalaang” and asked them to count her 54 chakkars with her (“otherwise I won’t be able to do it”), and Ashok Pandey, tabla exponent, who too took recourse to extracting the sound of horse hooves and conch shells from his instrument, accompanied by a lovely young girl trying to keep up with a lehra on the sitar that she was not quite up to. A 20-minute slot at the beginning of the second evening was taken up by young girls from Goswami’s Swami Haridas Sangeet evam Nritya Academy, who, it was announced, had prepared their show in only two days! The children, earlier seen practising at the Academy, had informed us they had been learning Kathak for all of two months. Dancing to a recorded stuti by Pandit Jasraj, they would have merited indulgent praise at the school level — but why should this mishmash approach be applied to a mahotsav with a serious reputation?

One begins to wonder whether the super-voiced classical-based Sufiana Qawwali group of the Nizami Brothers might not have got the reception they did if they didn’t belt out their stuff like rock stars, wear flashy shirts and use a banjo in accompaniment. Pandit Chhanulal Mishra, given the stage after 1 a.m., managed his performance by keeping it short and brisk. Sonal Mansingh, who presented a katha “Krishna Rang Rachee”, used her storytelling skills to keep the crowd involved. And the Gundecha Brothers did not get the rapt attention they deserved. Incidentally, they had been included in this round when it was specifically pointed out to the organisers last year that a festival in the name of Haridas without a Dhrupad component was a contradiction in terms. This is not to say popular entertainment is in any way less worthy. But when you eat a lot of achaar, it is hard for the tongue to appreciate the subtler taste paneer or cream!