It rained Indian classical music in London when the curtain went up on yet another edition of the Darbar Festival.

Eight years ago, when tabla maestro Bhai Gurmit Singhji Virdee passed away, he left behind a legacy of hundreds of students and a strong mission for Indian classical music in Europe. His son, Sandeep Virdee, gave up his law practice and took up the baton of a cultural impresario to curate the Darbar Festival. Over the past eight years, Darbar has grown to become Europe’s largest festival for Indian classical music.

This year’s edition, held at the prestigious Southbank Centre, saw some of the finest talent from the Indian classical genres showcase their virtuosity.

Spread over four days, the festival was not only the largest spread for Indian music lovers but in its missionary zeal to propagate classical music, it stood as a nerve centre in bridging cultures. In addition to concerts of Hindustani, Carnatic and Dhrupad, there were exclusive percussion solos, lec-dems, fringe shows and academic discussions, all in one place. No wonder the entire festival was sold out almost five months ahead with every performance witnessing packed halls spilling out of its seams!

Taking up varied themes such as ‘Where are the women?’ and ‘Is the Veena a dying tradition?’, the festival also threw up some serious concerns related to the classical arts. Sandeep, who is behind programming Darbar, said, “I go for the best. We are not driven by popularity charts.”

Darbar 2013 introduced over half a dozen Indian classical musicians to European audiences. Playing a great leveller, all that mattered was the purity and essence of the art form. The festival had a fine balance of vocalists and instrumentalists, male and female artists from all classical genres. At the Purcell Room in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, audiences were treated to Hindustani music legends including Pt. Budhaditya Mukherjee on the sitar, Dhrupad exponent Ustad Bahauddin Dagar on the rudraveena and the Carnatic counterparts vainika Jayanthi Kumaresh and vocalist Sudha Ragunathan, all performing to houseful shows.

Youngsters Sukhad Munde on the pakhawaj, Anupama Bhagwat on the sitar, Hindustani vocalists Manjusha Patil Kulkarni and Raghunandan Panshiker, Dhrupadiya Nirmalya Dey and others made their debut to great appreciation form various quarters.

London is home to a large Indian community whose active association with classical music has produced many talented youngsters such as Gurdain Singh Rayatt and Harkiret Bahra, who were a riveting presence at the fest. So was clarionet player Shankar Tucker, who made his debut at Darbar’s fringe shows.

The Royal Festival Hall had a series of non-amplified and ‘unplugged’ concerts, yoga sessions by Kanwal Ahluwalia and academic discussions, including a tribute to the late Pt. Ravi Shankar, which was attended by his family and fans.

The technical team behind the scenes was a different world of its own. Equipped with the latest gadgets in the industry and high-flying experts, almost everything in the festival was constantly under the process of being documented for posterity. Southbank Centre’s engagement with the Indian performing arts goes back to over half a century when dancer Ram Gopal enthralled Londoners at the Royal Festival Hall.

For a week, the venue was the nerve centre to a large jamboree of Indian art and artists. The British Film Institute, on its premises, had an ongoing Satyajit Ray exhibition while the main hall was preparing for another by ace lens women Dayanita Singh.

“Indian cultural activity has been a cherished part of the programme. Darbar takes its rightful place within the centre’s classical music season. We are thrilled and privileged to be part of the Darbar journey”, said Rachel Harris, Head of Participation and curator of the Alchemy festival at the Southbank centre. India was all over the place, providing enough warmth to an unusually chilly September monsoon.

Cultural catalyst

Over the years, the Darbar Festival has also played a pivotal role as a great cultural catalyst for Indian classical music. Tying up with BBC Radio 3 and SkyArts, the performances reached out to millions of homes across Europe, a feat no other festival or event has achieved anywhere. “Our TRP’s have gone up and this is one of our all-time favourite programmes. For me, it is one of the easier decisions I have to take”, said James Hunt, the channel director of SkyArts.

In the history of European TV programming, there hasn’t been such a large contingent of Indian music on air before Darbar happened. “This festival is significant for us and our cultural ties with India”, said Helen Sprott, the music director at the Arts Council of England, in her inaugural speech at the opening night of Darbar. The Council has been a generous supporter to the annual event right on from the beginning.

Looking at the frenzy Darbar creates about Indian classical music in Europe, one must credit Sandeep Virdee for his persistence, precision of thought and the promise of delivering. Going by the sheer magnitude of Darbar and its escalating growth chart, it won’t be long before one of the world’s most premier festivals will be the one completely dedicated to Indian classical music and that too happening outside of India.

(Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic.)