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A habba in Vasantha

Every year in February, Nrityagram, the dream project of Protima Gauri Bedi, hums with activity. Musicians across the country perform for a mammoth audience. However, over the years, fewer connoisseurs of art are attending the festival, observes SONIRA GULHATI.

Myriad colours: With amazing synchronicity and a compelling physicality, the lovely dancers of the Nrityagram ensemble have earned national and international acclaim for their ability to redefine dance and theatre.

YOU'VE JUST woken up after a half-hour snooze (which, of course, seemed like it had gone on forever). For the first 10 seconds, you're disoriented. What's going on? Music and dance, of course! Though it's more likely that most of the audience at the Vasantahabba didn't doze off. The variety at this year's festival was engaging enough to keep even the sleepiest person awake all night.

On a cold Saturday night in February every year, Bangalore witnesses the habba that has embedded itself on the City's cultural map. This year, a record of over 40,000 people, which comprised not just locals but also from other parts of the country and the globe, were at the Nrityagram to witness what is turning into India's very own Woodstock. The event, started by Protima Gauri Bedi in 1990, has grown in reputation and size over time. Young and old alike flock to Nrityagram at Hessaraghatta every year, to watch top artistes perform.

Last weekend's do had great names such as Grammy award winner Pandit Vishwamohan Bhatt and son Salil Bhatt on the Mohan Veena, Shashank on the Carnatic flute, Taufiq Qureshi and group with fusion music, and many more. The well-known local artists included the STEM Dance theatre and Amit Heri and Group, Beliappa and Party, the Nrityagram dance ensemble, and the Nrityagram village ensemble.

Audiences started to come in at 3:30 p.m. to get seats in the amphitheatre for the event that began at 6.30 p.m.. The night-long event began with the dances and went on to the music concerts after midnight. Like every year noted theatre person Arundati Rao and Kannada actor Srinivas Prabhu compered the event. Except for the usual rehearsed dialogues of Arundati Rao that audiences get to hear year after year, the two comperes were engaging enough to keep the crowd awake.

Among the audience were several celebrities not only from Bangalore, but Mumbai as well. Kabir Bedi and daughter Pooja Bedi, actress Lillette Dubey and well-known personality Dolly Thakore came to Bangalore to attend the Habba.

The 40,000-strong audience was a pleasantly heterogeneous one. Villagers, software geeks, old women and men, couples with children and groups of young people kept coming in at all times. It was interesting to hear the various conversations going on among the various age groups. There seemed to be a lot of activity near the food stalls through the night. While the older generation was absolutely mesmerised with the musicians, the younger people seemed to be preoccupied with other things. Even Malini Rajurkar seemed upset with a noisy audience.

A walk through the crowds made one feel that one was walking through a market place that was selling a range of things, from the most mundane to the most exotic. They ranged from jasmines to alcohol, coffee to chicken rolls, popcorn to marijuana, and of course the very popular nicotine! Braving the cold, people wrapped up in shawls and blankets, were enjoying themselves thoroughly, of course not necessarily with what was happening on stage. The amphitheatre that can seat about 3000-odd people was packed up to the wee hours of the morning.

The Warsi brothers are known for purity of ragas and their measured tones and taals.

The performance by the local STEM Dance theatre was a feast for the eyes. The young group of men and women danced cleverly and enthralled audiences with their contemporary moves. They also performed an item based on the Kerala martial art form kalaripayattu, rather skillfully. This was incorporated with music from Amit Heri and group that made the audiences' rock to their beat.

The father-son duo of Vishwamohan-Salil Bhatt are known for their innovative performances.

Shashank on the Carnatic flute followed by the famous Pandit Vishwamohan Bhatt and son Salil Bhatt created magic with their instruments. Bhatt has played six times in a row at the festival and is immensely popular with Bangalore's audiences. Twenty four-year-old Shashank played the flute with youthful fun and astonishing virtuosity. The morning saw a lively performance by the well-known Warsi brothers, Naseer and Nazeer Warsi. The mystical qawwali more than managed to get audiences to dance and sing along at odd hours of the morning. The performance by this young group of qawwals was truly enchanting.

On the whole the festival was as delightful as ever. The open air, the bamboo trees, the starry sky, music and dance that stirred the soul... pure magic! And all this for a mammoth 40,000 audience. As Lynne Fernandez, administrative in charge of Nrityagram and the soul behind the success of the dance school puts it: "The crowds are getting quite huge. Hats off to the organising committee that they managed them well." Nevertheless, one would only wish that at least half the people at the Vasantahabba knew what it was all about. The 13-year-old idea conceived by Protima Gauri in 1990 has succeeded in focussing energies in creating an event so rare and charming, that it is truly a celebration.

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