As dusk falls, the languid waters of the Narmada gleam under the silvery rays of the full moon. The parisar (courtyard) inside Maheshwar’s Ahilya Fort, which stands like a silent sentinel on the river bank, comes alive with soft lights and meditative music during the annual Sacred River Festival. Even as you listen to the artistes performing on the makeshift stage with intricately carved stone arches for a backdrop, your eyes constantly gaze at the magnificent monument in Madhya Pradesh.
When one of the singers finishes explaining the nuances of the bandish in raag Jog, popularised by Ustad Amir Khan, the founder of the Indore gharana, the overwhelmed listener sitting next quickly shares how the Holkars (Maheshwar was the seat of the dynasty) patronised the arts, and that this festival, conceived by Richard Holkar, represents the family’s refined cultural sensibilities.
As more forts and palaces around the country play host to artistes from across genres through events curated to suit these quaint spaces, this collaboration of history and art has become a huge hit with tourists, artistes and connoisseurs.
“From palaces to the proscenium, our classical arts may have come a long way, yet nothing can be more exhilarating than performing at these original seats of culture,” says vocalist Kalapini Komkali, who performed at the Sacred River Festival in February this year. “Such festivals turn the spotlight again on these ancient structures, drawing people to visit them. This, in turn, contributes towards their upkeep while offering important lessons in history and art to the new generation,” adds the daughter of the legendary Kumar Gandharva.
Kalapini, who has performed quite a few times at the festival, remembers how once she sang at the temple in the middle of the Narmada while the listeners were seated on boats. “It was surreal. More than thousand diyas floating on the water lit up the night.”
The growing popularity of these festivals can be largely attributed to the fact that the organisers have developed their own unique formula to attract audiences from across the globe. They seem to have begun to wield enormous cultural power — constantly opening people’s minds to something new that defies categorisation.
“The aim is to create a more inclusive art space that celebrates different identities and communities,” says Sanjoy Roy, Managing Director of Teamwork Arts, which curates the Sacred Amritsar at the Maharaja Ranjit Singh Summer Palace in Amritsar.
“The idea is to push the creative envelope in such a way that the festival ties together the sublime aura that great music and architecture can evoke. The curation should be reflective of the tangible heritage of this philosophy,” says Sanjoy.
The eclectic lineup also makes business sense, since it brings in a bigger and diverse crowd, and more sponsors. “But, as a curator, you should be fortunate to have a promoter who is equally passionate about preserving artistic traditions. These events cannot be conceived with just a worksheet; you need to have your heart in the right place,” says Madhavi Kukreja, the woman behind the Mahindra Sanatkada Festival in Lucknow.
Launched in 2010, it is held in the white-marbled Safed Baradari, built as a Palace of Mourning by Wajid Ali Shah, the last nawab of Awadh.
Apart from music, dance and theatre performances, craft walks, discussions and food displays, the festival highlights the Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb (syncretic culture) intrinsic to Awadh. “Such events offer the time and space to engage with the past, which is essential to understand what we are losing, culturally.”
The USP of these festivals is the vibe. And violin exponent Mysore Manjunath, who has often performed at the Mysuru Palace during its famous Dasara Festival, endorses it. “It’s about meeting new people and experiencing new sounds.”
Another popular music festival which takes place in a historical site is the Swathi Sangeethotsavam, which is held at the Kuthiramalika Palace in Thiruvananthapuram. Though it is dedicated to Carnatic music, it is thronged by music-lovers from around the world. Imagine listening to concerts in the place where Maharaja Swati Tirunal composed many of his songs!
“I have played at several prestigious international venues but nothing can match the experience of performing on a stage surrounded by the imposing red sandstone walls of the Mehrangarh Fort,” says ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram, who was part of Jodhpur RIFF’s formidable 2023 lineup. “Since the fort is located on a cliff, my beats seemed to gain a different resonance at that height,” he laughs.
From forts and rivers to palaces and courtyards, new-age listeners seem to be soaking in culture and history — making it a win-win situation for both.