Music, as you like it

Across the world, festivals are opting for unconventional formats to make arts more accessible

Published - October 12, 2017 05:40 pm IST

 Vocalist Bharat Sundar performing for Madrasana

Vocalist Bharat Sundar performing for Madrasana

It’s a sweltering April day. The Chennai heat picks up with renewed vigour, even as frenzy fills Facebook newsfeed. Indian Raga’s single ‘Carnatic Take’ on English musician Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You splashes across the screen with a solitary number: two million. It’s gone viral. Curious, we press play, and a mélange of tuned konnakol patterns and swaras emit from our speakers against the New York skyline. A short flight away, the stages at Darbar Festival and MilapFest play host to a galaxy of esteemed artistes as they conduct their mid-yearly migration abroad. Back home, Madrasana’s Unplugged videos reach a new level of simplicity that exudes class. Meanwhile, the Urur Olcott Kuppum Vizha volunteers gather on the shores of Elliot’s beach, reflecting on the barrier-breaking year past and what lies ahead.

Performance art is undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s taken on a new look. Amidst the flirtation with fusion that gives rise to a new band every fortnight in India, tradition is being reinvented to suit contemporary sensibilites.

Indian Raga

“Carnatic music is an unfulfilled passion,” says Indian Raga founder Sriram Emani. Brought up in Mumbai, Sriram’s love for Carnatic music began with his training as a young boy. But the niche nature of the form led his peers into other interests, while Sriram’s fascination continued to grow. “India is the birthplace of an art form that is so multi-dimensional. I knew something had to be done to project it.”

He launched the business model of Indian Raga in 2012 as a student at MIT with a simple concept: connect upcoming musicians with performance opportunities to promote young talent. Five years later, the organisation is doing just that, functioning as Sriram always envisioned: 100 per cent digitally.

The beauty lies in the diaspora’s desire to embrace tradition. “Indian classical arts flourish here, both in terms of talent and finance. While we experiment in India, our participants here want to preserve the authenticity of the classical paradigm.” The last year has seen the organisation launch its flagship programme, IndianRaga Labs , in Singapore. And that’s not all. The highly-coveted Fellowship programme kicks off its India chapter as well with Fellows like Akshay Anantapadmanabhan, Roopa Mahadevan, and Harsha Nagarajan leading the pack, Sriram says the road ahead is full of possibilities.

Arshad Khan

Arshad Khan

Darbar Festival

“I didn’t want to name it after my father, so we called it Darbar instead.” Founder Sandeep Virdee has dedicated the festival, launched in 2006, to his father and London-based tabla player, Gurmeet Singh Virdee.

What began as tribute concerts morphed into a celebration of Indian classical music, Carnatic and Hindustani.

The four-day event has visitors from all around the world, encouraging Sandeep to push the boundaries year after year. “The audience should experience the diversity of pure, traditional Indian sounds in a way that impacts them. That’s where our technical production comes in, enhancing the work of the artistes.”

He calls it an acknowledgment of true artistry, featuring stalwarts alongside newcomers to promote artistic equality in the community. This year, for instance, there will be a separate dance festival featuring Kathak exponent Akram Khan among a host of other dancers. Sandeep says he already sees the magic, coming to life.

“Darbar is like a carefully-crafted jigsaw puzzle with the perfect components. When they come together, they create a synergy that is truly magical,” says Virdee.

Tarang orchestra at Milapfest

Tarang orchestra at Milapfest


“It’s been over thirty years,” artistic director Alok Nayak tells us. What began as an unforgettable performance by Pt. Shivkumar Sharma and Ustad Zakir Hussain led to the birth of Milapfest, a Liverpool-based arts organisation that aims to “bring Indian arts to people of all backgrounds.”

Founded in the home of the Beatles, the association is a three-fold venture made up of performances, artist development, and education. “Our work serves to demystify Indian arts and build a rapport between artiste and audience,” says Alok.

The annual Indika Festival does just that, bringing together British and Indian artistes and students for a residence programme exclusive to Liverpool. The participants are diverse, often graduating from the programme’s workshops into Milapfest’s in-house orchestra, Tarang, or international dance school, Dance India.

“Indian music is viewed through an academic lens in Britain, and the set of unique factors that make it different creates a thriving industry for our participants to enter.” The practical application is astounding. While Tarang has released an album and is scoring music for feature films, the upcoming month brings a tour of sibling duo Lalgudi GJR Krishnan and Vijayalakshmi under the Milapfest banner.

“The diaspora is our biggest strength. Without their openness to our ideas, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” says Alok.


“The garden was nice, but we wanted to explore alternative stages,” says Madrasana founder Mahesh Venkateshwaran. Known for his picturesque garden and recording studio, made more beautiful by the musicians who have graced the spaces, Mahesh is reinventing yet again.

He’s using the stage at the Alliance-Francaise to create an intimate kutcheri setting. “The creativity began with the Unplugged videos and pushed us to experiment.”

The concerts at the French institute are ticketed and thematic, chronicling a journey through Carnatic music. Flagged off by a concert by Bharat Sundar and sketch artist Anirudh Srinivas, the last concert of 2017 will feature Ramakrishnan Murthy recreating the waves of the Cauvery River.

“The idea is to constantly think of new ways to present classical music, right here in the city,” adds Venkateshwaran.

 Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha

Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha

Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha

“I don’t know if I’d call the Vizha unconventional, really. Because then, what is convention?” Vocalist Sangeetha Sivakumar raises a good point, one that led her and husband TM Krishna to join hands with activist Nityanand Jayaraman to initiate the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha three years ago.

What began as a two-day effort to break the monotony of Chennai’s sabha culture has evolved into a multitude of events, from musical voyages on Chennai’s MTC buses to juxtapositioning folk with classical arts.

“The festival brings together genres on a level-playing field. In that way, the Kuppam is the perfect location and the fishermen have become like family.” Sangeetha admits the journey wasn’t easy and yet, the volunteer community has weathered the storms, constantly carrying folk and classical art forms into unexplored territory.

“The vizha has become a metaphor. It’s so much bigger than what we envisioned, so our intent has to grow.” The upcoming year’s festivities have already kicked off, and with planning for the vizha in February already underway, the organisers are ready to take it to the next stage.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.