The “Indian Voices” day held last Sunday as part of the eight-week series of BBC Promenade Concerts (the Proms) at the Royal Albert Hall, was a vivid example of London’s ongoing love affair with Indian culture.
The intensive program ran from morning until late into the evening and included three major concerts. Two of the concerts - broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 - were staged in the Royal Albert Hall. The third was held in Kensington Gardens. The grand finale, starring the Indian singer Shaan, made BBC Proms history as being the first-ever Prom of Bollywood music.
The day also included two literary events: a discussion on Bollywood movies held in the Royal College of Music, and a radio broadcast of readings from Indian literature interspersed with music.
The discussion on Bollywood, chaired by the scholar and broadcaster Rana Mitter, involved the prize-winning writer for adults and children Jamila Gavin [pictured] and theater director Jatinder Verma. Both retain powerful memories of the first Indian films they saw as children. Gavin grew up in Mussoorie in the foothills of the Himalaya, and Verma was raised in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Verma described Bollywood movies as “India’s opera, but unlike opera in the West this is opera for everyone, and that has been a tradition within Indian cinema from the time that it started.” Jamila said: “One of the great triumphs of the genre of the Bollywood movie, and to some extent in the early years of the Hollywood musicals, is that it bridged the gap between the haves and have-nots. It actually brought a democracy to storytelling and music.”
In the second literary event, a 75-minute Radio 3 Words and Music broadcast entitled All India Radio, two of Britain’s best-loved actors, Meera Syal and Art Malik, delivered 13 readings. The excerpts were drawn from diverse works, ranging from ancient Indian classics to Aravind Adiga’s novel “White Tiger” (winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize), Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s “The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian” and poems by Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar.
The event generated much enthusiasm, especially amongst the UK’s population of approximately 1.5 million people of Indian origin, and bringing together Indians and non-Indians in a shared appreciation of the Indian culture. Indeed, it was the third high-profile manifestation of London’s intense interest in Indian arts within four months. India was the Market Focus of the London Book Fair in April, and the associated three-day program of literary happenings brought some 50 Indian writers to London.
In May, the British Museum opened its stunning exhibition “Garden & Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur” which runs until Oct. 11 and is accompanied by a six-month Indian Summer festival of Indan culture.
The three “Indian Voices” concerts provided a rich cross-section of musical styles. The morning concert comprised music from great performers in the khyal tradition, plus a group from Kerala named Asima, described as “an iconoclastic, boundary-breaking young vocal ensemble”.
Among the performers in this first concert was the greatest living virtuoso of the sarangi (short-necked fiddle) Pandit Ram Marayan, with his sarangi-playing daughter Aruna, accompanied by Natasha Ahmed on tanpura.
He was followed by the rising khyal singer Manjiri Asnare Kelkar, and by the snowy-haired brothers Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra who displayed extraordinary vocal techniques.
Two other highly-talented brothers who performed during the concert were the young tabla players Akbar and Babar Latif, sons of the late Ustad Latif Ahmed Khan.
The afternoon saw the free open air concert, “Indian Voices in the Park”, bring a dazzle of color and the penetrating sounds of Indian voices and instruments to the normally sedate Kensington Gardens. The concert was well attended with the expanse of grass in front of the stage crowded with spectators seated in the warm sunshine.
The concert featured folk music and dance from Rajasthan (including ghoomer dance) and Gujarat (ras and garba dances). The singers from Rajasthan included a number of boys with beautiful and powerful voices, indicating that the great traditions of folk music are indeed, being passed down.
The grand finale of “Indian Voices” was the Prom of Bollywood numbers performed by 36-year-old Shaan, the award-winning singer and TV talent show host. Shaan is both a pop star and a playback singer for many Indian films. He appeared with his group The Groove and with dancers from the
Honey’s Dance Academy, which teaches the Bollywood performing arts in the London area.
BBC Asian Network presenter Nikki Bedi noted: “Shaan really represents the Westernized sound of Bollywood.” His music switched from bossanova grooves to rock and then reggae.
“The purists out there would say it’s derivative, - well yes it is, Bollywood is, it’s a mish mash masala of so many different styles. It’s a great way for people in the whole of India to get a taste of what’s going on in the rest of the world so they’re unapologetic about it.”
“Indian Voices in the Park” was held near one of London’s most famous landmarks: the Albert Memorial with its gilded statue of Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert. Under Queen Victoria, India was “the jewel in the crown” of imperial Britain.
Now India is a global cultural powerhouse, and the concert showed it asserting confidently and colorfully its musical identity and traditions, and in a sense speaking back to the former colonial power.