Feature: Darbar Festival 2016 review

Jazz Travels Feature: We sent George Howlett along to this year's Darbar Music Festival, check out his incredible review here.

In India, as in the West, it can be fashionable to lament the supposed decline of classical music. However it is hard to believe in the reality of this trend based on the evidence of a fortnight ago, as Darbar Festival took over the Southbank Centre for three full days. Despite being 5,000 miles away from the music’s homeland, hundreds packed out the Royal Festival Hall to hear some of India’s finest performers present the fruits of their lineage to both new and seasoned ears.

Young listeners who shy away from the Western classical world through a perception of stuffy or reserved formalism can expect none of this from Darbar. This is living music improvised for the exact time and place of performance, and can only be fully experienced as such. Many musicians did not choose which rāga would best suit the evening mood until taking stage after the previous performer, and audiences did not hesitate to loudly applaud feats of conceptual and technical virtuosity.

The program included bold new musical fusions. Cellist Matthew Barley led Friday’s premiere of Universal Notes, a experimental work blending Western classical forms with both of India’s distinct Classical traditions - Hindustani from the North, and Carnatic from the South. The project was the culmination of a year-long collaboration between Darbar’s organisers and the Philharmonia Orchestra, and featured composed string passages intertwined with powerful Indian rhythms and leads. The ensemble included strings, clarinet, violin, sitar, bansuri bamboo flute, Saraswati veena, and ghatam clay pot, and expertly balanced the unpredictability of Indian improvisation with sophisticated harmonic writing. The electrifying result married the best elements from Eastern and Western classical forms more adeptly than we have heard in any previous fusions of this kind.

Free morning yoga sessions and meditative dhrupad recitals allowed festival-goers to ease into each day, but much of the evening music was loud and direct, with all main performances reaching sonically dense and fierce heights. The lyrics of some khyal vocal recordings lead to them being marked with the “explicit” tag on the iTunes store, and there was certainly nothing polite about Aruna Saiam’s extraordinary vocal recreation of Lord Krishna’s mythical battle with Kaliya, the fearsome five-headed snake who boiled the waters of the Yamuna River around him as they fought. An all-male rhythm section of Dr. S Karthik’s ghatam and P.S. Kumar’s mridangam provided aggressive firepower for the all-female triple lead of Saiam’s voice, Jayanti Kumaresh’s veena, and Jyotsna Shrikanth’s sliding violin.

Much of the program was imbued with warmth and humour. The Sunday evening finale featured Amjad Ali Khan, a legendary maestro who represents a five centuries-old dynastic lineage, smiling as he apologised for filing his nails on stage, so as to better slide around his metal sarod fretboard. This informality provided a particular resonance for his stunning explorations of rāgas and folk songs, as he traded jagged grooves with the ‘kings of tabla’ duet of Kumar Bose and Anindo Chatterjee.

Shubha Mudgal’s acrobatic manipulation of sustained notes continued until her throat was hoarse, and such things as officially billed set times were of little concern to khyal singing superstars Rajan & Sajan Mishra. They had unfinished business regarding the correct structural elaboration of Raag Megh Malhar, and so played on late into the night - and would have carried on had the venue organisers not turned the crowd lights up.

The finely tuned program included performers from North, South, East, and West, spanning the young to the old, but showcasing diversity took more direct forms as well. Hindustani music has a longstanding tradition of religious neutrality, meaning that Muslim performers often sing songs devoted to Hindu deities and vice versa. An all-female panel discussed the status of women musicians, including the gendered power dynamics of the Mughal courtesans, and the suppression of evoking sringara (erotic love) in favour of bhagti (religious devotion). Listeners were reminded that Saraswati - the Hindu deity representing music, art, and learning - is female.

Various other talks, films, and workshops were held on the tradition’s place in history and the modern world, and trends such as the changing nature of the ancient guru-shishya (master-pupil) teaching method were discussed by those who shape them. The front row of the audience was filled with the other festival headliners, meaning that the deep reverence that younger performers had for those who had inspired them was always in clear focus. There are few other live events where you can regularly experience modern mavericks playing directly to their forebearers.

Western listeners often aspire to hear and appreciate the ‘purity’ of traditional music from other cultures. But Indian Classical music is probably as impure as any tradition gets, with North India in particular having been a fertile fusion ground for millennia. Folk melodies and devotional Vedic chanting intertwined at the same time as the pharaohs ruled Egypt, and formed styles that have since been coloured by the influence of many other cultures - medieval traders, Indian Ocean settlers, the Islamic Mughal Empire, and colonial Britain. Even the recent availability of microphones has had a profound influence, allowing the whispering overtones of a sitar and the sliding booms of bayan tabla to reach crowds of thousands.


There was plenty of explanation on offer for the newcomer, although Indian Classical music has a particular power to entrance at first listen even without this. Rāga can be translated from Sanskrit as ‘that which colours the mind’, and performers aim to evoke specific moods such as adbhutam (wonder), raudram (divine fury), or shantam (tranquility). The vivid textures and intricate rhythms in both Northern and Southern variants make it easy to instantly like: the sound of a sitar being tuned was enough to inspire a huge ovation from the crowd of thousands at George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, who assumed it to be the actual performance. The setup is often visually striking too - Darbar’s purple-lit and architecturally patterned stage hosted performers in multicoloured saris and kurta robes, and some Indian instruments are virtually sculptures in their own right.

Indian music’s improvised and rhythmic nature imbues heights of eloquent sophistication with a real-time playfulness that can be hard to find on other scenes, from DJing and electronic production to Western classical recitals. There are however many stylistic links to familiar Western forms - fans of the gradual development found in house and techno sets may find a similar joy in long-form rāga performance, and admirers of ambient drone can directly trace the genre’s roots back to dhrupad singing. There were even shades of Dilla-style deliberate sloppiness in Dr. Aneesh Pradhan’s accompaniments at Darbar. And I challenge anyone to find a more intricately funky drummer than Anindo Chatterjee, the ‘lion of tabla’, who proved himself to be at home improvising over everything from dādra waltzes to multilayered 6-and-a-half-beat cycles (in fact, some tabla solos sounds a lot like jungle/DnB anyway). Indian ideas continue to inspire those in the West, with Bernhard Schimpelsberger’s Rhythm Diaries and Flux’s odd-time songwriting being particular highlights at Darbar.

Many have noticed that the more rhythmic Western classical styles hold a particular appeal with younger listeners: 20th century minimalism is performed across the globe, with Steve Reich even featuring live at the 2013 Bloc Festival. It is no coincidence that minimalist pioneers such as Reich, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young all place profound importance on their various immersions into Indian music, and these links are not going unrecognised by the classical establishment. The music this weekend marked the official opening of the Southbank’s main classical season, and next year Darbar is expanding internationally to become part of the Ravenna Festival in Italy.

Darbar was everything a classical festival should be: a finely balanced blend of traditional forms and modern fusions, that jumped at the chance to both address its social history and engage with its cultural subject matter as a living tradition. It is no surprise that the festival continues to grow - it will be going multi-venue as well as international next year, ensuring that India’s foremost stars will continue to perform and collaborate on the world stage for years to come. As Amjad Ali Khan put it, true reverence for a tradition entails continuing innovation with its core ideas.

Events of Darbar’s calibre demonstrate London’s continuing credentials as a global hub for cross-cultural fusions, and it is thanks to expert programming like this that Indian Classical music is truly alive in the modern world.

George Howlett


Playlist: Darbar 2016 performances will be screened on Sky Arts from 28th Oct, and also subscribe to the festival’s superb YouTube channel for future uploads of the music described above. But for those who wish to learn more about Indian Classical music now, sample the following:



More from Music News