Spectacular, sensational, spiritual. One evening. In my city.

Tune in to the rhythm of Indian classical music…

When you’re living in Delhi, you’re not just living in India’s bustling capital. You are in a city with an enigmatic past, deeply entrenched in time as far back as 3500 BC! The enduring seat of political power over centuries, right from the Pandavas to the Mughals and the British…a perfect backdrop to experience the abundant culture heritage of one of the oldest civilisations of the world. Today Delhi hogs the limelight as India’s cultural hub and I highly recommend my city for a plethora of fascinating events all year round. Come winter, it hosts some matchless cultural extravaganzas, music fiestas, theatrical shows and food festivals. Enticing enough…

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So last week, when the city hosted the 4-day long annual classical music-dance festival, Swami Haridas-Tansen Sangeet Nritya Mahotsava, nothing could keep us away. The event is named after 15th-century saint musician of North India, Swami Haridas, and guru of Tansen, India’s greatest musician. Organised by renowned kathak danseuse Uma Sharma and funded wholly by corporate sponsors, attendance to this event is entirely free! Come one, come all.

As expected, there are no allotted seats and audience is unlimited. Reach an hour before show time for a good seat. If you don’t mind a little adventure, arrive later and squeeze yourself into the (already-filling up) cushions arranged on the semi-circular steps bordering the main seating area. Else, just drop all your graces and settle for the carpeted aisles. Rejoice if its really last-minute…you have the liberty to race to the stage and squat around the raised dias, close enough to reach out and touch the performers. The warm informality, chaotic as it seems, will strike a chord in your heart. Now that’s an engaged audience!

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While you wait for the evening to commence, allow your mind to deliberate India’s rich classical musical inheritance, going back to the 16th century, when Tansen rose to fame in the Hindu court of Gwalior, and later Mughal emperor Akbar’s court, where he was bestowed of title of Navratna (one of the nine gems). Many modern gharanas (music teaching houses) are offshoots of the lineage of this founder of Hindustani classical music: Dhrupad (solemn, spiritual), Khayal (moody, celebratory), Thumri (romantic-devotional) and Tappa (folksy). Khayal formed the template for Sufi and Qawwali songs among the Islamic community of India…some unmistakable Arab and Persian influences there. It is this diversity that is quintessentially Indian! And Delhi…so apt as its stage.

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Reflect on the intrinsic sagacity behind the seemingly ordinary ceremony of lamp-lighting. It is actually a peek into an age-old Indian ritual (still part of many traditional households), where an oil lamp is lit at the beginning and end of the day as an invocation to the divine light or cosmic energy. The burning of the flame represents a rise in spiritual knowledge, drain of negative tendencies (oil) and the destruction of the ego (wick). Inspired?

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The line-up is stellar. Think renowned mohan-veena instrumentalist Pandit Vishwamohan Bhatt, tabla exponent Ram Kumar Mishra, Hindustani classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal, classical flutist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, sitar musician Ustad Shujaat Khan and sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. The very idea of witnessing live performances by these revered celebrities is overwhelming. All torch-bearers in their chosen fields, some of them with several generations of family legacy behind them…creative geniuses who have left an indelible mark on the world stage. Drink up…every priceless drop of this enlightening evening!

Brace for something unfamiliar. Music has a universal language, yet Indian and Western classical music are worlds apart. Ragas are like broad frameworks within which musical notes are interwoven following a complex cycle of rhythmic beats (taal). Simply put, ragas are the colors and the music is the painting. There are no standard compositions (as in western music) and artists have the liberty to creatively express, improvise or attempt reproductions from their idols. In Indian classical music, there is no concept of documenting work…its a constant evolution.

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Its magic from the word ‘go’. Couplets from mystic poet-saint Kabir and Sufi musician-icon Amir Khusrau fill your ears and transport you into a new consciousness. Ragas and talas float in the air around you, lift you up and carry you to a marble palace by a serene blue lake, diaphanous white curtains floating between dozens of carved pillars. Or the ghats of a river, near an ancient temple. Sometime, somewhere in the 15th century. The gentle strumming of the sitar, the soft beat of the tabla and the slow swirl of the dancers’ skirts pace up imperceptibly until the energetic gusto reaches a crescendo that makes your heart skip a beat.

Amjad Ali Khan’s craft dazzles, and you’re glued magnetically as his fingers  dance over the sarod (popular stringed instrument) tirelessly. Sixth generation from a family of master musicians, and now proud father to two sarod-masters, Amaan and Ayaan Ali, he is a legend par excellence. The two tabla (type of drum) players accompany him effortlessly, even fade off for his solo. But occasionally, he restricts his instrument to a background hum and encourages them to take the limelight, showcasing their virtuosity. Different from a Western classical concert, where the composer and conductor are the centrepiece and the rest of the performance is a team effort! Hold on to every spontaneous improvisation and every joyous jugalbandi. There won’t be a playback.

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Shubha Mudgal stirs your soul with her full-throated vocal rendition. She is  accompanied by stringed tanpura players, shadowing the tonality of her voice. Unlike in Western classical music, here instrumentation falls into the background as a steady tone…call it a point of reference for the singer if you will. Half-way through, a little girl behind us, who’s probably taking classical music lessons, can’t control her curiosity. “Is that Shubha Mudgal?” she asks her mother, who chides her. “Hush! While taking the name of a guru or senior, always touch your ears in respect. They are too highly accomplished for you. And do you understand now how much riyaaz (practice) you need to do everyday, to achieve even a fraction of what these fine artists have achieved?” she reminds her solemnly before the child runs towards the stage, her phone camera poised in her hand. The fascination for classical music may have taken a back-seat to modernity, but the sacred guru-shishya parampara lives on…

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Ustad Shujaat Khan weaves magic with his sitar (named after a Persian instrument called the setar, meaning three strings). A musical pedigree of over seven generations after all! We sway to the lush reverberations, amazed by the impeccable gayaki ang, (mirroring the human voice). He declines an audience request to perform a certain raga because it is not the appropriate time of day for it. A reaffirmation of the wisdom and science of ancient Indian musicologists.

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A reminder. The roots of the classical music of India are found in the Vedic literature of Hinduism (1500-500 BC). The mind is considered to be affected by nature’s rhythms, so music is a holistic experience designed to facilitate symphony with the universe. Accordingly, ragas have specific times of day or seasons of the year associated with them. It is said that Tansen’s musical genius could light lamps (Raag Deepak) and even downpour of rain (Raag Megh Malhar)!

Meanwhile, here, in this auditorium, we are part of a shared communion, a spiritual awakening. People are humming, nodding in sync, tapping their hands and feet. A young man sits with his eyes closed, all through, as if in trance, shutting out every sensory impulse, except the music in his ears. A little girl in a red velvet dress thoroughly engrossed in the flute recital, has her own fingers fluttering over an imaginary bansuri (flute). A lady holds her index finger thoughtfully against her cheek, gazing in full intent. A young man holds his bent head in his hands in utter concentration.

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We follow the move of every raised eyebrow, every muscle twitch, every smile, every grimace, every concerted frown of the musicians on stage, ride the waves of the scale and the pitch, until the delirious applause brings us down from the divinity of heaven. Some are left agape, some mesmerised, and some utter appreciative ‘wah wah’ aloud. But everyone is promising themselves to come back for more. Will you be there next time?

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92 thoughts on “Spectacular, sensational, spiritual. One evening. In my city.

    1. Indian classical music is more enlightening than fun, actually 🙂 Its great to know that you are familiar with Bhangra. Its a very popular folk dance of Punjab, very unlike these performances, which are more comparable in stature to Western classical music.

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  1. Well it seems you have got a nice and unique experience there! Usually I don’t hear classical music during my routine time but I think I could make an exception if I go in a Theatre! India is on my bucket list too, wish to get there one day! Thanks for sharing it

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  2. That’s the advantage of living in Delhi, you get to go to the special events. The tourists would need an incredible amount of luck to attend this event. I imagine the classic music was amazing, even more so being live!

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  3. wow, you really brought me into the atmosphere of this place in Delhi. I’m a big fan of classical music, i’m sorry that when i visited Delhi i never attended any cultural event. I only went to Lotus temple and few other places. Maybe next time !

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  4. This sounds like quite the event! I have always been fascinated by India, but I don’t think we’ll go before another few years. We are however going to Sri Lanka in March for our honeymoon, which I know isn’t the same but it’s relatively similar, isn’t it? I mean the culture, the music, the food… Similar to southern India from what I’ve been told.

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  5. My own country, Canada, is still so new in comparison to such rich and deep rooted history! You are so fortunate! This looks like such a magical experience, so different than anything I’ve ever been to, would be such fortune to be a part of something like this. Thank you for sharing 🙂

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  6. Delhi is a great place and full of cultrue, this shows us all a reason why Delhi should be added to every travellers bucket list. Although I would be surprised if it wasn’t already. Seems like you had a great time. 🙂 it was a nice read, thanks for sharing

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  7. You really painted the image of the whole experience! I’m Indian ancestry but born in UK and I must admit that I find Indian music quite challenging and struggle to enjoy it but this kind of show is more than just music but a cultural spectacle!

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  8. I was in Delhi a few years ago. It certainly does have an enigmatic past. We watched the sound and light show at The Red Fort and it was mesmerizing. We also visited the other cultural and historic attractions and there was a fascinating story in every place.

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  9. Sounds like an amazing musical evening. Classical music is definitely a soul feeding experience. Shubha Mudgal is my favorite, our childhood had been awesome listening to her songs like ‘Ab Ke Sawan’.

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  10. I haven’t heard much Indian music, other than bhangra (which I think is great) but I’d love to go along to a music evening like this. I had no idea that it was such a spiritual experience. I’ll make sure to go to a similar show when I get to India, it sounds fascinating.

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  11. This night sounds magical. I’d love to visit India and experience this music. I really believe you can learn a lot about a culture through its music.

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  12. I was in Delhi a few years ago but didn’t have any cultural experiences like this. It sounds like an engrossing evening. Your write-up is very detailed and really captures the feel of the performance.

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  13. India, and Delhi in particular are places that I’m absolutely dying to visit. The city seems so vibrant and bustling and I would love to be able to experience the culture first hand!

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  14. I have been reading so many inspiring things about India and now this too. Sounds like an amazing night filled with excitement. Music is the way to most people’s hearts and souls. No figure you could feel the cultural experience to your core. Thanks for sharing

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  15. Wow–that sounds like a really amazing event! We love watching live performances, especially when they are by such great people like this. I always enjoy learning about traditional music in other cultures–I never realized that there are no standard compositions or that there is no concept of documenting work. I love that the music is ever evolving!

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  16. I grew up with a mix of classic rock and classical music. I think I started to regularly listen to classical pieces when I was 5 (and started ballet lessons) This four day festival would be ideal for me. I would love to know more about Indian classical music and listen to it in such an authentic setting.

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    1. Ah…so you can relate to what I describe here. Its so wonderful to have exposure to classical music as a child. I have acquired a taste for classical music much later, as an adult, and I think, like all finer things in life, arts and music take us to a higher level.

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  17. Each time I visit my favorite Indian restaurant, I couldn’t help but feel intoxicated with the music they are playing. So instead of ordering take-out, I endee up dining in 🙂 It was lovely!

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  18. What a fabulous event! I would love to make it to Delhi eventually, and hopefully plan my trip to coincide with the classical music-dance festival. I love that there is such diversity in the performances, and it’s so interesting to have an insight into the music and performing arts culture … I love that there are no standard compositions … very different to what we are used to in western music! So fantastic as an artist to have the freedom and liberty to creatively express, improvise and attempt reproductions from their idols!

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  19. Very detailed description of the event. I went on and opened couple songs from your mentioned artists while I was reading your posts. I liked the instrumental music the most. Interesting to listen, since I have not heard much Indian music before.

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    1. The fact that you went searching for Indian classical music shows your keenness to know more about it. If you’re interested, in addition to these performers, I would recommend Tabla by Zakir Hussain and Sitar by Ravi Shankar and Anushka Shankar.

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  20. It’s not so easy to write about music and musical event when you actually have to hear that. You did a great job with your inspiring information and great photos. Thanks for sharing!

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