Swara Samrat Festival 2021: A fine blend of traditional music

Vocal, instrumental and dance performances by new and established artistes at the four-month long online Swara Samrat festival turned out to be a mixed bag

Listening to the four-month long online Swara Samrat festival (SSF) that concluded recently allowed one to note certain trends in Hindustani music that are increasingly gaining strength. The tradition of not repeating a raga previously performed at a festival is being ignored nowadays. At SSF, some ragas were repeated up to even three times.

There were 16 instrumental concerts (Hindustani), yet most of the instrumentalists chose not to highlight their instruments’ specific ‘baaj,’ preferring to follow the ‘gayaki ang’ with no ‘tantra baaj’. In format too, they played only aalap, no ‘jor’ and ‘jhala’, followed by vilambit gats rather than moving on to a fast-paced madhya laya composition. The listening experience is definitely compromised.

Sitar player Pt. Subhendra Rao at Swara Samrat Festival, 2021  

But despite being recorded in near empty auditoriums, some of the performances were deeply satisfying. For instance, sitar player Pt. Subhendra Rao’s exposition of raag Charukauns created by his guru Pt. Ravi Shankar was a wonderful presentation. With his ability to present coherent, easily distinguishable form of even an unknown raag, Shubhendra, who had just recovered from Covid, played with maturity and impeccable ‘taalim’. Sadly, this is missing these days. Many musicians jump from one musical thought to another without sequence or closure. His next raag, Tilak Shyam (again composed by Pt. Ravi Shankar), was rich in lyrical beauty. Ustad Akram Khan on the tabla enhanced the music.

Unhurried presentation

Rukmini Vijayakumar from Bengaluru presented a taut, graceful Bharatanatyam performance, which was perhaps enhanced by her novel costume. Sanjeev Shankar with his team from Banaras, including Shubh Maharaj on the tabla, impressed with his shehnai recital. Sadly, the instrument is being forsaken for the easy-to-play flute. Sanjeev was able to convey the leisurely mood of Banaras through his unhurried recital of raag Maru Bihag.

Sarod player Ranajit Sengupta’s Abhogi, Kaunsi Kanhra and Mishra Pahadi revealed his innovative musical thoughts, which were well executed by Pt. Parimal Chakraborty on the tabla.

Santoor recital by Sandip Chatterjee at the Swara Samrat Festival 2021  

Sandip Chatterjee on the santoor played raag Jog with more passion. Subhojyoti Guha on the tabla matched him at every step. Carnatic violinists Mysore Nagaraj and Manjunath’s concert was sublime. Waseem Ahmed Khan’s second raag Yemini Nat delighted. Pt. Ulhas Kashalkar sang his only concert during the year-long pandemic, and he was clearly in his element. His Sampoorna Malkauns had a dignity and grandeur uniquely his own.

Pt. Ulhas Kashalkar at the Swara Samrat Festival, 2021, held online 

The Sohini that followed was lively, ending in a poignant Bhairavi. The recital by Dr. Rajam, accompanied on the violin by her daughter Sangeeta (incidentally, three generations of the family performed at SSF), was, as always, a class apart.

Platform for youngsters

As usual, promising youngsters were given a platform. One should look out for vocalist Anubhav Khamaru from Kolkata, sarangi player Momin Khan from Jaipur, and Pune-based vocalist Kedar Kelkar. Alick Sengupta impressed with his mature rendering of raag Kamod and Tilak Kamod. His pitch perfect khulli aawaaz was a delight. Some unusual jugalbandis included Shahjahanpur gharana’s Sugato Nag on sitar with Prattyush Bannerji on sarod, Maihar gharana’s Pratik Shrivastav on sarod and Ayan Sengupta on sitar, and Deepak Khirsagar playing the guitar in the North Indian idiom with Abhay Nayampally in the Carnatic style.

Violin duet by Mysore Manjunath and Nagaraj 

However, the digital festival obviously did not have the same impact as a live concert. The long gaps left one without a sense of continuity. Organiser and sarod artiste Indrayudh Majumder, who explained how difficult it is to retain the attention span of the audience for four to five days, spoke of the new challenges — organising 36 recordings in five cities with five different teams, while not being physically present himself.

One of the main benefits of the festival was the opportunity to savour the concerts for a year, unlike the usual online availability for a few hours. Another huge advantage for musicians is, of course, the wide audience reach (Apparently the average concert viewership was 6,500, with the numbers increasing every day.) Said Majumder, “While we hope to revert to the live experience next year, the online platform will always remain a parallel medium.”

The Delhi-based author writes on Hindustani music and musicians.

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