The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; Sunday 30th April 2017.
Based on the campus of Liverpool’s Hope University, Milapfest is Britain’s leading Indian classical arts development trust, with a mission to ‘unite hearts through arts’.
For more than two decades the trust has been running a monthly concert series, Music for the Mind and Soul. The events provide an opportunity to showcase the work of established stars as well as emerging performers of classical Indian music.
Over the years, the increasing success of Music for the Mind and Soul has seen the series expand to now include both Manchester and London on a regular basis. The second of 2017’s four scheduled Manchester performances took place on a quiet Bank Holiday Sunday afternoon in the peaceful intimacy of the Barbirolli Room at Bridgewater Hall.
The stage was small, simple and humble, in keeping with the traditional village-square style of delivery: a small, knee-high platform, just big enough to allow three artists to sit cross-legged with their instruments in front of them.
The artists themselves exuded an amusing air of tranquility and authority: three elderly Indian men, dressed in traditional clothes, removing their shoes as they stepped up onto the stage, politely and charmingly addressing the assembled audience as ‘friends’.
Each artist is a master performer in his own right, specialising in one discipline:
- Tarun Battacharya – Santoor: a stringed instrument designed to be tapped lightly with small, lightweight mallets, producing a sound similar to that of a harp. Battacharya is the so-called ‘master of one hundred strings’ and is one of India’s most influential Santoor players.
- Ronu Majumdar – Bansuri: a flute carved from a single, hollow bamboo shaft, with no moving pieces. Majumdar is a Grammy-nominated expert in his art, revered as a maestro with the flute.
- Kousic Sen – Tabla: a pair of small drums, played with the hands, using a combination of dancing finger tips and palm strikes. Sen is Milapfest’s artist in residence, a regular at Music for the Mind and Soul.
The performance lasted approximately two hours, alternating between what could be described as established ‘songs’ with a defined structure and a much more informal, improvised, collaborative ‘jamming’ session.
The first half hour or so was a duet, the delicate softness of the Santoor and the Bansuri combining to create a calming and relaxing introduction. During this opening half hour, though he wasn’t actually playing his instrument, Kousic Sen was (presumably inadvertently) providing clear guidance to the audience as to how this performance should be consumed and understood: he sat cross-legged, bolt upright, arms folded, head raised, eyes closed – this was a man in deep meditation, his occasional nods and approving hand gestures indicating that his fellow performers were, literally, hitting the right notes.
The visual aspect of this performance was surprisingly alluring. Battacharya sometimes appeared to be striking the Santoor strings randomly, like an amateur might run their hand along the keys of a piano. But then as he moved into delivering complex melodies, it was clear his concentration was increasing, eyebrows intensely narrowed, he intimately knew every note available to him on his instrument as he improvised, some feat given the number of strings and the pace at which he was striking them.
Majumdar was the most physically expressive performer with his multiple Bansuri flutes of varying sizes. Like Sen, he spent long periods with his eyes closed, listening in carefully to Battacharya’ strings, waiting patiently in order to pick his entry point perfectly. Deep, swaying upper-body motions eventually led to an agonising-looking outburst of flutist melody, with huge exhalations of breath to keep the notes going for longer. Yet Majumdar’s heavy physical exertions seemed to contradict the effortlessly soothing and calm outputs that his flute was actually producing.
And then there was Sen on the Tabla, watching his hands work was almost impossible, given the speed with which he alternated between delicate fingertip taps and powerful palm strikes, occasionally pausing to sprinkle talcum powder on the drum skin, like some master chef perfecting his recipe. The deep bass of the Tabla reverberated around the room, adding a welcome percussion element that had many heads nodding along.
The performance was a fascinating visual spectacle: one moment there’d be a burst of intense concentration, the next moment two of them would be having a conversation with each other – yet there was no change in output, the tempo persisted and the performance flowed.
This was an afternoon where expert artists delivered their trade and gave a fascinating insight into the complexity of their work and the years of practice that must have gone in to reaching the levels that they have. Even more than this, it served as an almost therapeutic ‘treatment’ for the audience, a strange beauty and mystery being revealed in the music when eyes were closed and deep breaths were drawn.