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Swami Haridas and friends


QAWWAL COOL: The Nizami brothers were the biggest crowd-pullers at the festival

There is something to be said for India's grand old sangeet sammelans. These all-night, open-air galas that go back more than a century are as much mela as sammelan and continue to draw villagers and townspeople from miles away.
There is the 175-year-old Harballabh music festival in Jalandhar, the slightly younger Panchakshara Gavai Punyathithi in Gadag, Hubli, and closer to Delhi, the 150-year-old Swami Haridas Sangeet Samaroh.

All three fests are dedicated to singer-saints and infused with an almost religious fervour. They are also cheerfully non-elitist in their approach to the classical arts. Through the performances you will find sleeping toddlers, children running around, folks loudly discussing family affairs, giddy young men having fun, brisk sales of balloons, chaat and chai, and in the middle of this chaos, die-hard music lovers listening blissfully to the artiste on stage with their eyes closed.

You won't find the refined air of the mehfil or the austere listenership of city concerts, but this is where, decades ago, big talents made their debut and continued to perform in tribute to the singer-saints after whom the festivals are named. Most important of all, it is at these enormous, democratic gatherings that the classical arts find critical mass. "Bahar mob hai, samajh ke gaana (There is a mob outside, be smart about what you sing), " was the wise advice the late Bhimsen Joshi once gave a performer at his Sawai Gandharva music festival.

For classical singers and dancers, striking a balance between virtuosity and crowd appeal is not an easy thing, and sammelan organisers, too, seem to find themselves in the same dilemma, as was evident at the recent Swami Haridas Sangeet Samaroh in Vrindavan.

Now in its 151st year, the festival was founded in the memory of Swami Haridas, the legendary ascetic guru singer who taught both Tansen and Baiju Bawra but refused to join Emperor Akbar's court coterie because music for him was worship. The reclusive master was sensitively portrayed as the frail old man who comes staggering out to hear Rafi's Man tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj in Vijay Bhatt's 1952 film Baiju Bawra.

The Vrindavan event is held every year around Radha Ashtami by the Goswamis, a family which claims to be descendants of Swami Haridas. It has drawn some of the biggest names in the classical pantheon from Ali Akbar Khan to Shiv Kumar Sharma, and its significance on the state's cultural calendar could be gauged from the fact that the young chief minister Akhilesh Yadav was present at the opening, despite his party being in the thick of the political shenanigans in Delhi.

This year's schedule was a mash-up of the rigorously classical and the populist. For the purists there were the Gundecha dhrupad duo, Sonal Mansingh with her dance-drama Krishna Rang Raachi, Chhanulal Mishra and his Banarasi thumris, the Nizami brothers, and the much younger Rakesh Chaurasia on flute. At the other end of the spectrum were Saregama champ Hemant Brijwasi and Lucknow kathak dancer Surabhi Tandon, both of whom had the crowds eating out of their hands, much to the discomfiture of the classicists.

Held on the open grounds of the Fogla ashram, the samaroh drew a mix of dedicated music enthusiasts and pilgrim crowds drifting in and out of the many temples in the town. Although there were signs of restlessness in the vilambit phase of the Gundechas' dhrupad, loud cheers erupted as the brothers hit the fast phase with Shiva stutis in Malkauns and Adana. The pakhawaj was rolling and the notes of Shiv shiv shiv were so rousing they almost brought the crowds to their feet (the ebullient Krishna cult actually keeps time with claps). This was something they understood and loved.

"Dhrupad is a must at the Haridas samaroh, " says Ramakant Gundecha. "He was the soul and essence of dhrupad, for us it is a pilgrimage."

The concerts went on till well past 2 am. As the night lengthened the crowds thinned, leaving a small, tight audience of determined music lovers listening to Mishra's thumris and watching Mansingh enact Krishna's life through music, abhinaya and dance.

Once again this year, the biggest crowd pullers - in an oddly secular way given the origins of the festival - were the qawwals. The Nizami brothers have always said there is nothing Hindu or Islamic about their music. It goes back, they say, as much to Amir Khusro as to Swami Haridas and means as much to Krishna devotees as to Sufi listeners. Integral though it is to Vrindavan's religious and cultural life, the Swami Haridas Sangeet Samaroh has, curiously enough, managed to stay remarkably secular.

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