Exiting the Pandemic with Exciting Programming


By now, activity across Canada is almost back to normal; the uncertainty that existed for most of 2020 and 2021, after the World Health Organization characterized the spread of COVID-19 as a Pandemic on March 11, 2020, will hopefully become a distant memory.

Fortunately for Raag-Mala Toronto, a tentative spring season, featuring Canadian artistes had been planned by early 2022, and we were pleasantly surprised that the season opener in April, a sarod recital by Steve Oda and Ravi Naimpally was better attended than we had expected.

We were heartened to learn that our audience had been missing live recitals, and our May concert, a sur-bahar and sitar recital by Ustad Irshad Khan, and the June concert featuring Pankaj Mishra on sarangi and vocal recital by Ramneek Singh were equally well-attended.

We at Raag Mala felt pride to have made lemonade from the metaphoric lemons served by the Pandemic!

More impressively however, Montreal’s Kabir Centre for Arts & Culture made artistic gold from their lemons. This was done through a combination of a brilliant artistic vision, the dedication of dozens of Canadian artistes and volunteers (the backbone of every organization) and meaningful grants from funders, including Heritage Canada.

“The lockdown in 2020 hit us like a thunderbolt,” says President T.K. Raghunathan. “We had organized a three-city tour of a Qawwali group from Pakistan. Already in Montreal, ten musicians were due to perform on the exact day that all performing venues were shuttered.” 

The Ottawa and Toronto segments were also cancelled. However, Aga Khan Museum, Kabir’s Toronto partner, was able to arrange for a Qawwali performance to be recorded at the Small World Auditorium which, as a recording studio, was available on short notice. The recording was streamed that evening by the Museum and the musicians returned to Pakistan shortly thereafter. Luckily for Kabir Centre, the tour was supported by Heritage Canada, so they did not suffer a major financial loss.  

“It took us a couple of months after our experience with the Qawwali troupe before we were able to present online programming – much of the work created/curated by Kabir, and the rest in partnership,” said Raghunathan ji.

In 2021, Kabir’s presentations included Artasia, interactive mini-concerts and explanations, as well as Nexgen Multi-Arts Festival in October. The South Asian Film Festival of Montreal, an annual event in November since 2016 went online in 2020, and the 2021 Festival was hybrid, with some films online and some in theatres.    

Ustad Irshad Khan and Osbert Lyall in the green room at the Aga Khan Museum before a concert in May.

However, it is the sheer scope and vision behind the ambitious multimedia show, Seasons and Sensations, that is truly breathtaking. The show was conceived in 2021, artistes were selected, a narrative structure based on four seasons in Canada was established collectively, rehearsals conducted remotely, and the completed work presented at the Amphithéâtre Gesù in Montreal on May 20 this year. 

Talking about this spectacular show of Indian classical music and dance, embellished with Canadian landscapes and poetry readings, Raja Bhattacharyya, the Artistic Director of Kabir Centre, said, “The idea was to have cross pollination between North and South Indian music (Hindustani and Carnatic Vocals, violin, sitar, sarod, tabla and mridangam), four separate Indian dance items (Mohiniattam, Odissi, Bharatanatyam and Kathak), each of the four dancers representing the four seasons.”

As if the scope was not big enough already, the transition from one season to the next was done through visuals provided by Quebecois film maker and photographer Caroline Tabah. Oh yes, and appropriate verse by Canadian poets was recited with the visuals. Wow!

“The presentation was received very well, and we were able to use 80 per cent of the grant to pay the artistes, whose income had dropped dramatically during the Pandemic, and the 20 per cent was used for their travel and other expenses,” said Raja Bhattacharyya. “Of course, we learnt a lot from our experience, and with some tweaks and with the right partnerships and funding, we could take this project on a cross-Canadian tour at some point.”

Kabir’s other spring offerings, live and online events were also highly successful. Their fall season, comprising Artasia (mini concerts and explanations of music and dance by Canadian artistes), Nexgen Multi-Arts Festival (featuring writers, poets, singers and dancers from across Canada) and the South Asian Film Festival of Montreal, are fully on track, Health authorities permitting.  

The Malhar Group, which is based in Hamilton, had to shelve plans for their annual festival in May 2020. “Hamilton does not have the critical mass needed for full seasons like Raag Mala or Kabir,” says Board member Priya Lalloo. “However, we are hopeful that we will be able to present a concert in the fall and resume the two concerts a year and listening sessions in 2023.”

Raag-Mala’s fall 2022 season begins with a vocal recital by Bhuvanesh Komkali (grandson of the legendary vocalist Pandit Kumar Gandharva) in September. Our Nuit Blanche concert this year is flute and sitar by pandits Rupak Kulkarni and Indrajit Banerjee with Hindole Majumdar on tabla. This will be a free concert of late night raags and is scheduled to begin at 11 pm.

Raag-Mala’s season finale will be on October 15, with the highly popular Ustad Shujaat Khan.

“Shujaatbhai has been a favourite of our supporters, and the fact that he has performed more than a dozen times during our history speaks to that fact,” says Raag Mala Board member Aliya Ghose. “We expect his concert to be fully subscribed very soon after tickets go on sale.”

Click on links for details on Raag-Mala and Kabir Centre fall programming.