On The Road With A Hindustani Classical Music Aficionado


Recently, I recalled a joke from many years ago: A man runs   into an old friend whom he hasn’t seen in a while and says, “I hear you didn’t go to France this year”. To which the friend responds, “Oh, that was last year; this year we didn’t go to Italy.”

The joke popped into my head during a Zoom call with friends who also love to travel. They were telling my partner and me about their travel plans being dramatically curtailed – another year of not wintering in Oaxaca, not going on their annual trip to London, and so on.

I, more than my non-retired partner, bemoaned how we could not go back to Casperia, a hill town an hour outside Rome, which some close Canadian friends have made home, and where we have spent time in the past few years.

As double-vaccinated Torontonians, we agreed that these were truly First World problems, set against many hardships caused by the pandemic as well as global unrest triggered by climate change and political strife.

Yet, I have greatly missed going to India since the start of the pandemic, because my most pleasurable trips in recent years took me to music festivals there during the concert season that runs from November to February. 

With good planning, I could attend both the Saptak Festival (January 1 to 15) in Ahmedabad and the Dover Lane Music Conference (in Kolkata each January 22 to 26). And, testing my partner’s patience, one year I even went to the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mohotav that runs for five days in the middle of December in Pune.        

These major festivals aside, a number of smaller festivals have been getting much traction in recent years.

Before the pandemic stopped all travel, I attended the Hridayesh Festival in Mumbai and the Sarbari Roy Chowdhury Festival in Shantiniketan (whose dates dovetailed nicely with the DLMC in Kolkata) in early 2020.  

For years, Shantiniketan is one place that I have longed to see, imagining myself strolling in the verdant grounds of Visva Bharati University, which was founded by the polymath and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

However, I was always daunted by the travel.  Braving the crowds at Howrah station and taking a train there seemed like too much trouble, while my mildly socialist inclination rebelled at the idea of renting a car for just one person.

As luck would have it (and pardon me for name dropping), Vidushi Arati Ankalikar-Tikekar was performing in Bardhaman, a city halfway between Kolkata and Shantiniketan on the day before the SRC Festival.

Pandit Venkatesh Kumar tuning the taanpura with tabla maestro Pandit Samar Saha at Dover Lane Music Conference 2020.
Pandit Venkatesh Kumar tuning the taanpura with tabla maestro Pandit Samar Saha at Dover Lane Music Conference 2020.

Not only did I travel there with her, I was able to get a ride to Shantiniketan after Aratiji’s concert with another musician.

So I ended up with free rides to Shantiniketan, with a break in Bardhaman to listen to an afternoon concert by Aratiji, and a sarod recital by the very talented Troilee Dutta.

Volunteering with Raag-Mala Toronto has its unexpected blessings!

The SRC Festival in Shantiniketan proved to be an exceptional treat. While the Festival had big name artistes like the sitarist Pandit Kushal Das, I also heard other fine musicians, many of whom I had not seen previously in live performance – artistes like Toronto-born Steve Oda (sarod), Subranil Sarkar (sitar) and Indrani Mukherjee (vocal), to name a few.

I was especially impressed with the SRC Foundation’s vision of promoting exciting younger talent. Because, much as I love the dowager festivals (and I hope I won’t be skewered for using this appellation), they are often weighed down by the usual big names who already get too much exposure. The situation is not unlike the publicity that big budget Hollywood galas get at the Toronto International Film Festival – attention that sucks away oxygen from much-deserving films made globally, away from the Hollywood orbit.   

And, if you are wondering, I did not get to stroll in the university campus in Shantiniketan, but I did take a very relaxed and enjoyable train ride back to Kolkata after the Festival.

While I have missed going to live concerts in India, and for that matter those in Toronto, there has been a silver lining during the pandemic.

Much exceptional raag sangeet has been offered online, whether through Facebook Live recitals by individual artistes, or curated events offered on other platforms like the dedicated Swara Samrat Festival (of which Raag-Mala Toronto was the principal sponsor), or open ones like Shaale and Viewcy.

Organizations can feature their own curated concerts on these open platforms.

The Raag-Mala team, with support from our very generous benefactors and patrons, has been offering online programming, the latest of which is the Sarbari Roy Chowdhury Festival to be held on the Viewcy platform in the last weekend of September and the first weekend of October. This latest collaboration came about from the relationship Raag-Mala has fostered with the Festival’s Artistic Director, and Aga Khan Music Award 2019 finalist, Sougata Roy Chowdhury, who performed for us in 2017.  

As we approach the two-year mark since the virus was first reported in Wuhan, live concerts still look unlikely in the immediate future, as overseas musicians are understandably reluctant to make any commitments. However, we hope to resume our live concert series in the spring of 2022. 

SRC Festival director and sarodiya Sougata Roy Chowdhury (right) with sitarist Indro Roy Chowdhury.
SRC Festival director and sarodiya Sougata Roy Chowdhury (right) with sitarist Indro Roy Chowdhury.

In the meantime, we are also planning online monthly concerts starting in November, and a lecture-demonstration series by Warren Senders, a musician and educator who has studied raag sangeet for many years. These will be in partnership with the Aga Khan Museum in the winter of 2022. Stay tuned for details on these events.      

This year I did not go to India for the Dhrupad Mela held each February in Varanasi, or the grande dame of them all, the Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan in Jalandhar which has been held annually since 1875.

Perhaps next year I will attend these festivals, and travel to Shantiniketan for the SRC Festival 2022 and spend an afternoon on the campus of the University

A privileged retiree can always dream.

Mohamed Khaki is a Raag-Mala Toronto team member.