The past year has been rather tough on people from all walks of life, including performing artists. With cultural venues closed and performances having come to a halt, artists have had a challenging time. So, JodhpurRIFF and the British Council, in association with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, have come up with a festival to support Indian artists and festival sector professionals impacted by covid-19. Titled the Classic Bagh festival, the day-long event is being held at Sunder Nursery in Delhi.
According to artistic director and creative producer, Divya Bhatia, there are many facets to this event. However, one of its roots lies in a survey that the British Council in India had conducted, in partnership with FICCI and The Art X Company. This ‘Taking the Temperature’ survey attempted to track the impact of the pandemic on India’s creative economy. “What emerged from that was the fact that most enterprises in the art sector are of small and medium scale. There are very few large enterprises such as the The National Centre for the Performing Arts or Kamani Auditorium,” he says. “And the impact has been very severe, both on legacy artists and on emerging artists. Which was one reason why this festival was envisioned.”
The Classic Bagh Festival is being held within an intimate setting, and is a site -conscientious response to the environs of the Sunder Nursery and its broader location within the historical Nizamuddin neighbourhood and Delhi. The event seeks to celebrate Hazrat Nizamuddin’s vision of pluralism, and the contribution of his disciple, Amir Khusrau, to Hindustani music. Open to visitors of Sunder Nursery, the Classic Bagh festival hopes to highlight the importance of community and celebrate inclusiveness. “Jodhpur RIFF has done a lot of work with artists in the past, including numerous collaborations with UK-based platforms and UK artists, so we bring that experience to this festival as well. The site is an outdoor location and a space that people already visit. ” says Bhatia. “The curation, hence, is also a response to all this.”
The festival doesn’t just make use of the amphitheatre, but also creates an interesting musical setting by the lakeside and in the heritage monument-straddled garden, north of the amphitheatre. Through the day, one will get to hear performances by artists—half of whom are from Delhi—such as the Langa Ensemble, Dhruv Sangari ‘Bilal Chishti’, a series of classical-sufi-folk covers by Bawari Basanti, Jangda recital by Barkat Khan, ghazals by Sraboni Chaudhary and performances by Ustad Saeed Zafar Khan, now the Khalifa of the Dilli Gharana.
It’s interesting that a lot of these performers take their cues from everyday conversations and daily life, and then weave them into their songs. Delhi-based artist Mahima, who goes by the moniker Bawari Basanti, has also taken inspiration from the architecture of Sunder Nursery. “I am a folk singer and produce electronic music. But the performance for the Classic Bagh Festival will be fun as I am doing a complete acoustic set with sarangi, tabla, guitar and vocals,” she says. “This will be a little window to the past, with music from the 1980s and now.” For her, music comes from a very personal space. The idea is to let people connect with that part of her. “I have been doing virtual gigs this past year, but to be able to see people’s expressions change as you perform, and to see them connect with a particular emotion in the music is transforming. I am glad to be doing that again,” says the artist. “Every song has a story, and every story creates a connection. You can call my performance a string of conversations with music attached.”
If Bawari Basanti has responded to the architecture, then Dhruv Sangari has been inspired by the history, not just of Sunder Nursery, but the entire Nizamuddin neighbourhood. “Behind us would be the tomb of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, who among other things, was also a Sanskritologist, and represents the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. To the south-west, are tombs of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau. The latter represents the beginning of a shared culture, with the fusing together of different cultural and aesthetic traditions,” says Sangari. He also cites examples of the place where Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya would teach his disciples and meet people, or the tomb of Mughal emperor Humayun. “Not far from here is the temple of Kalka. We are surrounded not just by monuments but by markers of living history,” he adds.
Sangari’s performance at the Classic Bagh Festival will reflect this diversity. Placed with an Indo-Persian setting, he will talk about hope and survival. “There will be a celebration of the spirit of the sufi bhakti tradition through the kalams of Bulleh Shah and Amit Khusrau, who stressed on the divine true love. “Musicians have gone through a tough time this past year. But once again we converge on a common platform, and this needs to be celebrated. I am weaving in stories of hope and loss, separation and union, and of happiness that comes after suffering. By telling stories of the sufis, I talk about the challenges faced by those who came before us, and how they managed to surmount it, “ says Sangari. He hopes that people will take heart from such stories and also not take the universe for granted. “We must keep our footprints small and our egos even smaller. That is what sufi music has always been about,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Bhatia hopes that this joint effort with the British Council will not be a one-time occasion, but that the team has seeded something which has the potential to go beyond. Classic Bagh could travel to other parts of the country or become an annual event at Sunder Nursery. Or it could just do both—right now the team is toying with possibilities, while taking into account the unpredictability of the covid-19 situation in Delhi.
The Classic Bagh Festival is being held at Sunder Nursery, New Delhi, till 10 pm today