The longest day of the year is here. The sun has finally reached its highest altitude of the year and it is now officially the first day of summer. And to celebrate the occasion, the South Asian Arts (SAA-uk) organisation has welcomed us all to their 6th Solstice Festival, an annual event “dedicated to the rich diverse art of Indian Classical Music”.
To add to the splendour of the occasion, this year’s festival is to be held in the glorious Grade II Victorian Gothic surroundings of the Howard Assembly Room, a large barrel-vaulted chamber located on the first floor of Leeds Grand Theatre.
In what is a fresh development to the all-round SAA-uk Solstice experience, the festival begins with an interactive talk into ‘The Art of Listening’. The principal guest speakers are one of the UK’s most prominent Sitar players and Indian Music educators, Ustad Dharambir Singh MBE, and Dr Laura Leante, Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at Durham University. Alongside the evening’s four principal musicians – Vijay Venkat (Vichitra Veena), Pirashanna Thevarajah (Mridangam), Roopa Panesar (Sitar), and Shahbaz Hussain (Tabla) – they speak informatively and entertainingly about the art of listening to Indian Classical Music.
Through their educational insights we are able to start to develop a better understanding of our individual relationships with this particular sound and how best to try and learn to worship its deeply spiritual and metaphysical nature. And for those not already familiar with it, we are also introduced to raga, the melodic framework of Indian Classical Music and how to identify some of its central characteristics of movement and melody. It all makes for a most fascinating context in which to place the evening’s subsequent musical contributions.
The first music of the evening comes courtesy of Vijay Vinkat, playing the Vichitra Veena, a large plucked string instrument invariably associated with Hindustani or North Indian Classical Music. He is accompanied by Pirashanna Thevarajah on Mridangam, the classical two-headed drum of South India. The two men combine to perform a series of intoxicating ragas, the first of which is ‘Ninne Kori’ (composed by Tacchur Singarachari). They are fluid, almost abstract pieces of music that capture a wide range of emotions stretching from endurance to desire. Each raga possesses an individual innate energy and a most deceptive capacity to build upon its own deep momentum. Their musical artistry – as will be the case with the next performers – is absolutely flawless.
After a short intermission, Roopa Panesar takes to the Howard Assembly Room stage with her principal accompanist Shahbaz Hussain. Hailing from Leicester, Panesar is widely regarded as being one of the finest Sitar players to have emerged from this country. She opens with a long, exploratory, decorative introduction reminding us of the extent to which the sitar has influenced contemporary music from the desert blues to The Beatles and the American minimalist composer Terry Riley to those English narco space-rockers Spiritualized.
As the evening sun starts to go down on the longest day and its last rays stream though the building’s magnificent arched windows, Roopa Panesar and Shahbaz Hussain begin to produce music that expands a supreme transcendental consciousness within the listener. Together they paint intricate, reflective canvases of sound that blur the edges between simplicity and sophistication. And in being afforded this wonderful opportunity to take serene refuge from the troubled world outside, we are able to take invaluable time to meditate more fully upon the restorative and unifying powers of peace and love.
Photo credit: Simon Godley
Some more photos from the Solstice Festival can be found HERE
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