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SOUTH INDIAN MUSIC CONCERT at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan

Saturday 8th May: 6.00pm BHAVAN (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, West Kensington, London W14 9HE)

There was a family party atmosphere for this evening at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan with the audience, almost entirely Indian, dressesd up in national costume, a colourful and friendly crowd. It was a pleasure to see the children really involved, some sitting on stage and marking the rhythms of the talas with prescribed hand movements.

There was no printed programme and announcements through the P A and from the stage were largely incomprehensible to non-cognoscenti; we did though follow a fulsome tribute to the veteran mridangamist Trichy Sankaran, and sometime after 9 p.m. violinist Balu Raguram, a prominent member of the teaching staff of Bhavan, laid down his instrument and deferred to a percussion battle between Sankaran and Prakash on clay-pot Ghatam, each outdoing the other in subtle rhythmic confrontation. However, after half an hour of that the audience, especially those with younger children, began drifting away and eventually so did we, before any conclusion was in sight towards the likely finish of a generous programme of over three hours tireless playing.

The music making was enthralling throughout. Although it was nominally sold out, there were some forty empty seats around me and maybe more in the gallery upstairs, invisible from below. Perhaps with so reasonable pricing, many ticket holders just didn't turn up?

South Indian (Karnatic) music feels more relaxed than the more formalised structure of Northern ragas, those deliniated by unaccompanied alap before the soloist is joined by percussion accompaniment.



The first set featured Subathra Raguraman on a splendid veena, with accompaniment including the piquant sounds of the morsing (jaw harp)* together with the more familiar mridangam.

After the interval Balu Raguram's violin sounded so low as to be confused with a viola, indeed the lower notes were well in the cello register. See him in a teaching session with one of his pupils.

We have in the past been alienated by excessive amplification at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, but on this occasion the level was reasonable. However, we were once again left wishing there had been an opportunity to hear the real tone quality and actual volume of the instruments, free of inevitable distortion, albeit slight; I look forward to hearing the recording of this memorable concert.

It was high level music making that would prove accessible (if but superficially so) and enjoyable to many London classical music concertgoers if they would but try it, and the atmosphere was far more congenial than the strict decorum forced upon the audiences at the main concert halls. People came in and out of the auditorium, a pleasant converted chapel, from time to time; there was an occasional sound of a baby, and the attitude towards photography was relaxed.

During the interval inexpensive Indian refreshments were served, and we enjoyed talking with two sisters who were studying both Indian and Western violin and flute respectively; perhaps they will later seek to join Trinity College of Music, in association with which Bhavan runs a 4-year B.Mus Indian Music degree course. There's hope there...

Peter Grahame Woolf

* As the morsing is played most of the time along with the mridangam, it is necessary to know the syllables or aural interpretation of what is played on mridangam. It is important to know the aural representation of the ferns (pattern of syllables played on percussion instruments) played on mridangam as it is being silently recited while playing the morsing. This vocal art of reciting the syllables played on the mridangam is called konnakol. But while playing on morsing you don't actually make sound of reciting the syllable but just move your tongue that way so that the air passages gets blocked and cleared in a pattern so as to produce the sound of the ferns. It is essential to follow the mridangam and play the same ferns as far as possible, though it is difficult owing to the limitations of the instrument.


Unendra Bhat at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan






Another amazing evening at the Bhavan, an arts venue in West Kensington and one of London's best kept secrets.

No programmes are supplied at these concerts, only spoken introductions, so I don't have the names of the fine supporting artists, nor those of the various ragas. Upendra Bhat was introduced from the stage with a "pedigree" of his eminent gurus, especially the "legendary Pandit Bhimsen Joshi".

The photo above is from Pandit Bhat's website, with a brief biography - typically festooned with microphones, as is now the almost inevitable way with Indian Classical Music concerts. He was over-amplified at Bhavan in this, his first UK concert as lead artist, but one got used to it...

Exceptional in our experience was the close rapport with the supporting artists, the tanpura and harmonium players (the latter introduced as a fine vocalist who was persuaded to accompany on this occasion) hanging on every phrase, often with wide smiles (tanpura players tend to look bored and uninvolved).

For the last items an additional musician sat by the platform, striking tiny bells which caught the light (see pict L).

Bhat has a beautiful baritone voice of incredible flexibility and his stamina, singing for over two hours with just a short interval (imagine one of our sopranos or tenors singing florid 19C opera arias non-stop) and looking as if he'd like to have gone on all night.

During the second half, a selection of shorter, lighter pieces, Upendra Bhat often interrupted himself to chat with the audience in a spontaneous, conversational tone; would that we could understand some of it. Regrettably, I can't offer any technical or informed criticism beyond saying that our concentration did not flag through to the end. Indian music cannot be taken in small sound-bites...

There were only about four other westerners/outsiders amongst some hundred and fifty there, but the mood at Bhavan was welcoming, and over interval snacks of spiced delicacies people were concerned to know if we were enjoying their music and pleased that we did.

I hope that this magnificent concert was recorded and that there may be an opportunity to hear it (and the Milapfest concert in May reviewed above) in due course?

Meanwhile, we were pleased to buy two modestly priced DVD-Rs of this artist in concert at an Indian festival - as with the Bhavan concert, it was a copy scant of information, but musically excellent, Pandit Bhat's voice sounding just the same as heard live.

One warnng; the music on the two DVDs proved to be identical; only the covers are different !

Peter Grahame Woolf

See two minutes of Pandit Bhat singing at the Bhavan