January 1st 2019, brings the start of the 13 day Saptak Festival held in Ahmedabad every year. The first evening featured artists Shri Vidyadhar Rao, Shri Nityanand Haldipur, and Smt. Shubha Mudgal singing and playing a variety of styles including khayal, bhajan and thumri.
January 1 – the new year begins. It blossoms like the characteristic flowers adorning the Saptak stage. This 39th year of the celebrated festival held at Ahmedabad’s L.D. Arts College, begins with the honouring of co-founder, Vidushi Manju Mehta, a celebrated sitarist, with a shawl to commemorate her recently received Tansen award. Female instrumentalists being relatively rare in her generations due to stigma and general societal discouragement, it was noted as an even greater accomplishment.
The audience members were just trickling in, not used to the new schedule that was surprisingly running early, and it took a while for the auditorium to reach its usual capacity.
Saptak audiences are revered by artists as being aware and respectful of music traditions, so to forgo the usual shehnai as the first act was a choice that surely did not go unnoticed by audiences. The motive for the change, however, was notable: Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. The festival was initiated by an ensemble of Saptak students singing two of Gandhi ji’s most loved bhajans. The crowd, a usually pacified one, was emboldened by these familiar patriotic tunes and many an audience member were seen lightly clapping and mouthing the lyrics of popular bhajan, ‘Vaishnava Jana To.” This initiation was unusual and beginning with this light-classical session set quite an informal tone for the beginning of the 13 days. Though it was indeed picked up by Shri Vidyadhar Vyas.
Throughout the night, with its new rule of 3 sessions instead of 4, there were changes in styles and genres, but one thing held through. Each artist placed sur (pitch), over everything. Going right from the beginning, with Shri Vidyadhar Vyas’s raag Shree, to the very end, with Smt. Shubha Mudgal’s Bhairavi. In fact, Shri Nityanand Haldipur’s entire Raag Bihag seemed a tribute to sur – engaging in very minimal ornamentation. His reserved playing style was surely picked up from his notable guru, the late Annapurna Devi.
Shri Vidyadhar Vyas was an extremely articulate artist, who made his session more of a lecture demonstration, due to his experience in research. Giving gems of knowledge – he presented some rare ragas and compositions like the chaturang and trivat. His gamak-laden style was reminiscent of the Paluskar tradition of the age-old Gwalior gharana. Expressing the need to bring out different things in the classical tradition, he said of these rare styles and compositions, “yeh gayaki ki gehne hai,” that these are the jewelled ornaments of music and must be treated as so. Most notably, he ended with an interesting composition, a trivat in Raag Bhupali, exploring rhythm: the composition weighted in jhaptaal (10 beats) but set in teentaal (16 beats).
By the time the last session came, the open-air theatre was filled to the brim- and after Smt. Shubha Mudgal tuned her tanpuras, she shared that this was the death anniversary of her guru, the eminent Pt. Ramashreya Jha, “Ramrang”, and that she would be singing his compositions in memoriam. Her Raag Maru Bihag was rendered creatively and with such clarity. The notes she reached in her aalap were so powerful and sung with bell-like consistency, which is indeed her signature. After her khayal performance, she even shared a lighter classical style, a thumri, with such sweetness. Her husband, Shri Aneesh Pradhan, on tabla, provided incredibly intuitive accompaniment that featured subtle intricacies and variations in tempo that gave the entire performance a beautiful and tender character.
As the notes of her final Bhairavi composition floated through the theatre at 12:30 am, several people began to leave, but many more stayed raptured in the spell. An outsider would have considered the hall surprisingly full for this time of night, but the Saptak audiences are consistently generous with their time, and this is only the beginning of a great 13-day experience of spiritual sounds that stretch into the early hours.
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