Within You Without You: Beatles Ragafest

Milapfest and Sgt. Pepper At 50 @ St. George’s Hall 11/6/17

Today’s activities, spread across St. George’s Hall’s main room and smaller Concert Room, aim to rekindle and showcase the amazing creative and spiritual connection between The Beatles and India. That particular local connection can be broadened out into a more general exploration of the centuries-old cultural trade winds that blow between East and West. The main hall hosts food and craft stalls and dance performances while the Concert Room is the opulent setting for four ragas; morning, afternoon, evening and night. As usual with Milapfest productions, the quality of the artists on offer is unquestionable; PANDIT SENGUPTA, JYOTSNA SRIKANTH, V.M. BHATT and ANIL SRINIVASAN headline, but are supported by a wealth of superb musicians from across the globe.

We pick up proceedings at the afternoon raga, violinist and composer Jyotsna Srikanth being joined on stage initially by drummer Manjunath NS, and pianist Shadrach Solomon. The concert begins with Srikanth flying through an improvised Carnatic raga accompanied by percussion and morsing (similar to the Jew’s harp), a gypsy fire to her playing. Slowing things down, the percussion is as gentle as raindrops pattering on a lotus leaf, the morsing adding twangy, vibrant flourishes. Manjunath takes to the drums and adds a western jazzy-funk to proceedings, including a storming drum solo that Ginger Baker would be proud of.

After the interval, Srikanth is joined by Sweden’s Kristallkvartetten string quartet for a performance of Srikanth’s Seasons, an evocation of the six Indian seasons, the familiar Western ones being augmented by Monsoon and Snow. More raindrops, this time a beautiful viola pizzicato, begin the Monsoon movement and Snow seems to be a season of joy, of playfulness (perhaps a release from the heat of Summer), little piano flurries enlivening an already delightful piece before a dashing finale. The familiar refrain of “Within you, without you” introduces titular tribute to the 60s East/West voyage and to George Harrison in particular, exquisitely played and rapturously received.

A packed Concert Room awaits the arrival of V.M. Bhatt, best known in Western circles for his Meeting By The River collaboration with Ry Cooder, and here joined by his son, Salil Bhatt, and tabla player Ramkumar Mishra. Bhatt introduces a special guest, and Olivia Harrison steps forward to light a celebratory candle to bless the concert. Bhatt’s guitar is lighter in tone than his son’s and they combine initially to produce rich, sparse tones that play off each other, the slide effect to the fore, before progressing to ever more complex, tempestuous flights, the finger work lightning quick. The technique is astounding, the pieces long and discursive, and I must confess to finding it difficult to locate a reference point upon which to build much understanding. After an interval, the pieces are much shorter and I begin to hear some bluesy inflections and stronger melody lines. The guitars have the clean, sharp sound of a National steel and I even fancy that I can make out a little Appalachian picking in the mix, which is driven along Mishna’s subtle and rhythmic percussion. If the first half was prog-era exploration, the second harked back to the snappier psych-pop of the 60s.

The day is brought to a close with the sublime piano playing of Anil Srinivasan, academic, educator, journalist and accomplished pianist in both the Western classical and Carnatic traditions, and this is the perfect ending to a celebration of the shared bonds between East and West. Once again Milapfest provide a diverse and original showcase, embracing The Beatles connection in a positive and vibrant manner.

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