From Vrindavan to Delhi the journey of a music festival

Delhi’s biggest and most popular classical music festival entered its 25th year. Named after Swami Haridas, the father of Hindustani music, and his most iconic disciple Tansen, the Swami Haridas Tansen Sangeet Nritya Samaroh is a glittering affair, drawing crowds of over 3,000 people despite the cold weather. As usual, it featured stalwarts — Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Begum Parveen Sultana, Uma Sharma and her students, Pt. Vishwamohan Bhatt and his son Salil with the Manganiyars, Pt Ulhas Kashalkar, Pt Venkatesh Kumar, Ustad Shujaat Khan, Ashwini Bhide Deshpande and Pt. Tejendra Narayan Mazumdar.

The organiser and veteran Kathak dancer Uma Sharma used to collaborate with Sri Gopal Goswami of the Banke Bihari Temple in Vrindavan for the Sammelan. However, as time passed, the character of the festival evolved. Uma parted ways to create the Samaroh with a vision — she “wanted to present classical music in all its hues”. The sentimental attachment to Vrindavan remains; Uma recalls, “The first time, there were very few of us performing. This was inside Nidhi van, in front of Swami Haridas’ samadhi. We had to obtain permission to perform there.” The event then expanded gradually and moved to an open pandal, much to the delight of the refreshing audience.

The festival’s inception in Vrindavan saw Sri Shrivats Goswami of the Radha Raman mandir discuss the musical link between Vrindavan and Delhi, marking a significant cultural connection. Uma Sharma’s journey has been long and challenging, with the shift to Delhi marking a new chapter. Initially, with only a small audience, she remembers feeling despondent at the turnout but was encouraged as the trust and attendance at the festival steadily grew, eventually drawing full houses at every edition.

The current venue, Sir Shankar Lal Hall, with its unique circular space and seating arrangement, has become the synonymous setting for the festival. Uma’s gratitude extends to the availability of this space free of charge, and it seems unfazed by the chilly January weather that doesn’t deter the festival’s enthusiastic audience.

The performers largely remain all-time favourites, with frequent appearances by legends such as Pt. Channulal Mishra and the inheritors of the Tansen tradition like Pt Vishwamohan Bhatt and Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia. These stalwarts showcase their unique musical paths, an essential experience for the younger generation, according to Uma. Hopes cling to the possibility of Ustad Aashish Khan’s return to the festival from the U.S.

Another regular is Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, who is unique in his training in Tansen’s musical legacy from both the ‘beenkar’ and ‘rababiya’ lineages, often accompanied by his sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash. While this year saw the absence of a Dhrupad artiste, plans are afoot to include one in the next edition, possibly expanding to a four-day event, and even introducing a Carnatic musician to celebrate the common roots of music and dance.

One of the hallmarks of the Swami Haridas Tansen festival is its informal atmosphere. If the front reserved seats are empty, younger audience members seated on the floor are invited to take them, maintaining the festival’s non-ticketed approach to encourage youth to hear the best of classical music without the concern of buying tickets.

Even with an allotted shorter performance time per artist due to the packed schedule, vivid memories of past editions running until midnight add to the venue’s nostalgia. For instance, Ustad Shujaat Khan performed a piece his father, Ustad Vilayat Khan, had played decades earlier at the festival, echoing a deep sense of tradition and camaraderie between artists and audience.

The festival concluded with Pt Ulhas Kashalkar’s captivating rendition of the Bhairavi thumri ‘Baju band khul khul jaaye’, drawing the events to a memorable close for the 25th year and leaving an imprint on the cultural landscape of Delhi’s rich musical heritage.

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