The evening performances might be delayed but the sunset was on schedule as I settled on the steps of the Sunder Nursery amphitheatre. It was a Sunday and Delhi's latest city arboretum had a visitor for every spring bloom, never mind the pandemic. The florid faces and exquisite Pathaani suits of the city's Afghan population picknicking here in delightful profusion, was a sign of just how special the evening could turn out to be.
The brief flush that accompanies arriving somewhere had subsided but now there were mosquitoes. I spotted a young man flitting about and stabbing incense sticks much like his own frame into the grass after every eight feet or so. Now, there were fewer mosquitoes. Now, there would be singing. Baaghon mein bahaar hai, as they say.I was at the Classic Bagh Festival, a daylong cultural fiesta brought to Delhi's roots music-loving population by the organisers of the Jodhpur RIFF and the British Council in association with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The festival was organised to muster support for Indian artistes and other professionals that are part of the festival sector, both of which have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This last year, since the pandemic started, has been a really difficult time for the creative sectors, and it is through new approaches to our work, that we aim to continue providing dynamic and responsive opportunities for artists and the creative sectors around the world. We stand in solidarity with artists, creative professionals and arts organisations in India. One of the top findings of our studies has been that 90% of the sector fears a long-term impact of the social distancing on the creative economy. So, as we look to its recovery, while it continues to contend with multiple challenges, we hope that this Classic Bagh festival will serve as an example of safe and responsive creative collaborations between artists and audiences in public spaces," Barbara Wickham, Director, British Council India, said in her address at the beginning of the evening session.
The line-up of performances assembled for the event was impressive. The day started off at six in the morning with a soulful lakeside gurbani by Jasleen Kaur Monga, followed by a performance by the Sufi and Hindustani classical vocalist Smita Rao Bellur. Next up, qawwali artist Dhruv Sangari and folk singer Bawari Basanti brought in a zing to the performances on offer, but the highlight easily was the captivating set by the Langa troupe, complemented superbly by the famous Kalbeliya ballerina Asha Sapera.
The accomplishments of these artistes are dizzying and dazzling; one merely needs an ear. Be it the soothing strains of Monga's daybreak performance, the hypnotic rhythm of Dhruv Sangari's (a member of the Chishty Sufi order who trained at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya here for a while) qawwali, or the heady, folk-flavoured jangdas belted out by Manganiyar artist Barkat Khan's quartetâthe cultural aesthetic and artistic history of the Capital came into their own at the Classic Bagh.
The genres of music converging on the pleasant Sunday evening were unmistakably grounded in the tenets of devotion, love and compassion, and the feelings they evoke in the listeners and routine visitors to the gardens, elevated the mood of the setting several notches up. It wasn't just another music eventâit was an homage to the resident Sufi saint of these parts, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. It was a paean to Amir Khusrau, the father of Hindi, Urdu, and Hindwiâthe remnants and modern forms of which we speak in these parts.The evening performances were just as special, kicking off with a digital 'jugalbandi' between Sangari and the British-Indian musician Nitin Sawhney. The first live performance was by Barkat Khan and his group of Manganiyar musicians, who, in their songs about and celebration (the Shiv Shobha performance in Raag Bilawal was a treat), brought a classical sensibility to their folk performance style. The lineup also included a ghazal performance by Sraboni Chaudhari and playful ragas by sitaar doyen Ustad Saeed Zafar Khan from the Dilli gharana, with an emphatic qawwali finale by the Warsi brothers.Â
One wonders if the Classic Bagh festival, held this time to support the artist community and events industry, will become a regular, yearly feature. Divya Bhatia, festival director, Jodhpur RIFF, told us, "I hope that this joint effort with the British Council will not be a one-time occasion, but that the team has seeded something which has the potential to go beyond."