Swami Haridas Festival attracts the best in Indian classical music

Tansen taking Akbar to meet his guru Haridas Swami

Sunita Budhiraja. Vrindavan, 2011.09.10 (Business Standard): Witnessing the doyens of Indian classical music perform at the Swami Haridas Music and Dance Festival in Vrindavan is a blessing. In the past, the festival has boasted artistes like Bismillah Khan, Vilayat Khan, Kumar Gandharv, Bhimsen Joshi, Siya Ram Tewari, Alla Rakha, Amjad Ali Khan, Birju Maharaj, Kishori Amonkar…

The festival is named for Swami Haridas, the 16th-century bhakti saint-poet-musician and composer of many dhrupads, often dedicated to Krishna’s lover Radha. Haridas’s work has deeply influenced the Hindustani classical tradition.

As a young listener I used to enjoy the music of Siya Ram Tewari, Vilayat Khan and Bhimsen Joshi in the morning of Radha Ashtami, while the sun rose. The audience would be 2,000 to 5,000 people even so early in the morning, on each morning of the four-day festival in Vrindavan. It used to be a simple and elegant event, held under a shamiana.

The best part of the show used to be the morning concerts at Nidhi Van, the samadhi or place of death of Swami Haridas, after whom the festival is named. His followers believe that Haridas was an incarnation of Lalita Sakhi, one of the dearest of Krishna’s eight sakhis. It is also believed that, at Nidhi Van, Krishna danced all night with his sakhis.

The new-age Haridas Festival has more creative backdrops and paraphernalia and includes young and upcoming artistes. Dona Ganguly, Malini Awasthi and Rani Mukherjee bring glamour, and help to meet younger crowds’ and sponsors’ expectations. Even so, the fabric of the festival remains the same: it promotes Indian music and dance and pays tribute to Haridas. Bismillah Khan once told me, “Gharana to sirf ek hai, aur woh hai Swami Haridas ka gharana, baki sare — Kirana, Agra, Banaras, Jaipur Atrauli, Gwalior Gharana — ye sab usi ke hisse hain” (“There is just one gharana [musical lineage], and that is Swami Haridas’s gharana; all the other gharanas are just parts of this one.”)

“Swami Haridas Festival is an annual pilgrimage for our artistes who represent music as vasudhaiva kutumbakam bhava” (“the world as one family”), says Gopi Goswami, secretary of the Sangeet Shiromani Swami Haridas Samiti and organiser of the festival. “The divinity of music binds them all. The artiste is neither Hindu nor Muslim, neither Christian nor Bauddha, they rise above their religions and gharanas.”

At Vrindavan this year it is raining. At the venue the organisers are throwing out bucketsful of rainwater. When the rain gods stop to rest, the people start pouring in. The programme begins with the Raas Leela by Kathak dancer Uma Sharma and her disciples. She has researched the Raas and Nritya Raas in detail. When her disciples play Raas, it is as if the colours of the rainbow are gathered on earth. Raas Leela, Om Namah Shivaya and a solo recital by the guru are all masterpieces.

One cannot think of Odissi without Kelucharan Mohapatra. He gave India great dancers — Samyukta Panigrahi, Sonal Mansingh, Madhvi Mudgal, Ratikant and Sujata Mohapatra and others. Dona Ganguly came to fame because she learnt under him, not because she is the wife of Sourav Ganguly. Of the items that Dona and her disciples present, the best is the Jatayu Prasang from the Ramayana. Her abhinaya of Jatayu represents the soul of the dance form once performed in the temples of Odisha.

And then there is Grammy winner Vishwamohan Bhatt on his mohan veena. He performs with Ghazi Khan and group, folk musicians of Rajasthan. “Kesariya balam aavo ni padharo mhare des…” in Maad and the mesmerising piece from his Grammy-winning album A Meeting by the River leave the audience spellbound. It is as if the confluence of classical and folk quenches the desert thirst.

Ashwini Bhide Deshpande’s flawless rendition of her khayals in Raaga Kedar and Sohani are a testament to the importance of riyaaz (practice). Her aesthetics are of the Jaipur Atrauli Gharana, and her voice has simplicity and clarity. In fact, she says, “There is nothing that can come in the way of our music. I see more youngsters taking interest in classical music than in my times.”

Other artistes like Ashok Pandey, Sushil Bavecha, Jay Pandey and Sukhdev Mishra give unique renditions but the Nizami Brothers, Ghulam Sabir Nizami and Ghulam Waris Nizami, steal the show with their qawwali. It is possible that this is the first time this great form of Sufi music is sung in the temple city of Krishna. The Nizamis sing the ultimate verses of Amir Khusro, “Chhap tilak”. They also sing dohas of the most secular poet, Kabir. “Man lago mero yaar fakiri mein” and “Tore bina mohe chaina na pare brij ke Nandlala” in Kirwani. The audience sings and claps with each qawwali and goes ecstatic with the evergreen “Duma sum mast kalandar”.

Music is universal. It knows no religion but humanity. Legend has it that Shah Jahan’s beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, whenever she travelled between Delhi and Agra, always made a stop at Vrindavan. It is said that someone asked her why, and she responded: “Yahan Hinduon ka Khuda rahta hai” (“The God of Hindus stays here”). The saint of Hindustani music, Haridas, lived and practiced here in Vrindavan and helped create generations of musicians. Artistes come to this festival to honour him. A visit to the Haridas Festival is a pilgrimage to the secular heart of India.

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  • govind

    Bismillah’s Quote from above:
    “Gharana to sirf ek hai, aur woh hai Swami Haridas ka gharana, baki sare — Kirana, Agra, Banaras, Jaipur Atrauli, Gwalior Gharana — ye sab usi ke hisse hain”.
    It’s a paradox to talk about rejuvenating the lost dances and music of the braj region when we can’t even care to propagate the schedule of what we have in hand.