Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 September 2019

The Alchemy Festival in London celebrates south Asian art forms

Everything from Punjabi pop to Sufi calligraphy to poetry and dance were celebrated at London's Southbank Centre.
Sheets of poems on display during the Alchemy Festival in London.
Sheets of poems on display during the Alchemy Festival in London.

Along the Thames riverbank in the warm spring evening, a street theatre troupe is performing to the sounds of tabla, guitar, percussion, and a rumble of thunder as it starts to rain. I am at the Alchemy Festival, which has shown that beneath the broad umbrella term of "Asian arts" there is a wealth of diversity, from Punjabi pop to Indian classical music, from Sufi poetry to animated film. Both outside and inside, the Southbank Centre has been transformed into a celebration of south Asian music, dance, literature, film and debate.

The two literary ghosts haunting the festival were Rumi and Tagore, and several performances proved how powerful their legacy still is today. Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Gitanjali, a collection of 103 poems. A special audio-visual concert of poetry, music and dance named after that prize-winning work paid colourful homage to the writer - this week sees the 150th anniversary of his birth. A product of the Bengal renaissance, Tagore wrote his first poem at the age of seven, and during his career also produced plays and painting.

The Alchemy Festival performance portrayed the day that Tagore read Gitanjali to his friends, including WB Yeats and William Rothenstein in his house on Hampstead Heath. The narrator neatly picks apt moments and passages from Tagore's vast life and work to fill an entertaining hour. Yeats sent notes and suggestions to Tagore and would read Tagore's words on buses, in restaurants, and sometimes had to stop when reading in public as he was so moved. The narrator quotes Yeats as saying: "We are not moved because of [the work's] strangeness, but because we have met our own image".

In pre-war Europe, explains the narrator, Tagore's poems brought hope to spiritually starved people. His words are as resonant today and fill the large screen of the Clore Ballroom: "The earth is renewed daily with the radiance of life / Why do you sit alone engrossed in your thoughts? / Look around you and open your heart / Daily sorrows are but trifles / Fill love in your empty life." Both poems and paintings are projected to great effect on the screen, each art form enhancing the other. There are poems about friendship ("I have come to tie the bond of friendship on your wrist / If I tie this bracelet I will bind the whole world") and song ("It was my songs that taught me all the lessons I have learnt... they have guided me through the mysterious countries of pleasure and pain"). They celebrate life as well as mourn death: "The world is full of life in the midst of which I have found my place / My heart rises in wonder."

An overriding theme in Tagore's work is the environment, which is brought out wonderfully in the performance. Several of his Sufi poems are read out as images on the screen show grey, cloudy skies, and mournful songs reflect the threats posed to nature.

Rumi was celebrated in the impressive World Sufi Music Festival, Jahan e Khaushra, which is held every year in Delhi, and was this year in the United Kingdom for the first time, opening the Alchemy Festival. In a highly entertaining and educational film screened at the festival, Sufi Soul: the Mystic Music of Islam, written by William Dalyrmple and directed by Simon Broughton, Dalyrmple travels through places, including Kenya, Syria, Pakistan, exploring Sufi music both historically and in the present day. A key theme of both the film and the festival is the unifying power of Sufi music, its ability to reach audiences regardless of religion - something reflected in the diverse audiences attending the festival.

As well as Rumi and Tagore, the very best of living artists were also showcased, and stunning concerts were performed by the likes of Susheela Raman, Hans Raj Hans, the Raghu Dixit Project, and the Shobhana Jeyasingh Dance Company.

A particularly interesting strand of the festival was the collaborative work between Indian and UK arts practitioners, showcased as part of the British Council's Connections Through Culture programme. These included Whale Song, written and performed by Sameer Rao and Matthew Sharp, with words by Sir Andrew Motion; a "long-distance love song", the cello and bansuri musically explore the space between Mumbai and Kent. In this session Indian writer and musician Amit Chaudhuri also discussed his forthcoming project A Moment of Mishearing, a touring theatrical production. Chaudhuri's own musical influences mix eastern and western music, pentatonic scale and blues, and he explained how his work is about travelling, either literally or figuratively, how for him, "music is a form of travel".

The former UK poet laureate, Motion discussed writing and music. "There is a freedom that musicians have that is enviable in all sorts of ways," he explains. For example, whereas a piece of music could be interpreted in multiple ways, writing tended to be more bound by the literal. The "great thrill" of music for Motion is that it slows down words, puts a break on the speediness with which we consume, and provides the opportunity to relish individual phrases. Crucially, "music makes you cry sooner", since it is a direct address to our tenderest feelings, and "I want people to be tearful when they listen to these poems".

Indeed, the emotional responses to various events at the festival was notable. When leaving The Adventures of Prince Achmed, I heard audience members gasp about the "brilliance" and "beauty" of this performance of the oldest surviving feature-length animation in cinema's history (1926). The film was complemented by clarinet star Arun Ghosh's original contemporary soundtrack to the film, mixing hip-hop, jazz and traditional Middle Eastern sounds. The silhouettes of Ghosh and his cast of musicians were projected on the screen that recounted the adventures of the prince and the ancient story of Aladdin's lamp.

There were some astonishing performances by female artists; actress Meera Syal and comedian Shappi Korsandi appeared and elsewhere, the Satrangi Trinnjan (The Spinning Circle, Southall) performed women's folk songs. While in Chaaya, dance was the medium for expressing the unspoken issues of trauma suffered in childhood, as the dancer adorned in garments the colour of the sun twisted and turned like a flower in the wind.

Such beautiful shows did indeed demonstrate the alchemist's trick, transforming human pain into the pleasures of art.

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Updated: May 3, 2011 04:00 AM