Come December, and people of Kolkata eagerly await the Swara Samrat Festival, an annual feature for the past eight years. This year, fans across the world are connecting with it online. The festival will feature 36 concerts, recorded in five cities every weekend from November till March 2021, making this the biggest and longest online festival of classical music and dance till now.
Named after ‘Swara Samrat’ Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, the festival is the brainchild of his disciple, Tejendra Narayan Mazumdar, and his sarodist son, Indrayudh. The stellar line-up includes doyens Dr N Rajam (violin), Ulhas Kashalkar (vocal), Ashwini Bhide (vocal), Kushal Das (sitar), Shubhendra Rao (sitar), Bickram Ghosh (percussion ensemble); Rajendra Gangani (kathak), young vocalists Kaushiki Chakraborty, Aditya Khandwe, Dhananjay Hegde and Brajeshwar Mukherji, Bharatanatyam dancer Rukmini Vijaykumar and sarodist Ranajit Sengupta.
Some never-before jugalbandis include Debopriya Chatterji on flute with Nandini Shankar on violin, Mumbai-based guitarists Deepak Kshirsagar and Abhay Nayampalli representing the Carnatic and North Indian tradition, Kolkata artistes Ayan Sengupta on sitar and Pratik Shrivastav on sarod, the Shankar Brothers from Varanasi on shehnai and Mysore’s icons, Mysore Nagaraj and Mysore Manjunath on violin.
However, it is not the diversity of the artistes that makes this festival distinct from the literally dozens of online festivals available. What is unique is that all the concerts are being produced with the same setup in terms of sound, light, video shooting, and ambience across all the five cities of Kolkata, Bengaluru, Delhi, Pune and Mumbai.
Each concert, around an hour long, is recorded and then sent to the editing centre in Kolkata for the final output. Usually, classical music and dance performances are around 2 hours (Carnatic music concerts are longer at approximately 3 hours each). The costs involved are enormous. Apart from artiste fee, there is additional cost of lighting and recording facilities in each city, editing and promoting the event all over the world through digital and print media. Also, instead of hiring one auditorium for the festival duration, the organisers have had to hire five.
The recordings are being done in auditoriums (as opposed to small recording studios) so that the ambience is that of an actual concert; in some cases even a select audience has been made available to inspire the artistes.
The finest classical music performances require eye contact and the interchange of energy between the artistes and the audience. Online concerts cannot replicate this magic. As Pune-based Ulhas Kashalkar puts it: “Online concerts are a compromise, and this is the first one I shall be recording.” But veteran violinist Dr N Rajam says audience or no audience makes no difference to her. “I play for myself first,” she says.
There is careful curation of content. Artistes are being advised on ragas to avoid duplication. Artiste pairings are innovatively conceived. The tabla accompanists too are varied and top performers such as Akram Khan, Yogesh Samsi, Subhankar Bannerji, Tanmoy Bose, Satyajit Talwalkar, Ojas Adhiya and Ishan Ghosh have been roped in.
Tejendra Mazumdar thanks his sponsors, Arun Bharat Ram of Shriram Foundation and VP Gupta, owner of Bazm e khas, a popular online music portal, for making his grandiose dream come true.
The two concerts streamed on November 1 saw tremendous response worldwide. Mazumdar says the online audience is being carefully nurtured for the future by offering the 36 concerts for viewership for a year, unlike most other online concerts that allow you to view recordings for 48 hours. Additional new musical content will be uploaded too.