This article was originally published in Confluence magazine

It is usually unspoken. But that night, at a concert of Indian ghazals, lyric love poems sung beautifully by the London-based classical singer, Uttara Sukanya Joshi, the origin of Indian music was explained.

Shiv Kant Sharma, former editor of the BBC World Service Hindi section, was one of the evening’s distinguished speakers. He explained that Indian musical arts remain closely tied to the mystical tradition from which they sprang. This tradition holds that the whole of existence issued from a primordial Sound, Nāda, which came forth from the Divine Omnipresent Reality, Brahman. This sound is known as Nāda Brahman and Indian music attempts to recapture and express that inceptive impetus of Divine creation.

Shiv Kant Sharma

Classical music in India is so closely moored to its spiritual origins that a statue of Lord Shiva in his magnificent form of Nataraja, the King of the Dance, the Nāda Brahman personified, is usually placed at the side of the stage, and before they begin to play or sing or dance, Indian classical performers will pay obeisance to Him, seek His blessings in their humble quest to realise that eternal original sound and lead themselves and anyone who hears them back to that highest bliss. 

This ritual was dispensed with at the Shaam-e-Ghazal, ‘Evening of ghazals’ concert on the 26 October, hosted by The Bhavan, London’s famous Indian arts centre, but the evening’s performance nevertheless maintained the depth and dignity associated with its reverential past.

The lovely young singer, Uttara, upheld this dignity. Resplendent in a cream and ivory kameez sharara, highlighted with delicate gold threads, a glittering festoon necklace rested upon her collar bone. A brocade dupatta, embroidered with a grid of gold zari work sat around her shoulders, resembling a queenly open ruff. 

Serious and soulful, she sat almost motionless while singing with power and passion, gesturing only occasionally with a single outstretched hand. 

Uttara Sukanya Joshi

In between songs some heartfelt words were spoken. Uttara’s teacher, the eminent composer and director, Pandit Vishwa Prakash, was the evening’s harmonium player. Clearly inspired by the music he once or twice stopped the performance to express his love to the audience and his hope for their happiness and enjoyment. 

He and Lalit Mohan Joshi, Uttara’s father, founder of the South Asian Cinema Foundation, veteran BBC World Service journalist and the event’s organiser, both spoke highly of Uttara’s accomplishments to the audience. 

Uttara accepted these compliments with exquisite unflappable grace – a light fingertip touch to the slightly bowed forehead, followed by a gentle tap upon her heart. Known as the Salaam, in Urdu, these gestures are a sign of respect – acknowledgment of the person before you. The touching of the heart stems from Uttara’s roots in the world of classical dance, where it is a sign of gratitude, a way of saying that one’s gratitude is sincere. 

(L-R) Mitel Purohit, Ustad Surjeet Singh, Lalit Mohan Joshi, Shiv Kant Sharma, Uttara, Yavan Abbas, Kusum Joshi, Pandit Vishwa Prakash, Dr Mattur Nandakumar (managing director of The Bhavan)

And so to the music itself. Ghazals. Ghazals are lyric poems about love and longing. They are a poetic form native to present-day Iran, but the ghazal is an integral part of the north Indian, so-called Hindustani, repertoire. This native tradition enriched the ghazal “with the adornment and beauty of an Indian bride”, said fellow special guest speaker, the veteran broadcaster Yavar Abbas. 

The emotional connection India has with these love songs, these melancholic melodies brimming with rarefied longing, runs through her as deep and broad as once ran the magnificent Saraswati river, which nourished India’s vast and ancient beginnings of civilisation. 

Classical music audiences in India are no stranger to poetry that deeply moves and uplifts the spirit. Whether that poetry is spoken or set to music, it is common to hear people in the audience gently utter deeply felt emotions during a performance.

Those who attended the Shaam-e-Ghazal’s bouquet of poems will also have heard the occasional murmur of ’wah!’ or simply heart-felt sighs.

More than a century of poetic genius was rendered in the performance, including the poems of  Ghalib (1797-1869), Rajesh Reddy (b.1952), 1940s film actress Meena Kumari (1933-1972), Firaq (1896-1982) and Gulzar (b.1936). In total, the work of nine poets was featured.

A most touching part of the performance was the sārāngī-accompanied reflections on the poems and their writers, read by Lalit Mohan Joshi between set pieces.

Played by master player Ustad Surjeet Singh, I have to say I believe it to be true what they say about the sārāngī: that of all instruments it comes closest to resembling the human voice. Surely, if the heart in love and full of longing had a voice, it would sound like the strings of the sārāngī, especially as it was played that evening by maestro Surjeet Singh.

(L-R) Mitel Purohit (tabla), Ustad Surjeet Singh (sārāngī), Uttara (voice)

And last but not least mention must be made of the tabla player – the musician who most closely represents Lord Shiva, after all, with His damaru drum, eternally pulsating the universe into and out of existence. 

Tabla was played by the extraordinarily accomplished Mitel Purohit, who produces complex musical signatures with apparently minimal effort of his hands. Frequently invited to perform with the glitterati of Indian classical and western pop, his drumming has accompanied the likes of Jagjit Singh, ‘king of the ghazals’, and Paul McCartney of The Beatles.

And so that was the evening. Bliss and dignity from first to last – and in true Indian style, the evening was rounded off with a hearty and delicious meal.

Featured image: Colorful by BenJohnsonphpmaster80917