The most wonderful thing about India as a country is its unpredictability. You cannot pigeonhole the country and its people. Every time you argue that India is this and that, you are faced with several instances to immediately dispel your argument. This is the beauty of this messy, mixed-up country. This is the strength of this Land of Thousand Contradictions.
While religious intolerance, culture clashes, and such sundry matters of difference has become a common phenomenon, and we, everyone, as one particular community, have become increasingly remote from other such communities that surround us, it was an experience to see how we still can break these barriers effortlessly, in public life. All we need is an open mind, and an undiluted lust for life.
At a city mall last week (Saturday, February 11, 2012), I encountered a microcosm these very elements. The occasion was the Baaja Gaaja musical festival, an annual event, conceived and presented by Subha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan, for the last four year. In such a short time, the event has already become a staple of the culture calendar of the Pune city. What’s unique about the event, among other things, is that it features musicians you may never have heard before, and that too from two completely different extremes, young experimental musicians and folk artistes from far off places. So you have Dhak players from Kolkata making music in one stage and a brass band from Goa making music in another.
There were at least three platforms spanning the large suburban mall, with a schedule which was hard to choose. What do you pick up, Gajarati folk or Manipuri drums?
The one thing I liked best about the whole business was the informal energy it exuded. It’s a shopping mall, mind you. There were those shoppers, roaming, and there was this stage on the promenade, there was someone singing. If you like the tune, you can just stop there, and listen. You can walk up to next to the stage and observe the show.
On the stage was a Mumbai-based artiste singing Gujarati folk; he’d remind you of the soundtrack of ‘Guru’, the Mani Ratnam film with A R Rehman music. As the tempo began to rise, a Sardarji, with turban and all, got up from his seat and began to dance a few rudimentary garba steps. Then something happened. As if a major portion of the audience was waiting for this little nudge. Embolden by the Sardarji’s steps, a host of others, young and old, man and woman got up from their seats and began to dance. This excited the singers and his accompaniments; they increased the tempo, and suddenly, there was frenzy, a celebration of music, pure and without inhibitions. It was far, far better than a flash mob.
The Gujarati folk was followed by Bengali Dhak. Dhak is basically a drum, which is mostly used during the Durga Puja. Here, on the stage, the sound and energy was quite classical. I had chatted up with the leader of the band, Dilip Das, before his performance. He narrated how his parents had migrated from Bangladesh not so long ago, and how, it gives him a great pleasure to be able to perform Dhak without even an occasion, like the Puja. He’d come to Pune once before, a long time ago, to perform at Pune Festival.
The day being a Saturday, the mall also hosted a flea market; it’s not a flea market like the Juna Baazar. It is an expensive flea market; but you get to see some peculiar stuff, like homemade pickles or a notebook made of elephant poop. I would have liked to get that notebook, but it was expensive. And, there were those food stalls, selling chicken Mughlai, or wine, and a white, half-hippie man selling Pasta, who offered a plateful of pasta to a woman in Burkha, who spoke to him in impeccable English. Next to her, her husband got for himself a plate of a traditional Gujarati delicacy being sold by an old Maharashtrian couple and her young granddaughter.
All this with the music of the harmonium wafting in the air. Incredible.