Sitting quietly on the banks of the Mahanadi, ancient Sirpur in Chhattisgarh's Mahasamund district had its heyday in the 6th century when it was a thriving city and a famous pilgrimage centre for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Excavations have revealed extraordinary structures dedicated to each religion (you'll run into a ruin every 5km or so) and though most are only a whisper of their former avatars, the celebrations aren't over yet. Every year Sirpur hosts an excellent dance and music festival that breathes new life into its time-worn environs.
"The Sirpur Dance & Music festival embodies an effort to pay homage to Sirpur's rich historical past as a pilgrimage centre and great seat of learning," explained Santosh Mishra , MD of Chhattisgarh Tourism, with whom I had detailed conversations regarding the idea behind festival. But you need to visit to truly witness how music and dance can bind humanity.
The three-day event, from 16-18 January, mesmerised me, and not just with the performances, but also the atmosphere. The venue was the grounds of the richly carved 7th century brick Laxman Temple. Visitors from around the world sat tight in their jackets in the chilly air while millions of stars lit the skies. There were stars on stage too. The first day was a medley of tribal dances and music performed by an array of international artists. The event was kicked off by Rekha Dewar who performed the traditional music form 'dewar geet', even as a dance troupe twirled to the tribal dance form "danda nritya". This was followed by "taal Chhattisgarh", in which tribal percussionists jammed with internationally acclaimed musicians such as Pete Lockett, Giridhar Udupa (ghatam), Swaminathan (kanjira), Anubrata Chatterjee (tabla) and Umar Farooq (bhapang). The jugalbandi and improvised flights of rhythmic fancy left the audience enthralled and proved that music transcends boundaries to speak a universal language. The day ended with beat of drums by Yasmin Singh, where the performance of Lord Shiva fitted well with the ambience and heritage of Laxman Temple. Abhangs (devotional poetry) by Shounak Abhisheki and Asha Khadilkar presented a fitting finale to the first evening.
Rahul Sharma, Sirpur Festival Chhattisgarh
Taiko Player Leonard Eto, Sirpur Festival
The second day of the festival was just as scintillating. The evening unfolded with Rahul Sharma's mellow rendering of the santoor and soulful singing by Anuradha Paudwal, an eclectic mix of melody and bhakti. The showstopper of this day was a percussion performance by Japanese taiko player Leonard Eto and group. I felt myself slipping into a near trance, feeling each beat right through my heart. Other highlights included dance performances, notably with tirududi (dancing sticks) and the "panthi nritya" performed by the Satnami community. Rahul Sharma also collaborated with the Manganiyars from Rajasthan in a performance aptly named 'Milap', which transported me right back to my one-month-long journey in Rajasthan.
Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram, Ghatam Player, Sirpur Festival
The last day was one that I had only dreamed of since I started learning kathak. I reserved a front row seat to watch kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj performing live. The wait for his appearance was made rewarding by the other accomplished artistes who preceded him on stage. I particularly enjoyed the fusion music of Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram (ghatam; it amazed me how such evocative sounds could be coaxed out of pottery), Prasanna (guitar), Ustad Shujaat Khan (sitar) and George Brooks (saxophone). And before I knew it, it was time for the most anticipated event of the night: Pandit Birju Maharaj's kathak. A powerful exponent of thumri, dadra and ghazal, his first act was an invocation to Lord Krishna, followed by a scene from the Ramayana. The students performed the articulation of Holi, which had great colours on stage. The moment Pandit Birju Maharaj came on to the stage each pulse quickened. Each move of his reminded of my days of learning kathak and it motivated me to start again.
The Sirpur Festival will always remain with me as a lifetime experience of amazing moments steeped in song, dance and history.
All images have been taken and provided by Rutavi Mehta.