Under the Banyan Tree on a Full Moon Night: An unusual cultural evening is a reminder of how lovely Delhi can be
On Saturday night, under silver moonshine, a banyan tree in the neighbourhood of the Qutub Minar was dressed up in hundreds of yellow light-bulbs — aptly enough, for an event called ‘Under the Banyan Tree on a Full Moon Night’
Under the Banyan Tree on A Full Moon Night, returned for its March edition with performances by the punk band Tritha & Friends and the Hindustani classical vocalist Sawani Mudgal among others.
It is a monthly concert series conceptualised by Anubhav Nath that celebrates the music and musicians of India.
In the life of the ordinary Dilliwalla, the Qutab Minar is generally sighted from afar, when in the thick of South Delhi traffic jams. It stands shrouded in dust-clouds; entry to the top is still prohibited after a stampede took place in 1981. It is mostly left unlit in the evening. The capital rarely respects its heritage, let alone celebrates it. For whatever it offers, the Minar is luckier than other monuments that don’t find a place in Delhi’s tourism brochures. And on Saturday night, under silver moonshine, a banyan tree in the neighbourhood of the Qutub Minar was dressed up in hundreds of yellow light-bulbs — aptly enough, for an event called ‘Under the Banyan Tree on a Full Moon Night’. Sculptures of Nataraja and Krishna looked on from their corners in a landscaped garden, at a venue called 1 AQ, while rhythm and melody echoed into the night.
The evening began with Hindustani classical vocalist Sawani Mudgal’s performance. Smaller compositions that traversed terrains of playful folk, woven around tales, ghazals that revealed mystery and concealed loss, light classical dadra carrying the weight of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb and the weightier classical Raag Basant and Raag Shahana... Mudgal's performance encompassed all of these. Speaking to Firstpost before the concert began, Sawani said that the open air vibe of the event drew a vibrant crowd, far wider than the discerning music lovers who flock to tight auditoriums with their keen ears for nuance. The audience was dispersed around a bar that offered whisky, a pop-up flea market (where organic food and craft was up for grabs), and on silk upholstered chairs spread out on the lawn.
The organisers (Teamworks Arts) have a 25-year history of putting Indian artists on the global map. One of the key specialisations of Teamworks is the curation of festivals to draw bigger audiences towards art and culture. “Such an event acts as a bridge to connect the masses to classical music by creating an experience around it,” said Sawani, who has trained under her father Padma Shri Madhup Mudgal of the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Central Delhi.
When asked about the threat to musical heritage from radical elements and how the tehzeeb manages to remain untouched by hate, she said that rejection of hate is inherent to the journey of classical music. She gave the example one of Sant Kabir’s poems that she sings often — ‘Sadho Dekho Re Jag Baurana’ — which calls out the hollowness of Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists.
The next performance wasn’t musical in form but struck a chord or two: Sabika Naqvi, a 25-year-old poetess, who is known for taking protest poetry to public places. Sabika subverts the gendered view of the female body and questions the metre in which poetry is meant to be written. She translated Rahman Abbas’s Rohzin, which weaves magic realism, sexuality, sensuality in a fictional tale and won the Sahitya Academy Award last year. What was particularly interesting in Sabika’s style was the use of English and Chaste Urdu in the same sentence. For instance, her poem on the kajal has the words ‘oppression’, ‘misogynist’ and ‘monopoly’ alongside terms like ‘mazhabi dastavezon’ (religious documents) and ‘syah roshnaayi’ (dark ink).
Describing her method to bring nuanced feminist themes into poetry, she talked about the evolution of poetry from the subtle Sufis, who didn’t call a spade a spade. She repeats her phrases, as is the practice in most mushairas, but even though in a metre and tone familiar to the old world, Sabika’s verses are far bolder. She picked up the theme of the kajal even at the event. She expressed that the same kajal can be found in a prostitute’s world, whose womanhood is misunderstood and rejected and the same kajal is also dark and loud under burqas, with a ferocity that might have been made to hide but is hard to erase.
The third and last performance was by vocalist Tritha Sinha. Her training in musical forms as different as the more street Bangladeshi Baul (folktales sung to the tune of a one-string plucked drum) and the Dhrupad (a deep solo form sung in unison with the beat of the pakhavaj or mridangam rather than the tabla) reflect in the malleability in her voice. She wore pants under a sari and before her performance, was seen holding a glass of red wine in one hand and a cup of herbal tea in another, admitting that duality is a part of her life and music. Taking that duality to the stage, she paired her classical songs with an Iranian musician Surya Dema who plays middle-eastern instruments like the daf, where metal ringlets make noises on brushing against hardwood, and the baglama that has slinky-light strings. She sang a song called 'Pacha Mama', who is Mother Earth in ancient South American culture. Invoking Mother Earth in a city that loses a battle to pollution each year was a good idea. Having spent 13 summers in France and learning Carnatic music from her time in Chennai and in Bengal’s Bishnupur Gharana has made her realise the need to fill in classical music with contemporary inputs, to widen the scope of the music and the taste of those who come to listen to it.
The three artists engaged with an audience that walked around holding glasses of wine around a scene decked with flowers, mirrors and candles. In one corner was a funky wrought-iron installation with a board that advertised a new beer called Kati Patang. Brewed at ten-and-a-half thousand feet in Bhutan with Himalayan water, its young creators explained to the audience the emphasis of freshness in new Indian brands. At the pop-up market was a stall called Little Farm that told a similar story. Here, old and dying recipes from Baruch and Panna found their place in bottles and bottles of chutneys, all made at an organic farm near Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh.
In a city that understands weather in the extremes and chokes on its own smoke and doesn’t know how much of its heritage is crumbling around it, an event such as this was a reminder of all that’s good and must be celebrated. Another set of artists will return to the same venue on 20 April, to tell new stories to new audiences.