Fresh fusions fire up the Indian Summer festival
India is changing at a pace that’s often breathtaking. In a few generations, the vast country with a diversity of ancient traditions has emerged as a powerhouse of the global economy and a leader in contemporary arts. Performers at the second edition of the Indian Summer festival (which runs from Thursday [July 5] to July 15) express this dynamism, and reflect the increasing hybridization of culture in the subcontinent and the worldwide South Asian diaspora.
Since forming in 1999, Delhi-based band Mrigya (which performs on July 13) has forged a unique electroacoustic East-West fusion. “The band is a mix of everything,” says Sharat Chandra Srivastava, the septet’s violinist and chief composer, reached while visiting his in-laws in Toronto. “We’re Sufi music and my own classical raga-based music, blended with jazz and funk or Latin.”
Srivastava is about to fly to Scotland, a country that played an important role in Mrigya’s creation. “We’re all from Delhi,” he explains. “Our very first gig there was such a big hit that the organizer came on-stage and promised, ‘You’re going to the Edinburgh fringe festival next year.’ He didn’t realize that we hadn’t planned to get together ever again because we weren’t really a band—just five guys who filled the spot for a percussion group, jammed, practised for a week, and had a great time.”
The prospect of performing at one of the world’s greatest arts gatherings was a strong incentive for the musicians to stay together. And the creative glue between them became a bond at the Fringe.
Srivastava cites jazz-rock fusion outfits the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report as major sources for the music of Mrigya. There are many strands in the band’s weave of influences, however, including Afro-Cuban jazz and the persistent Celtic connection. “We have a song called ‘Travelling Through the Scottish Moors’, with a bagpipe sound on the keyboards and myself trying to sound like a Scottish fiddler,” Srivastava says. “Right now, I’m heading off on my own to tour with two Scottish musicians.”
Mrigya retains a core of five instrumental musicians—playing tablas, keyboards, violin, electric guitar, and drum kit—and has added two vocalists, one singing in Islamic Qawwali style, the other in Hindustani classical style. With such a rich blend of music, who or what provides the integrating force? “I would say that 80 percent of the influence is coming from me, because I’m writing most of the melodies, based on ragas,” Srivastava responds. “We arrange things all together as a team, but I decide where the song is going.”
Everywhere he travels, Srivastava actively seeks out new inspirations, a pursuit reflected in the band’s name. “It means ‘hunt for deer’ in Sanskrit,” he explains. “The logic is that we are always on a hunt or search or quest for knowledge. I believe that every moment, whether you’re on-stage or off-stage, is a learning moment. I fly all over the world, collaborate with different musicians, and take those influences back to my own country to incorporate in Mrigya. Who knows what I may discover in Vancouver?”
Srivastava will find plenty of creative stimulation if he’s able to come to the inaugural Indian Summer Literary and Sound Cabaret next Saturday (July 14). “We’re bringing together multiple media,” says Ashok Mathur, curator of the event. “We have a number of performance artists, including spoken-word artists who are using the voice as sound, rather than the notion of having a text, so really trying to push out from those conventional parameters.”
The evening opens with Toronto DJ SkyCave. “He’ll be looking at beats from indigenous populations, both in India and in Canada, with videos. Then we move into our poets, Cecily Nicholson and Chris Bose, and performance artist Chris Creighton-Kelly, who works with an iPad and projections.” There will be seven or eight performances in all, several of them collaborations.
“The aim is to illustrate the movement away from what one might term insularity—‘Is this Indian or not?’ ” Mathur explains. “We have artists from mixed-race backgrounds, African-Canadian backgrounds, and aboriginal backgrounds. We want to really push the sense of diversity in our various communities. It harks back to many of the things that have happened in the past two decades in terms of progressive and diasporic South Asian work, which has always been very inclusive in its scope.”
Indian Summer embraces that same spirit, exploring and creating new identities.
The Indian Summer festival runs from Thursday (July 5) to July 15 at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s.