Spirit and sitars fill Mushtari Begum Festival

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      South Asian classical singer Mushtari Begum won’t be present at the inauguration of the festival that carries her name, but she’ll be there in spirit—and in sound.

      “When she passed away in 2004, at the age of 69, I promised at her gravesite that I would always keep her memory alive,” says the late ghazal specialist’s student and friend Cassius Khan. “I always had a dream to organize a festival for Indian classical music, and when I was thinking about doing this, it dawned on me that it should be called the Mushtari Begum Festival of Indian Classical Music and Dance, because of my love for my guruji. I also felt that the festival would receive a lot of blessings if I used that name—and it’s been good so far!”

      As the singer and tabla master notes, on the line from his New Westminster home, Mushtari Begum’s melismatic approach lives on in his own singing, while other subcontinental idioms will be represented by veteran vocalist Kamaljeet Gill and teen prodigy Akhil Jobanputra. Even the featured instrumentalists—sitar virtuoso Mohamed Assani and satvik veena inventor Salil Bhatt—have been profoundly influenced by song, as the latter explains in a separate telephone interview.

      “My ancestors were involved in all these religious activities, religious ceremonies where they used to sing and compose all the spiritual compositions for the deities, for the kings, for the rulers,” says Bhatt. “Initially, they were all into vocal compositions, lyrics, and things like that, but over time they diversified into playing instruments.”

      The Bhatts have been particularly identified with the rebirth of the veena, which had almost been eclipsed by the more familiar sitar and sarod. Salil’s father, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, started with the traditional instrument but then invented the guitarlike mohan veena, with its 20 strings. His son’s contribution has been to combine that instrument’s shape with a body carved from solid wood.

      “We’ve all been working very hard on the sound,” Bhatt says. “With the regular six-string guitar, the sound is very insufficient. The tone is really very flimsy, it’s really very tiny. It doesn’t give anything back. And when you listen to what our family has done for this instrument, the kind of tone which has been derived, that doesn’t come easy. That came after almost half a century—my father created the first prototype of the mohan veena between 45 and 50 years ago.”

      The elder Bhatt is probably best known on this continent for A Meeting by the River, his audiophile recording with American slide-guitar master Ry Cooder. Salil is following in his footsteps, having already collaborated with Vancouver Island guitarist Doug Cox on two albums with their Slide to Freedom band. “We really worked very hard on those,” he says. “Gospel, funk, jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, folk, classic, contemporary: we used everything, and everybody really liked it.”

      For now, such esoteric strains won’t be heard when the Mushtari Begum Festival makes its debut this weekend: its focus is purely on traditional music and dance, with Amika Kushwaha representing the ancient fusion of storytelling and movement known as kathak. But Khan has big plans for the event: if its debut goes well, expect more—much more—in 2013.

      The Mushtari Begum Festival of Indian Classical Music and Dance takes place at New Westminster’s Massey Theatre on Saturday (August 25).