Last Saturday’s Bhakti Festival under the aegis of Chinmaya Mission NZ proved a veritable treat to Auckland’s Indian music lovers. Themed ‘From Swara to Ishwara’ (from music to God), the evening was a celebration of Bhakti, or devotion to the Lord, through a beautiful array of musical offerings.

India has an ancient tradition of devotional music and countless saint-poets and composers have sung praises of the Gods they worshipped in the form of dohas, abhangs, kritis, bhajans and others that have become the very fabric of Bhakti down the ages. A small but beautiful sampling of these is what one heard at the Bhakti Festival, in vocals and instrumentals, from some of Auckland’s most talented musicians.

Kudos to Dr Anita Naik and her creative team who have been credited with putting together this delightful fare. More so for bringing the two great classical music systems of India – Hindustani and Carnatic – on the same performing stage, which indeed is such a rarity.

This task might have been made easier by the common thread of Bhakti and love for Lord Sri Krishna, a truly pan-Indian deity. Sri Krishna’s Bhakti has inspired poets and songsters from Gujarat to Assam and from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, with the lyrical and musical offerings taking on cultural flavours of each of the regions.

Noted singer and teacher Priya Vijaykumar excelled in all her vocal renditions throughout the evening, superbly accompanied by a veteran violinist and teacher Dr Ashok Malur, Ashwini Vishwanath’s mellifluous flute (the very symbol of Sri Krishna), the talented Saketh Vishnubhotla on Saraswati Veena and Rajniwas Badri on the mridangam. It was a treat to watch and listen to such a superb Carnatic ensemble.

Each of these gifted instrumentalists also played brief solos and combinations with the Kamsa Vadha composition played by Malur and Vishwanath standing out both for its concept and excellent execution. Malur’s creative flourishes were especially a treat for the discerning.

On the Hindustani side, Mayur Tendulkar’s soulful singing left the audiences in raptures, pining for more as was amply indicated by the extended peals of applause following each of his renditions. A true-blue Hindustani classical vocalist, Tendulkar’s Tarana in Raag Hameer and his devotional abhangs, particularly the final abhang medley, which gave us glimpses of Maharashtra’s great Sant Parampara, showed him for the fine vocalist we are fortunate to have in our midst.

As if in reply, Priya Vijaykumar sang a complementary medley of Carnatic Saint-musicians with equally great aplomb. Dr Anita Naik, a GP by profession and Hindustani classical vocalist by inclination, sang her Hindustani classical-based devotionals beautifully, pairing in several numbers with the talented Seetha Manognya, another trained vocalist, who has accompanied several visiting Indian musicians in recent years.

Accompanists on the Hindustani side were experienced Samvaadini player Samir Bhalodkar, with Pramod Niphadkar, Bhushan Phalnikar on side-rhythms and Basant Madhur and Akhil Madhur on tabla besides Rushab Trivedy on keyboards.

A discordant note

However, an otherwise superb repertoire was somewhat undermined by an item or two that simply did not seem to belong in the line-up.

The sitar duet stuck out like a square peg in a round hole. It was hard to figure out how a sitar performance playing a raag found its way in this concert themed on Bhakti.  While the young duo did their best with their rendition of raag Madhuvanti, one wished their sitars were tuned optimally. Also, the tabla accompaniment seemed overbearing at times, needlessly dominating the performance.

The commentary, too, did not quite step up to the mark. Rather disjointed, stilted and totally absent at certain points, it could have done a far better job of holding together this otherwise fine, colorful, fragrant garland of musical flowers for the Lord. Also, the rather kitschy background visuals could have been much more imaginatively selected, given the plethora of excellent traditional art that exists in the theme of Bhakti.

The sound was less than optimal as well, with many of the numbers marred by feedback that went uncorrected for several long seconds at a time. Some of the accompanying instruments seemed quite inaudible, too.

In that sense, Bhakti Festival was a slight notch below the excellent, high watermark creative presentations that one has come to expect from Chinmaya Mission NZ.

But all in all, the divine music so soulfully performed by our very own talented Aucklanders and put together by a dedicated team, with painstaking effort, without doubt, lifted everyone’s spirits, soaked in the sweetness of the Rasa of Bhakti.

--Dev Nadkarni is Editor at Large, The Indian Weekender and Secretary of the Mohan Nadkarni Foundation.