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Tour Diary: Sonapani Music Festival

Kolkata-based multi-instrumentalist and composer Tajdar Junaid on performing at the three-day music fest with his folk band Ruhaniyat this month

Rolling Stone India Sep 24, 2013
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Ruhaniyat performing with Harpreet Singh Photo: Kanishka Prasad

Ruhaniyat performing with Harpreet Singh Photo: Kanishka Prasad

The smell of pine trees, the sight of golden sunshine on green grass, breakfast of crisp toast and jam made from apricots and lavender grown on the farm just behind our cottages and the warm crackle of the evening bonfire. These are a few things that I will remember from Sonapani, besides some great times with musicians of course.  We got to Sonapani in Nainital after a two-night train journey from Kolkata to Kathgodam followed by a three-hour cab ride to the venue. We were greeted by Ashish Arora and his wife Deepa Pathak, who are wonderful hosts, and have been running the Sonapani Music festival for eight years now with the help of friends.

The festival has hosted the likes of Dhrupad maestro Ustad Bahauddin Dagar, Bengaluru folk rocker Raghu Dixit and folk singer Prahlad Singh Tipanya. Besides the music festival, the venue also hosts a film festival twice a year, during March and September. During my three-day stay, I realized just how much the festival organizers had invested in music and art. I was invited to perform with my folk band Ruhaniyat and the invitation read: “informal baithaks (sittings) with no microphones.” And true to word, instead of microphones or speakers, there were sounds of birds and insects weaving through musical notes and a patient audience of about 20 listening closely. No phone calls or requests to distract us.

Ustad Bahauddin Dagar performing at the Sonapani festival Photo: Kanishka Prasad

Ustad Bahauddin Dagar performing at the Sonapani festival Photo: Tajdar Junaid

The first evening had Ustad Bahauddin Dagar, who represents the 20th generation of  Dhrupad performers from the Dagar lineage. His instrument, the royal looking Rudra Veena, commands a lot of respect and it is quite natural because there are only a handful of musicians who play this instrument today. He mesmerized us, playing through a power cut without a gap in his performance and as candles were lit, shadows danced to his music.

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On the morning of the second day, we went deeper into the woods and performed under the shade of tall pine trees with the magnificent Himalayas as the backdrop. Later that evening, we watched Mani Kaul’s docu-film “Dhrupad.” The recently deceased filmmaker was an acclaimed pioneer of new Indian cinema and  had learnt Dhrupad music under the tutelage of Bahauddin’s father Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and uncle Fariduddin Dagar. The film was an account of the music that 20 generations of Dagars have strived to keep alive and traced the roots of Dhrupad back to Man Singh Tomar’s court in Gwalior. The film’s opening scene showed a 10-year old Bahauddin holding the veena cautiously as he focused all his attention on playing. After the film screening, he was asked to speak about the film and his own musical journey. He told us how children make for the best audience as they listen very closely, almost meditatively. He remembered a particular incident that had us all in smiles. He was once invited to perform at a school, when he explained to the children that for artists such as himself, music wasn’t mere entertainment and they respected their instruments as they would God. A kid sprang up and asked him, “Then why is that uncle hitting the tabla with a hammer?!”

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On the third day, Delhi-based singer Harpreet Singh performed some of his compositions from his upcoming album, which has been produced by Susmit Sen. Harpreet is a powerful performer and is definitely someone to watch out for. The rest of the day was filled with conversations with artists including actors, filmmakers and music fans.

Keeping the campfire going at the Sonapani festival

Keeping the campfire going at the Sonapani festival Photo: Anant Raina

Through one of these conversations we learnt that Ashish and Deepa have done more for Sonapani than just turn into a festival destination. They wanted their move to be significant the local community as well, so they set up a sewing school and roped in 20 families from the village around Sonapani providing employment and establishing a handloom industry. The profit from the set up helps to sustain “Chirag,” an alternative school for children from the village and run an eight-bed hospital for the villagers. “Empowering women financially goes a long way in bringing social change,” says Ashish. When the couple came to Sonapani in 2001, all they had to work with was a crumbling 90-year old house. Ashish and Deepa renovated the house and constructed 12 cottages, which draw travelers to the hill district all year around. Sonapani was a calming experience. I certainly made some friends for the long run here. 

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