ON February 3 every year, a section of Mumbai’s music lovers religiously heads to the Shanmukhananda Hall in Sion East to attend the day-long Allarakha Barsi concert. Many officegoers even apply for leave in advance, though that wasn’t necessary this year as the event fell on a Sunday.
‘A Homage to Abbaji’, as it’s formally named, is held on this day to mark the great tabla maestro Ustad Allarakha’s death anniversary. The first Barsi in 2001 was in fact held at the Tata Theatre in Nariman Point, and later in the evening, at the Kala Ghoda festival. But for many years now, Shanmukhananda has been the fixed venue, with Allarakha’s son Ustad Zakir Hussain spearheading the planning and organising.
For those who haven’t attended it, the format is the same each time. The day begins at 6.30 am with Taal Pranam, first featuring a tabla ensemble consisting of students of the Ustad Allarakha Institute of Music and then moving on to purely Indian classical recitals, both in Hindustani and Carnatic music.
The afternoon session, Taal Tapasya, features solo or duet recitals by percussionists. This again showcases the pure form of percussion playing, and is primarily attended by musicians and hardcore drumming fans.
The evening session, Celebrate Abbaji, has special international guests joining Zakir and other Indian musicians on fusion music, and a multi-artiste jam session. The global musicians to have performed here include guitarist John McLaughlin, jazz saxophonist-flautist Charles Lloyd, saxophonist George Brooks, banjo great Bela Fleck, classical bassist Edgar Meyer, bassist-producer Bill Laswell, drummers Billy Cobham, Simon Phillips, Terry Bozzio, Pete Lockett and Eric Harland, conga genius Giovanni Hidalgo, African talking drum expert Sikiru Adepoju and Japanese taiko drummer Leonard Eto.
This year, the early morning tabla ensemble tribute was conducted by Zakir’s brother Fazal Qureshi. Mid-way, Zakir, Yogesh Samsi and Aditya Kalyanpur joined in. What needs to be noted ― and this is something that one has observed each year ― is that while Zakir did introduce them as students of the institute, it would have been a far better gesture if each student , as well as the harmonium player providing the lehera accompaniment, was introduced by name. That would have added to their spirit. On the contrary, what one sees at such shows is that only the famous names are repeated ad nauseam.
This performance was followed by a surbahar recital by sitar exponent Pandit Kartick Kumar, who paid tribute to his guru, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. Mandolin wizard U Shrinivas then came on stage for a Carnatic recital, accompanied by Zakir on tabla. A Thyagaraja kriti, a ragam tanam pallavi and a bhajan were played with immense control.
The afternoon session featured Abbos Kosimov of Uzbekistan on the doira frame drum, a performance by Fazal Qureshi on tabla and mridangam exponents Palghat Rajamani Iyer and Kamalakar Rao, who paid homage to the great Carnatic mridangist Palghat Mani Iyer.
The evening session featured a trio comprising Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir. Fleck and Meyer have played at the Barsi before, and this time, the trio played tunes from their 2009 album ‘The Melody of Rhythm: Triple Concerto’, including ‘Cadence’ and ‘Bahar’ (mis-spelt on the CD as ‘Babar’). Meyer also did a wonderful adaptation of Bach’s ‘Second Suite for Unaccompanied Cello’.
Solos by Fleck and Zakir were played immaculately, and U Shrinivas, flautist Rakesh Chaurasia and sarangi player Sabir Khan made guest appearances on some numbers. One closely heard the interactions between Fleck and Shrinivas, and while both of them were technically brilliant, the Carnatic gamakas played by the mandolin maestro provided a distinct tone.
In the concluding jam session headed by Zakir, Trilok Gurtu mainly played the cajon, in which one sits on the percussion instrument while playing it, and Taufiq Qureshi played Indian rhythms on the African djembe. Drummer Ranjit Barot and Kosimov completed the percussion section.
Interestingly, the jam session was orderly and well-structured, unlike many times in the past, when it has become more of a tamasha filled with pyrotechnics just aimed at pleasing the gallery. With jam session regulars like singers Shankar Mahadevan and Roopkumar Rathod, sitar player Niladri Kumar, drummer Sivamani and kanjira champion Selvaganesh absent this time, one got to hear something different.
The jam session as such had the right build-up, some excellent percussion solos and no unwanted gimmickry. In fact, the entire day showcased a good combination of improvisation and restraint.
Finally, a word about the entry conditions. As the concert is free for the public, many people are relieved, moreso in these days when concert prices have shot up tremendously. However, for many, it becomes difficult or even impossible to get hold of passes.
The Shanmukhananda Hall has a huge capacity of over 2,750 seats. It has three levels ― main auditorium, first balcony and second balcony. For the main auditorium, passes with seat numbers are normally given to invitees, which consist of celebrities, musicians, the media, sponsors and other guests of the organisers.
The others get seating in the two balconies, and for this, advertisements are placed in the local dailies. This year, they could collect two passes per person from either Rhythm House at Kala Ghoda, the Maharashtra Watch & Gramophone Company in Dadar or the venue from February 1 onwards.
However, around 11 am on February 1, all three venues had run out of passes. Whether they went to the first lot of people who visited the venues or were deliberately kept back, nobody knows. But a lot of interested people and true music fans had to miss the concert because passes were unavailable. And strangely, the ads appeared on February 2 too, disappointing even more people.
Such a thing happens every year, and it’s time the organisers pay serious attention to this. For such a huge hall, it’s sad that quite a few people are forced to miss out.