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Khyal at the Proms [Aug. 17th, 2009|12:27 pm]
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When the Proms’ annual foray into other musics misfires, it’s usually because the musicians chosen are cross-over folk, keener to ingratiate themselves with a Western audience than to celebrate their own culture. This year’s Indian Voices Day was a welcome exception to the rule: a morning of Khyal, an evening devoted to Bollywood (a sensible piece of populism, given the size of London’s Indian community), and sandwiched between - much blessed by fine weather - a sequence of village song-and-dance groups in Hyde Park.

Khyal means "imagination", and denotes the essentially improvisatory mode which grew out of the codified raga style. It’s both instrumental and vocal, but what we got here was the latter, in contrasting forms by its leading living exponents. Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra spun extraordinary sounds in their local version of scat, more like water in a madly-waving metal drum than ordinary human voices. What was notable about young Manjiri Asnare Kelkar (pictured, centre), on the other hand, was the way that even her most floridly extreme effects - the Indian equivalent to Western coloratura - sounded entirely human. I don’t know how she does it, but she manages to cover the whole range from our low contralto to the top of our soprano register - and all in a firm, vibrato-free, and gloriously unforced "chest" voice. Her first song, in the Jaipur gayaki style, was on an oblique but fertile minor scale; her second, which had affinities with Central Asian balladry, and which had sparky support from the harmonium and tabla, was on a beguiling major. Part of her art lay in the hand-gestures with which she accompanied herself, very like the mudras of a bharatnatyam dancer. Let’s hope she comes back soon.

The father-and-daughter act which preceded the khyals was a more muted but no less charming affair, as sarangists Pandit Ram Narayan (and old colleague of Yehudi Menuhin’s) and Aruna Narayan chased each other up and down the scale on their ancient bowed instruments, with never-faltering rhythmic precision.

Anyone wandering into the auditorium might have concluded that the attendance for this concert was disappointing, given the large numbers of empty seats. But as Proms controller Roger Wright likes to point out, a full Royal Albert Hall equals two full Festival Halls, or three full Barbicans, and this was definitely a Barbican and a half - not at all bad, for such a recondite art-form.

(Photo: Getty Images)
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