The Maharaja's music: profile of Sandeep Virdee
20th Aug 2012
Sandeep Virdee is keeping it traditional
Founding artistic director of Darbar Festival, UK
From orchestras playing video game soundtracks to ensembles that perform impromptu music on trains, classical music is increasingly breaking the mould and reinventing itself to entice younger listeners. Sandeep Virdee, however, is one artistic director who plans to stick to tradition.
In 2006 he founded the Darbar Festival, which this year takes place at London’s Southbank Centre from 27-30 September. It’s the largest Indian classical music festival outside of India: next month it will host rhythmic percussion from mridangam maestro Pirashanna, as well as Dr Ram Deshpande Mahadeva singing khayal in its pure, traditional form.
‘What India has done really well is export Indian food, yoga and Bollywood,’ says Virdee. ‘But for some reason Indian music hasn’t been exported particularly well.’
Virdee puts this down, in part, to how the genre has developed over the years. ‘Indian classical music goes back thousands of years,’ he says. ‘It’s hugely complex and historic but nevertheless an oral tradition. We don’t jot it down properly so we can’t express it properly. I think that’s been a huge stumbling block for us to get our music out to wider audiences.’
‘My ambition is to show as many people as possible that this is one of the greatest music traditions in the world,’ Virdee continues. ‘It’s about going back to basics and getting people to understand the classical tradition.’
The festival, therefore, isn’t watered-down interpretations of the art form: it’s the real thing. Virdee says when he first launched the festival, members of his team suggested programming short 30 to 40-minute concerts ‘because that’s all Western and young Asian audiences can stomach’.
‘I disagreed with that,’ he says. ‘I said that Indian music needs time and development; you can’t rush it. And even when we’ve had concerts that lasted over three hours, people haven’t moved from their seats throughout that time, because we’re presenting the purity of the music.’
‘In terms of programming what we strive to do is look out for the really brilliant talented musicians from India who have never been given a chance to perform outside of India. This year we’ve got at least six musicians who will be travelling to the UK for the very first time.’
Virdee says he’s not ruling out working with Western musicians, and is looking into that for future festivals. ‘But we’re building on our reputation as a very authentic, traditional Indian classical music festival with very high production values.’
What Virdee is also trying to get across to UK audiences is that whereas western music is based around celebrated composers, Indian classical music is based around the raga tradition, where a series of at least five notes are combined to form a melody. ‘One of the key principles is that each raga has a time of day that you can perform it,’ he explains. ‘So the festival runs from morning until night, 10am to 10pm with four concert sessions: that’s to reflect all the different aspects of the raga system.’
Darbar Festival was in fact launched as a touching tribute to Virdee’s father, Bhai Gurmit Singh Ji Virdee, considered one of the most talented tabla players of his generation. When he died in 2005, Virdee, who was working as an accountant at the time, decided to honour his father’s memory with a musical event.
‘We selected the name darbar – it stands for a place where they had arts and music in the Maharaja’s court,’ says Virdee. ‘It was only meant to be a one-off. But as soon as we started the festival, we knew that it worked across a unique format for an Indian music festival. We repeated it.’
Gradually Virdee gave up his financial practice, and it seems the festival has gone from strength to strength: where it once hired various venues, it’s now marketed as part of Southbank Centre’s classical season. BBC Radio 3 and Sky Arts have covered the festival for the past several years, and Darbar was recently awarded ‘national portfolio’ status by Arts Council England, securing its public funding.
Virdee has a strong vision for what he wants the festival’s legacy to be – bringing authentic classical Indian music to UK audiences – but that extends beyond the concerts themselves. ‘This year we’ve brought in a five-week Indian music appreciation course for people to understand the traditions,’ he says. ‘We’ve also added yoga in between the sessions so people can relax and recuperate. And a pop-up restaurant in SBC will provide Indian street food during the festival.’
This year Virdee launched Darbar.org, a site hosting a wealth of information on Indian classical music, from blogposts to concert listings to research and articles on musicians. ‘Within three years we hope it will become one of most important resources for Indian music.’