A packed cultural calendar: The Indian music and dance festivals you shouldn’t miss
Under a gleaming full moon, the Jodhpur RIFF (Rajasthan International Folk Festival) facilitates cross-genre collaborations behind the imposing red sandstone walls of the Mehrangarh fort, once the citadel of the Suryavanshi Rathores. Annually, it plays host not just to troubadours of the Thar, but also to singers and instrumentalists from across the globe.
India’s cultural festival calendar ideally starts by mid-September and ends in early April with Kolkata’s Doverlane and Varanasi’s Sankat Mochan music festivals. Over the years, curators, heritage enthusiasts and organisers have realised the power and appeal of the art-architecture-history-nature blend. Temples, palaces, forts, valleys, and the riverside have all been turned into performing arenas allowing the audience to simultaneously take in the sounds and sights. As for artistes, the unconventional settings motivate them to lend a newness to their art. These festivals with their flexible formats are also ideal spaces for forging artistic alliances. Here, art becomes as accessible to the informed as to a neophyte.
From the West of India travel East to enter the land of the Apatani tribes in Arunachal Pradesh for the Ziro festival, held in November every year. Many music lovers pitch tents in the picturesque landscape to partake in the experiments with sound. The just-concluded fest gets the best acts from around the country and abroad.
It feels surreal to listen to Kabir’s verses seated on a ghat by the Ganga. For, about 500 years ago, the mystic poet roamed these ghats talking of love and compassion. The three-day Mahindra Kabira Festival, held annually in November (this year from November 18 to 20), apart from offering an immersive experience of life in Benaras, brings together classical and sufi musicians and bands to convey the essence of Kabir’s philosophy to new-age audiences.
“That was the aim when we launched the festival in 2016 with the support of the Mahindra group. With each edition, we have realised that those coming to the event are doing so more for the experience. The visitors enjoy the music and literature sessions as much as the heritage walks. Many of them have fallen in love with this ancient city even while rediscovering Kabir,” says Sanjoy K. Roy, the curator and managing director of Teamwork Arts, which organises the festival.
It’s the sound of the ghungroo that brings alive the touristy yet quiet town of Konark in Odisha. The grand dance utsav (December 1 to 5, 2022), launched in 1986, is held on the sprawling lawns of the magnificient 13th century Sun Temple. A festival that should top the bucket list of every Indian classical dance lover, it’s a celebration of arts, history and heritage. But just in case you miss attending this one, Konark also plays host to a music and dance festival in February every year. Started by late Odissi exponent and guru Gangadhar Pradhan, it is held in the open-air Natya Mandap (replica of the Sun Temple Natyashala), a three-tiered dome-shaped structure with beautifully carved sculptures that border the semi-circular stage.
According to Durga Charan Ranbir, founder of Nrutyayan, a Bhubaneswar-based Odissi dance institution, “Realising that art cannot survive in isolated niches and should not be restricted to closed-door auditoriums, Guru Pradhan set up this space. We need more of this kind.”
When it comes to cultural festivals, Odisha tops the chart. The Rajarani festival at the 11th century Rajarani mandir near Bhubaneswar or the Dhauli-Kalinga Mahotsav held at the foothills of the historic Dhauli hills with the peace pagoda serving as a backdrop are a big draw too.
After Odisha, where? Your culture tour has just begun. There’s more to discover and enjoy. December is not just one of the coldest months of the year, it is also the most culturally active. And, if it is December, it certainly has to be destination Chennai. The city with its unique ‘sabha’ (performing venues) culture, draws hordes of tourists from around the world to the Margazhi Festival, a grand showcase of classical arts.
Close to Chennai is Mamallapuram, the venue for the annual Indian Dance Festival (December 25, 2022 to January 15, 2023). The gorgeous rock-cut Pallava Shore Temple stands like a silent sentinel a few steps away from the open-air stage, firmly re-establishing the links with the past.
Meanwhile, those who want to savour music in the seat of one of the popular gharanas of Hindustani music can head to Behat village in Gwalior for the Tansen Samaroh. To be held from December 25 to 30, the artistes perform near the tomb of Mian Tansen. What began more than nine decades ago as a celebration of Hindustani music, the samaroh now accommodates international music styles in its schedule.
The Sawai Gandharv Bhimsen Mahotsav was started by the legend himself — Pt. Bhimsen Joshi. The 68th edition will take place between December 14 and 18, 2022 in Pune. The Punjab gharana has produced many stalwarts, apart from the state being home to India’s oldest music festival, the Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan (December 25 to 27, 2022). Still held in baithak style, dhrupad singing and rendition of raag Bahar are integral to this 146-year-old event held in Jalandhar.
December is also when you can head to Goa for the Serendipity Arts Festival (December 15 to 23, 2022). One of the largest multi-disciplinary event, it spans the visual, performing and culinary arts, apart from films, literature and fashion.
As the year draws to a close, it’s hard to decide your cultural pitstop. From December 1 to 10, the annual Hornbill festival takes you into the heart of Nagaland. The heritage village in Kisama (near Kohima) is where the many Naga tribal communities converge during the festival to give visitors a slice of their craft, art and sporting traditions.
Come January, it’s time to pay obeisance to Tyagaraja, one of the Carnatic Trinity, at Tiruvaiyaru. The Tyagaraja Aradhana brings together Carnatic vocalists and instrumentalists besides thousands of rasikas in attendance.
The culture activities peak again in February. The Khajuraho dance festival (February 20 to 26, 2023) was launched 47 years ago to showcase the classical dance heritage of the country. It is held in the precints of the temples that were built by the Chandela Dynasty, and are famous for their intricately carved sculptures. Another fabulous event in Madhya Pradesh is the Sacred River Festival (February 4 to 6, 2023), which is held at the gigantic Ahilyabai Holkar fort by the Narmada in Maheshwar.
Each year, more cultural events are being added to the already long list. But before we wind up, just a quick trip to Mehrangarh Fort, from where we began the journey. Experience the spiritual significance of music that transcends geographies and communities at the Sacred Spirit Festival (February 10 to 12, 2023). The aim of the festival, like this voyage, is to inspire and awaken the divine in us.