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Women in The Arts Festival – music and debate with Sufi and Bhakti centre stage now

Women in The Arts Festival – music and debate with Sufi and Bhakti centre stage now

A classical South Asian music festival with a distinct mission, its final round of concerts is about to get underway…

IN A FEW classical Indian music circles, women singing or playing traditional instruments is not much respected and is mostly shunned or discouraged by those who see themselves as unwavering guardians of the form.

In contemporary times, women involved in classical Indian and South Asian music have made great strides – but some of the highest echelons remain suspicious and wary of women.

UK-based Indian classical music promoter Jay Visvadeva is acutely aware that some prejudice persists and his organisation’s Women in The Arts Festival is a way of tackling that and showcasing the best of women in South Asian classical music today.

Sangeeta Datta

Organised through Sama Arts, the festival started in June and has two important milestone initiatives coming up.

The first is this weekend with two special concerts – focusing on two particular traditions within the South Asian classical music tradition – Sufi and Bhakti.

Next month from August 13-16, there is a conference in London, bringing together performers, organisers and others interested in promoting and showcasing the female contribution to South Asian classical music and the arts in general. There is expected to be a keynote address and a high level panel debate. There are also several performances to round off the festival and among these appearing are Zoe Rahman and Patricia Rozario, separately, with the final concert on August 16 being devoted to English baroque music meeting Indian classical, titled ‘Calcutta’.

This weekend’s music is performed by those whose style is informed by Sufi and Bhakti.

Sufi’s origins are in Shia Islam and it is a devotional form of worship and love for the Almighty. Similarly, Bhakti originates from Hinduism and is a form of reverence and commitment to The One. Both contain elements of romantic love and often The Beloved can be both temporal and spiritual.

Shepali Frost

This evening (Saturday, July 21), Amrit Kaur Lohia and Deepa Nair Rasiya will perform at the Waterman’s Arts Centre in Brentford, London.

Lohia plays the sarangi and sings in a mixture of styles which incorporate folk, jazz and soul, but her core is informed and inspired by Sikh hymns, known as kirtans. These too are primarily devotional. Lohia has played all around the world and says her style evolves as she travels and encounters new and different music and traditions.

Rasiya is that rare performer, capable of singing both in Hindustani (the classical idiom of North India) and Carnatic (representing the South).

Tomorrow (Sunday, July 22), there are four other women singers who take to the stage at Waterman’s and reprise a range of styles informed by Sufi and Bhakti traditions, but with considerable local variation.

Sangeeta Datta is a prominent UK-based writer and filmmaker and singer. She sings from the work of India’s most revered cultural icon, Rabindranath Tagore. This polymath (who wrote books, short stories and was very much a philosopher and poet too) is possibly the only person to have ever written the national anthems of two different nations. Both India and Bangladesh adopted Tagore songs as their national anthems. Datta is regarded as one of the leading Tagore vocalists working outside of India (and Bangladesh).

Vandana Somaia

She is followed by Papia Das Baul who specialises in Baul, which is a traditional folk type of singing, still popular in Bengal (as it was when it first developed many years ago). It is another form of devotional singing and very intense.

In the evening (7pm), Shephali Frost, trained in Hindustani classical vocals, reprises the style of Nazm – a form of Urdu poetry, but sung.

Closing the performance this weekend of performances is Vandana Somaia – whose vocals give expression to some of the best known Bhakti poets of yore, including Meera, Kabir, Tulsidas and Surdas.

Visvadeva told “As a progressive, cosmopolitan organisation, we believe that artistic opportunities and participation catalyse equality and human development.

Papia Das Baul

“The arts of South Asia are exceptionally male-dominated, given the inherently patriarchal framework of sub-continental cultures. This necessitates the occasional intervention, plainly put – to give women artists their due.”

He said he has been supported by performers themselves and hopes both men and women will contribute to the conference to be hosted at Wilton Hall in London between August 13-16, which will look not just at music but the wider question of women in South Asian arts.

Noted composer Param Vir said Sama Arts and Visvadeva were undertaking an important initiative that deserved support.

He told Sama: “It is a wonderfully focused festival in an area of artistic endeavour that is underrepresented.”

Top picture (Clockwise from top left): Vandana Somaia; Sangeeta Datta; Patricia Rozario; Amrit Kaur Lohia; Papia Das Baul; Zoe Rahman; Deepa Nair Rasiya; Shepali Frost


• Today (July 21) 7.30pm – Amrit Kaur Lohia and Deepa Nair Rasiya
• Tomorrow (Sunday, July 22) 3pm Sangeeta Datta and Papia Das Baul
• 7pm – Shepali Frost and Vandana Somaia

Venue: Waterman’s Arts Centre, 40 High Street Brentford TW8 0DS

• Conference – August 13 Women in the Arts Conference 2.30pm
• Concert Agust 13 evening 7.45 – to be announced
• Tuesday, August 14 7.45pm – Zoe Rahman
• Wednesday, August 15 7.45pm – Patricia Rozario (soprano) Western classical

Venue: Wilton’s Music Hall, 1 Graces Alley, Whitechapel London E1 8JB.

Full programme including events July 23-August 13, please see

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture