The Ankur Orchestra gave un unforgettable performance with its distinctly Malaysian music rooted in Indian classical traditions.
Once in a while, you sit through a show that almost defies being reviewed; the Ankur Orchestra was one such performance. For how does one critique something when they are utterly mesmerised; when, at their best, it was as if the musicians were playing not on their instruments, but our emotions?
Yes, there were issues with the sound system, and yes, some of the musicians occasionally seemed thrown off because of it, but much of it hardly seemed to matter as the richly melodic compositions swept us from India to China to the Middle East, all with a Malaysian flavour.
The performance was a part of the recent Shantanand Festival Of Arts in Kuala Lumpur by the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA), and was followed by an original bharatanatyam performance by Shankar Kandasamy.
Conceived by the Temple Of Fine Arts last year in an effort to create a distinctly Malaysian sound that is nevetheless strongly rooted in Indian musical traditions, Ankur – the word means “seedling” in Hindi – is an interesting effort.
There are, of course, others experimenting with blending classical Indian music with various other styles and genres, (the homegrown AkashA comes to mind), but having such a large number and variety of musicians allowed Ankur to create the kind of grandeur fitting the term “orchestra”.
The show kicked off on an endearingly tongue-in-cheek tone with three percussionists – Prakash Kandasamy on the tabla, Mohammed Hiasharudy on the gendang sunda, and Selvendrrah Krishnan on the cajon – bantering back and forth as they battled with their different instruments.
Later, the trio was joined by Eliezer Enan, whose electric guitar provided an edgy contrast, and the performance steadily increased in speed and complexity before erupting into a joyous medley of rhythm.
This was followed by a lovely serenade of strings, from Kumar Kartigesu and Kalpana Param on the sitar, and Pangasaasanii Gowrisan and Hariraam Tingyuan Lam on violins, accompanied by Jyotsna Nithyanandan on the piano.
Similarly, we were given a taste of things to come when a group of classical Indian singers – from TFA Malaysia and Singapore – presented a unique take by performing choral style, an utterly charming addition.
It was the kind of gradual build-up that needed to be executed with finesse, and Ankur did not disappoint. Having given us glimpses of what they were capable of, the performers then proceeded to blow us away.
One of the night’s highlights was an indescribably beautiful piece called Postcard From Beijing, which saw er hu (Chinese string instrument) player Lim Wei Siong joining the orchestra onstage. The plaintive strains of the er hu opened the piece, seemingly speaking of separation and sadness; the violins then joined in seamlessly, adding a yearning depth that sent shivers down the spine.
And then the delicate dancing notes of the sitar began, adding their own tales of bliss to the mix, until a beautiful love story was born without any need for words.
Similarly, a Persian-inspired piece needed no explanation for us to feel its wild heart. Beginning with a languid melody on the gambus (a short-necked lute similar to the oud) by Hariraam, the composition took us on an adventure through the Middle East: as the other string instruments and percussion joined in slowly and then crescendoed to a climax, it was an almost hypnotic experience.
The piece de resistance, however, was the closing piece, Varsha (“rain” in Hindi), which saw a coming together of almost all the instruments with the choir and acclaimed Carnatic singer Nandakumar Unnikrishnan.
Depicting the many qualities of rain – playful raindrops, a raging storm, a refreshing shower – the orchestra dipped and soared with the choir’s swaras (Carnatic music solfege). It was intensely evocative, and made all the more powerful when Nandakumar added his vocals, expertly weaving a raaga into the multifaceted piece.
When the show then came to an end, it felt like it was much too soon; from the thunderous applause and standing ovation Ankur received, it was obvious that the audience would have loved to hear more of them.
Here’s very much hoping that we do, and soon.