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April 24, 2011

London enjoys Alchemy at Southbank Centre this Easter.

The lead up to Easter has seemed like a whirlwind in London. There’s been plenty of furor about holidays and the Royal Wedding - and though some are zealously welcoming the latter - there will be plenty wanting to get away from it all. I, for one, have recently had my head down with a wave of spring/summer exhibits and festivals in London. With plenty of offerings from the V&A and the Tate, it seems with spring comes culture. However, one key festival has been Alchemy at the Southbank Centre.

Currently at its peak, the 11 day festival is a celebration of the best of South Asian culture. It brings together aspects of dance, drama, literature and debate not only from the sub-continent but also NRI culture in the UK. London gets it fair share of cultural festivals - though those at the Southbank Centre can always be expected to be varied and well-executed in their delivery. Looking through the line up, I was first pleased to learn that a great number of national and international partners had been involved in its conception. In addition, I was simply taken by the word Alchemy. By definition it insinuated something a little sharper and cutting edge in its promise. I suspected key individuals dabbling with the components of the arts (music, performance, colour) to create something spectacular and electric.

The range of festivities is listed in fully on the Alchemy programme, also available on the Southbank site. As I flicked through this last week, two key features stood out for me. V-Day (Vagina Monologues) a rendition of Eve Ensler’s play performed exclusively by a South Asian cast and the Indian Fashion Show. The intention of the former was to raise awareness of the Newham Asian Women’s Project. Though for me, it simply felt like a feat to show how secure we (as NRIs) have become in discussing contentious subject matter (particularly in a country where bikini ads are still being painted over). I wonder whether a similar performance could have been staged in other parts of the Eastern world? Is this where we’re fortunate enough to be in London, or should I also acknowledge that other cities are fully up-to speed with staging any manner of genre.

Second to the play, I attended a vibrant and elegantly staged fashion show simply dubbed ‘Indian Fashion’ . For me, what was most exciting was the aura created around the event, held in The Clore Ballroom - decorated with marigolds like a wedding procession. The venue is often the epicentre of live performances from around the world. In fact, I recall seeing Brazilian Drums being played here just last year. As I took a front-row seat I waited in eager excitement to see what India was designing today. I’d heard varying things about recent Indian fashion - either that it was too self-involved or that it breaks away from tradition too much or to little. In either case, I took these to be subjective voices and looked on as the tall, thin models trailed pass. It’s easy in these situations to be beguiled by the ethereal figures and their stylised hair, that one almost forgets the fashion itself.

In this case, a range of designers displayed their collections, namely: Sanjay Garg, Amit Aggarwal, Gaurav Jai Gupta and Prashant Verma. Standing out for me was Sanjay Garg’s first collection. The respective company, Raw Mango - seemed to exemplify its name by showing handwoven textiles in fleshy, fruity and fluorescent colours. The collection was more about portraying the quality of the garment, rather than the intricacy of design. We therefore saw flowing skirts (what you may call a Lengha) with fully knitted and fitted blouses. The range seemed to pull on the basic notions of traditional Indian dressing, but sophisticated and simplified through modern tailoring. The result resembled a marriage of 1950s American style with traditional Indian wear.

The other designers continued demonstrating a range of styles - some of which I’d describe as organic, fossilised wavy pieces others as nature based prints. I discussed the collections with other onlookers and we shared our thoughts. ‘I’d be intrigued if I saw any women wearing a Raw Mango ensemble at an Indian party’ I said. To which I had the following response, ‘Well that’s exactly what you don’t want, you don’t want to wear something that your mother will approve of.’ At this, I chuckled - but acknowledged it as a fair point. Moreover - I think it stood as a bigger microcosm - representing the nature of Indian culture at large. Some things we consider to be progressive and interesting - yet is this consensus across the board - and should we really be looking for it?

It’s great to celebrate cultural events on the grounds that all work is routed in the same provenance. Yet, I’m conscious of the idea that this brings different reactions from all. Indian culture, if classical, can be labeled by its source (like Kathak); but shouldn’t modern culture simply be defined by what it is - culture, on universal grounds. I left pondering this thought as I set of for Indian inspired cocktails.

The exhibition continues to Easter Monday. Click here for more details. 

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