Once upon a time the only way you could get to hear your favourite Indian singers in the UK was through crackly radio broadcasts, dusting off your parents’ Ravi Shankar vinyls or buying bootleg Bollywood cassettes down the local market. On the rare occasion famous playback, folk and classical artistes visited Old Blighty you would be one of hundreds lining up outside run down community halls to catch a glimpse of your music idol in concert.
How times have changed. Nowadays, it only takes a click of a mouse or gentle touch of a screen to be able to instantly download and get access to the latest musical offerings from the sub-continent. However, hearing someone like Asha Bhosle via iTunes or watching Sonu Nigam on YouTube can never compare to the thrill of listening to them live.
Thankfully, living in one of the world’s top cultural capitals has its advantages. When it comes to Indian music there’s no better place than London to hear some of the finest artistes from back home. In the past few months I’ve been lucky enough to see four of India’s top performers at four of the UK’s premier venues and there’s plenty more to come.
In April I took my seat at the Royal Albert Hall amongst thousands of others to witness the genius that is Gurdas Maan. As Punjab’s leading solo artist with scores of albums, film soundtracks and an illustrious thirty year career under his belt, Maan has inspired a firm following amongst fellow Punjabis across the globe. Every two years like clockwork, he and his band of merry musicians spend a few weeks on the road in the UK, entertaining loyal fans and keeping the legacy of Punjabi folk music alive.
This year Maan gained further kudos when he became one of only a handful of Indian singers to have ever performed a solo concert at the prestigious South Kensington setting as part of his Dil Da Mamla UK tour. His high energy singing and dancing onstage was made all the more poignant by his humble speech in which he thanked God, his family and fan base for affording him a once in a lifetime opportunity of performing at the world renowned hall which has seen the likes of Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles grace its stage. Having packed out large arenas and concert venues across the country many times over, it seemed appropriate that the legend was given an equally legendary platform on which to showcase his talent.
That same month I hot footed it across to the South Bank to see Kailash Kher put in a rousing performance at the Royal Festival Hall as part of the annual Indian-themed Alchemy arts and music festival. A household name in India thanks to his role as a judge on Indian Idol, Kher’s unique blend of traditional folk, electro and Sufi inspired rock was a pleasure to behold for the UK’s Indian music lovers who probably know him best for his Bollywood movie songs.
Like Maan, Kher made a point of encouraging his audience to look for quality in performances and music events. Recalling how UK-based concert promoters had for many years treated Indian singers like cash cows by forcing them perform in shoddy, second rate venues with poor sound systems and backstage facilities, Kher was genuinely pleased at finally being able to perform in London for the first time in his career. Being able to do this at a revered arts venue like the Royal Festival Hall meant Kher and his backing band knew they were going to be respected and taken care of well in advance. They also appreciated the fact that playing at such a popular mainstream venue would help attract wider non-Asian audiences to their contemporary brand of music.
In July I got my second opportunity to witness Pakistan’s leading musical export Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. His third and latest UK wide tour organised by Saregama music label culminated in a rafter raising gig at the Hammersmith Apollo. Following in the footsteps of his late great uncle Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahat’s dulcet tones and sparky personality illustrated why he is currently one of Pakistan and now India’s most loved singers.
Carrying on his family’s mighty musical legacy, the larger than life Khan’s successful transition from Sufi inspired qawallis into playback singing for Hindi films helped fill out the 3,500 seated capacity Apollo two nights in a row, leaving thousands of others disappointed outside the doors. Usually a venue closely associated with top mainstream comedy and music acts like Kylie Minogue and Michael McIntyre, Khan’s appearance at the Apollo illustrated how Asian artists are more than capable of pulling in big crowds. A R Rahman’s 2010 concert at the 02 Arena and Sonu Nigam’s 2008 Rafi Resurrected concerts at the magnificent London Coliseum are previous example of this.
On a relatively smaller scale, a fortnight ago I was one of a handful of lucky people who bagged a much sought after space in the main atrium of Hoxton Hall in trendy east London to see south Indian sensation Raghu Dixit. Kicking off his UK run, Dixit’s lively gig came just two days after a fly by performance at the closing night of the London Indian Film Festival. The fact that Dixit and his acoustic band had just come back from a highly lauded performance at Glastonbury music festival spoke volumes about their sheer energy and cross over appeal. Having first caught the mainstream media’s attention with his blistering performance on BBC television’s iconic music show, Later With Jools Holland, Raghu’s distinctive fusion of Indian folk, rock and jazz has captured a new and excited fan base in the UK.
Maan, Khan, Kher and Dixit may not be the first Indians or Pakistani music artistes to have performed at prestigious UK concert venues, but their recent sold out appearances are proof of their huge popularity amongst NRI audiences and ability to fill large scale spaces. Their achievement is made even more poignant when the likes of Britney Spears, Whitney Houston and Rihanna struggle to pack out UK and US concert venues despite fan bases in their millions. Dixit and Co’s growing ability to attract non-Indian audiences and mainstream press is also an indication that Indian artistes are making waves in the world music scene.
By securing world class platforms, Indian music promoters are not only bestowing artistes the full respect they deserve, but also giving audiences the opportunity to experience their favourite performers in quality surroundings. Hallelujah!