Utsavam - Music From India At The Horniman, London

By Caroline Lewis | 14 February 2008
photo of a man in a feathered headdress blowing a horn

An elder from Rungrungba village in Orissa plays the suura koma trumpet at a ritualistic dance. Photo © Rolf Killius

Exhibition Preview – Utsavam: Music from India at the Horniman Museum, London, until November 2 2008.

The sounds of ragas and tablas are emanating from the Horniman Museum this year, as it hosts a major exhibition on the rich musical heritage of the Indian subcontinent. However, while the sitar playing of Ravi Shankar is well known, and Bollywood musicals are an emblem of the country’s culture, the Museum is focusing on the grass-roots music of the general populace in villages the length and breadth of the country.

photo of a group of men dancing

Malwai Giddha dance performed by the Punjabi Lok Akademi of Sangrur, Punjab, director Major Singh. Photo © Theodora Volokhov

The exhibition, Utsavam (Sanskrit for festivities or celebration), draws on extensive fieldwork undertaken across rural regions from Assam to Kerala. Ethnomusicologist Rolf Killius and curator Margaret Birley gathered footage of the diverse and rich musical heritage of India over several years, which has gone to make a rewarding and fascinating display with a mixture of film more than 300 instruments on show.

“This will be the first time that detailed fieldwork including digital images and broadcast quality audio visual recordings have been used in an exhibition on traditional Indian music,” explained Margaret, who is Keeper of Musical Instruments at the Horniman.

photo of a man in colourful robes and turban playing a flute in a garden

Baba Kashi Nath, vanjali flute player. Recorded at the Convent School of the Holy Heart, Sangrur. Photo © Theodora Volokhov

“In-depth research covered, for example, methods of how children are taught to play traditional instruments and analysis of the materials used to make instruments," continued Margaret.

"One of the purposes of the research project was to document disappearing music and instruments which are under threat at a time of very rapid change in India.”

The filmed performances from the villages of India (where the majority of the population live) include many of the Adivasi (indigenous) groups whose music remains relatively unknown.

photo of a man in white robes holding metal cymbals

Monk musicians from the Uttat Kamalabari satra, a Hindu vaisnava village community on the river island of Majuli in Assam. Photo © Rolf Killius

Temple musicians and priests of rural Kerala are shown alongside the singer-storytellers of the Punjab and the musician-farmers of the villages of the Sora groups (from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh). Members of the of fishing and farming communities on the river island of Mujali in Assam also feature, as well as the mountain people of Arunachal Pradesh on the border with China.

In the video below is a taster of the varied styles of vibrant music played in different part of the country.

It’s quite an epic journey, as you can imagine, with details on how the environment and ways of life – be it in the hills and forests or on the coastal plains – inform the musical traditions in different areas, for instance how terrains provide the raw materials for instruments.

A programme of daytime performances accompanies the exhibition, including everything from sitars to temple music. See the Horniman website for listings.

This is an exhibition preview. If you've visited the show, why not let us know what you think?

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