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Dev Nadkarni

Last Saturday’s Shankar Ehsan Loy Symphony Concert was a creatively refreshing departure from the succession of lookalike Bollywood musical shows rolled out in Auckland weekend after weekend that almost seem templatised in form, content and presentation.

Two painstaking years in the making, Auckland singer Ashish Ramakrishnan’s brainchild – in fact, a childhood dream – broke new ground in many ways. For one, it showed that there were imaginative, creative, ways to present Bollywood music on stage.

Using the backdrop of the celebrated Shankar Ehsan Loy (SEL) trio’s pathbreaking approach to Bollywood music that is replete with rich, and many times exotic soundscapes, Ashish built an imposing symphonic edifice as tribute to SEL. The concert was a visual spectacle at Auckland’s commodious Victory Convention Centre.

Soaked in a bluish haze courtesy of fog machines, the stage was chocka with an ensemble of 45 musicians – stings, keys, rhythms, both western and Indian: a set up never before seen at a Bollywood music gig in Auckland.

Part of the allure was storytelling around the creation of the show – the difficult task of writing Indian melody for western-trained musicians; the arranging that spanned continents and time zones; the unhelpful pandemic situation; and rehearsals by video calls. All that pain and effort did pay rich dividends on the day, as witnessed by an enraptured audience at the near-full venue.

What also set the show apart from other Bollywood gigs was some good edutainment in between songs. Similarities and differences between Indian and western musical and rhythmic styles with a wee demo here and an explanation there served to enrich the audience experience.

The show was replete with surprises as well. The audience almost felt the anticipation of unpacking presents around a Christmas tree as surprises kept popping at regular intervals. Things like getting the audience to collectively sing a wildly popular song (kal ho na ho) while the lyric played on the backdrop kept the audience deeply invested in the show. The Brazilian songstress (Senorita and other numbers) and the young energetic group that danced to Kajra re were fine examples.

The show started with the prayerful invocation to Lord Ganesha, Sur niragasa ho Ganapati, from the eponymous film version of the famous Marathi play Katyar Kaljat Ghusli, in which Shankar Mahadevan played the singing lead and sang the original song. Shankar Mahadevan greeted the audience over a pre-recorded video to a lusty applause reflecting his global popularity.

Next came Sajda, which set the pace for the rest of the concert. Ashish explained the process that was followed to familiarise the symphony’s western musicians to complexities of the soundscape of this piece. The full-throated chorus in this number was exquisite.

Given SEL’s sprawling and variegated oeuvre, song selection was never going to be easy; yet this writer shares the view with others who thought that the selection could have been better and more representative of the trio’s breathtaking variety – a couple of songs seemed to have been fished out of nowhere.

The large musical ensemble sorely missed a brass section. Had there been a sax, one would have loved to listen to one of the best ever jugalbandis on screen between the father-son duo Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Kapoor in Armaan with the father on the violin and the son on the sax. It is undoubtedly one of SEL’s best creations, though probably the most under-rated as well. This is the kind of concert that was best placed to showcase that melody live. But maybe another time…

Ashish was his usual, energetic self, pacing across the stage as he belted his songs with aplomb, pausing now and then to demonstrate an aspect or two of his vocalisms. The ever-entertaining Rachit Bhatia lit up the stage, as is his wont, and undoubtedly whetted the audience’s appetite for his first solus show comping up later this month.

The excellent Ankita Ghatani could have had some more mic time with a couple of more songs to her share in the show. Ritika, seen on stage after a wee while, completed the complement of four main singers.

While it is true that the Indian music world lost a legend and two stalwarts this past year (Lata Mangeshkar, Bhappi Lahiri and KK), a tribute to them in the form of an Antakshari was not only a distraction from the main flow of the show but also came across as rather flippant.

The symphony too seemed somewhat under-utilised with the musicians sitting wanly for considerable lengths of time. Their on-stage introductions, too, came too late in the piece with the audience completely blocking the view as the front-of-stage space turned into a free-for-all dance floor. The stage at Victory is too low to accommodate fans dancing fromt of stage without blocking the view of those seated in the front.

Finally, a word about the sound: In the first half Indian rhythms sounded flatter and at a level of audibility that was less than ideal. It was corrected in the second half though.

That said, the SEL Symphony will undoubtedly go down as a memorable milestone in the story of Bollywood shows in Auckland. The efforts that went into staging it are truly commendable. Full marks for conceptualising, designing and executing the show with such spectacular success.

First appeared in the Indian Weekender, September 2, 2022