Milapfest – Previewed

A world music festival flying under the radar, James Hampson has the low-down on Milapfest, a celebration of classical Indian arts… 

Something special is happening at the Capstone theatre this week. A world music festival equal to the likes of Africa Oye and Brazilica is unfolding, devoted to classical Indian music and dance, with a superb exhibition of contemporary Indian folk art in addition at the World Museum.

It’s easy to overlook the Indian cultural centre Milapfest, but it’s been here in Liverpool, steadily working away and producing gems for more than three decades. And this week is Indika, a week-long annual showcase where the great and good of the Indian classical scene (from masters of their field to 11 year old beginners) descend on Hope University for a full week.

“It’s like going back to school, in every sense” Anil Srinivasan, who opened the festival on Saturday, tells me. “A lot of interesting things happen, from pranks to collaborations, all spontaneously and by accident. It’s a very humane place here, warmer and more enjoyable than other residencies whilst still being high on artistry.”

“We always knew we had to expand”

Milapfest began in 1977 when orthopaedic surgeon Prashant Nayak, his wife, and two friends realised there was little true Indian culture in Liverpool. Wanting his children and others to have a broader upbringing, he began hosting concerts, but as he tells us, “we always knew we had to expand beyond that, to fulfil our motto of ‘uniting hearts through arts.’

“That sentence sums us up more than any other. When a group of people listen to something, it unites them in a much stronger way than politicians or laws ever could.” So in 1996 they began their educational programmes for children and adults, culminating during the week of Indika. Dancers and musicians from as young as 11 travel from across the country to attend classes, and then the evening concerts. Education is at the very heart of Milapfest, and 2013 heralds the inaugural Young Musician, and Young Dancer, of the Year awards on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.

Everything about Milapfest feels like a hidden treasure. From the location of the Capstone theatre, in what is probably the most beautiful garden in the city, to the niche and obscure artists you’ll see. It’s surprising then to find a line-up of such quality which “used to only happen in London”, as Director Alok Nayak reminds us. But Prashant protests, “even London can’t boast a festival like this. We always make sure the concerts are not routine. We’re mixing genres and styles this year, so every concert will have the first half be music, and the second half dance, to present new sounds and new combinations to the audience.”

This combination of old and new is strongly evident in the exhibition, Telling Tales: The Art of Indian Storytelling, which runs at the World Museum until 8th September (for which Milapfest have collaborated on the events programme). Most people are vaguely familiar with traditional Indian art, or think they are, but this show adds a new twist to old themes. A traditionally pastoral Indian scene of a man riding a cow past a farm reveals him, upon closer inspection, to be using a laptop as he saunters.

Teju Ben’s stunning panels on the (here, fantastically exaggerated) life story of Sunita Williams, the first Indian-American woman in space, add to the feminist theme running through the show. So too do Kanta Jogi’s furiously Shrigleyesque sketches, titled A Woman’s Work is Never Over, depicting women scurrying around a frantically blurred world. Mantu Chikratar’s brightly coloured, almost cartoonishly simplistic scrolls give perspectives of the 2004 tsunami, Afghanistan and HIV, whilst Kalam Patua’s gentle watercolours provide a humourous take on modern Indian life, dating websites and all.

“I wish they had something like this in Delhi!”

It’s refreshing to have an arts centre and festival of this calibre headquartered outside London. Leela Samson, the leading Bharatanatyam dancer of her generation (who closes the festival on Friday), points out it’s rare to find anything like Milapfest in the world. “I wish they had something like this in Delhi! But there’s no reason to make the financial and political capital of a country also be the cultural capital. You have to take culture away from those people.” A principle fitting for Liverpool, if ever there was one.

Classical music of any persuasion can often feel impenetrable, let alone classical music from the other side of the globe. Leela insists that whilst she doesn’t “want it to be rarefied, it will always have to be somewhat exclusive. For any art to be strong, it has to make a dent and be difficult.”

Prashant Shah, a Kathak dancer who performs on Thursday night, adds, “Bollywood and other contemporary Indian art is like fast food, and classical is like a real Indian curry – slow to make and nourishing.” Anil chips in, “it’s impossible to savour a classical Indian performance on YouTube. You have to be willing to sit down for several hours and think.”

It has become a cliché these days for the media to blandly talk about how we want ‘challenging’ artists and then meekly accept the likes of Banksy and Alt-J as fitting the bill, but in Leela and the rest of the Milapfest crew we have people who are throwing down the gauntlet to us, and asking us to step up.

Milapfest is a miracle of the Liverpool and UK arts scene, and we should be proud of it. The artists and students who come from across the world repeatedly tell us that they look forward to it more than any other festival. With funding dripping away for all arts, founding director Prashant is adamant that “the arts will grow whether or not funding does too. Art is like a stream: when it meets resistance, it simply finds another way round.”

As we sit in the Angel Field garden of the Hope campus in the summer sun, the fountains gently trickling away, we watch two 12 year old girls from Leeds dance the traditional Bharatanatyam as Leela sagely claps along and poses for their iPhone cameras, and we suspect he may be right.

James Hampson

Milapfest continues until Friday 2nd August

Posted on 29/07/2013 by thedoublenegative