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Winter of content

Music inundated Calcutta this season. So did culture. Metro probes the foreign angle

When Watermelon Man Herbie Hancock was joined on stage by leading tenor saxophone modernist Wayne Shorter, the 4,000-plus rapt audience packing the DI lawns to the rafters rubbed their eyes and pinched themselves. Was it for real' The two jazz legends on stage boasted 13 Grammies between them.

It’s been that sort of a season for Calcutta’s music-minded. If the January 14 concert by the legendary duo alongside musicians of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz — presented by Congo Square, DI and American Center — was the icing, the cake itself has been as wholesome as it was exotic. And large.

The facts first.

Jazz and blues strains have been the prime energiser in the winter music scene revival over the past few years, with Congo Square, the city-based non-profit platform of jazz-lovers, catalysing the second coming. While the ‘Jazz, Blues & Beyond’ series at DI over the last two winters set the tenor, JazzFest 2007 was where it reached a crescendo this year.

The line-up at the four-day JazzFest also had French cross-genre trumpeter Eric Truffaz as the undisputed crowd favourite, winning over Calcuttans with his mesmerising melody. The Erik Truffaz Quartet presented by The French Association — with Malcom Braff (piano), Christophe Chambet (bass) and Marc Erbetta (drums) — showcased cutting-edge contemporary jazz in its full glory, coming in the wake of the brilliant jazz-rock gig by another contemporary French outfit Louis Attaque in the summer of 2005. The Scott Kinsey Group regaled with two power-packed sets and a high degree of technical competence (bassist Matthew Garrison was the star).

The quartet fell short of the magic created by countryman Kenny Garrett with students of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the same venue last winter. There’s hope in the air that the near-misses like the Stones and Tull can now be avoided.

Calcutta’s cultural calendar has hardly been so packed with music and dance. On the face of it, the diplomatic missions look responsible.

“This has been a great winter for Calcutta’s cultural scene,” says Martin Waelde, director, Max Mueller Bhavan, Calcutta, which brought over two legends of modern dance: Pina Bausch and Sasha Waltz. “We have been fortunate to bring to the city the two great exponents of contemporary Western dance — Pina Bausch and Sasha Waltz. For us, it was more of a preparation for the future, particularly with the Pina Bausch project, for which she chose Calcutta to research.”

This is endorsed by other foreign missions and the healthy rivalry among cultural corps of the missions seems to have benefited the city. So if the French opened the JazzFest with a bang, the Americans sought to leave the stage in a blaze of glory. On Wednesday, Australian Art Orchestra performed at a dinner hosted by the Australian High Commission.

Nicolas Blasquez, director of The French Association, admits that there’s a “healthy competition” among all the diplomatic missions in rolling out cultural events in Calcutta. “Yes, since 2004, things have been looking up and this has been an exceptionally good winter for Calcutta. We were really proud to present Erik Truffaz and his quartet. Although we all try our best to get the best artistes and events from our respective countries, we have been working very closely with the Germans and there’s great synergy in our programming,” says Blasquez.

Says Sujata Sen, director of the British Council in East India: “There has been a buzz around Calcutta of late and more and more people have expressed a desire to come here. Our visitors’ experience has been uniformly positive — a friendly city, where the arts and culture run in the bloodstream, and a good argument is never far away. It is still a questioning society rather than a passive one, and that’s where the charm lies.”

Though it doesn’t mean the city treats the highest practitioners of high art well always. Calcutta seemed quite ignorant of the world stature of Korean dramatist-director Oh T’ae-sok as he performed to a sparsely-populated Rabindra Sadan in January during the Bharat Rang Mahotsav. Similar was the fate of Waltz at Rabindra Sadan at the same festival, as she performed noBody, a three-piece choreographic cycle that addressed the absence of the body and confronted the audience with feelings of mortality. There were not many takers.

But that wasn’t of much consequence, it seemed. The jazz strains at the DI had hardly died down and Calcutta Club was playing host to Trilok Gurtu, percussionist extraordinaire, who had returned to the city after 15 years. The evening also featured George Brooks (saxophone), Louiz Banks (piano), Tejendra Narayan Majumdar (sarod), Rakesh Chaurasia (flute), Rajan and Sajan Mishra (vocals) and local favourite Amyt Datta (guitar). Of course, the largely elderly audience was not half as perky as that at DI and Gurtu was a touch overpowering and unyielding of space with his assortment of drums and cymbals and tom-toms. But it was still an occasion to savour. Fusion was again the flavour at GD Birla Sabhagar on January 28, when the fastest feet in the West met their nimblest counterparts in the East. India Jazz Suites, a collaboration of 62-year-old Kathak maestro Pandit Chitresh Das and 26-year-old Emmy-winning US tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, the freewheeling wonderkid from the Broadway hit show Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da funk, set the stage on fire — with Das rolling back the years to match Smith’s power and pace step for step.

Musician and foodie Nondon Bagchi feels the boom has more to do with the city than a foreign hand. “People have more money in hand because of the IT sector, there’s a marked improvement in the food industry and real estate is booming,” says Bagchi. In addition to the regulars, there are a lot of enthusiastic youngsters.

“Calcutta is rapidly gaining a reputation for relying on an open-minded responsive audience. I don’t know when Calcutta will be able to bring in Pink Floyd or Deep Purple, but Calcuttans can make trips to Bangalore and Mumbai till it has the resources to afford big names,” Bagchi feels. “Basically the city has had a turnaround and the recent upsurge in Calcutta’s cultural scene is symptomatic of a city that is up and running.”

It is difficult to keep the focus on music alone. No one can miss the Aussies, for example.

Barely has the dust settled down on Maidan after the Calcutta book fair was scheduled. But tired of waiting for the book fair to happen, where Australia was supposed to be the theme, the contingent from Down Under kicked off its own event ‘Australian Books and Writers’ on Friday. The team from Australia includes Tom Keneally, who wrote the Booker-winner Schindler’s Ark, the basis of the film Schindler’s List. Then on Sunday, British Council is hosting the launch of Edinburgh Review’s latest issue, a special number on Calcutta, but the fine print reads that even as Edinburgh remains UNESCO’s current World City of Literature, Calcutta is aspiring for that title.

In January, there was Giorgio Agamben, one of the world’s leading contemporary philosophers. British Council brought over Roger Penrose in November. Last month, the council brought over the legendary chimpanzee-observer Jane Goodall, followed by Bafta and Emmy award-winning editor Martin Elsbury.

Then the book fair starts.

And Waelde still feels what Calcutta is experiencing is just the tip of the arts-culture iceberg. With a more professional approach on the part of the organisers and a less rigid stance from New Delhi, the city could have many more significant acts from Europe, he says.

Subhro Saha with inputs from Sebanti Sarkar and Poulomi Banerjee

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