Ask someone in the know where to find one of the world’s talked-about festivals for Indian classical music and dance, and you might be surprised by their answer.
Thanks to a Queensborough couple, this city is becoming internationally known for the Mushtari Begum Festival – which is bringing a night of Indian classical music and dance to the Massey Theatre for its seventh edition on Saturday, Sept. 29.
At its helm are Cassius Khan and Amika Kushwaha, a noted tabla player/ghazal singer and kathak dancer, respectively. The local residents began the festival seven years ago in tribute to Khan’s guru, Mushtari Begum, renowned as the “Queen of Ghazal” for her expertise with the classical vocal form.
Their festival’s motto, “When your ears begin to see, the eyes listen” reflects their deep and abiding belief in the spiritual power of classical music. They wanted to bring the music and dance they love to a wider audience so that more people – of all ages, cultures and backgrounds – could also experience its power.
Now, as their seventh festival approaches, they can hardly believe how the time has gone by.
“Our child is seven years old,” says Kushwaha with a smile. “It’s always a learning curve every year.”
This year’s edition features sitarist Pandit Harvinder Sharma (“pandit” is a title meaning “master”), who’s flying in from India to perform. Sharma will also take to the stage with his student, Sharanjeet Singh Mand, in a rarely seen sitar duet.
Sharma is on a mission to bring sitar to the forefront and make it relatable to everyone - in a way no one has, Khan notes, since Ravi Shankar made the traditional stringed instrument widely popular in the 1960s and 1970s.
“We’re trying to bring that audience back,” Khan notes.
With name recognition like Sharma’s, Khan says, the festival is putting New Westminster on the map in India – where, he says, people are familiar with both the festival and the city of its birth by name. Musicians in India are expressing interest in coming to Canada to perform for the occasion.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind event in the whole country,” Khan points out.
Local audiences will have a chance to hear top Canadian talent as well.
Kushwaha and Khan, of course, are themselves in demand as performers – in fact, they’re off to Geneva, Switzerland in early September to perform for the Permanent Mission of India at the United Nations.
Joining them on the Massey Theatre stage for the Mushtari Begum Festival are vocalist Kamaljeet Gill, who's coming in from Edmonton for the occasion, and two of Khan’s high-level students – vocalist Disha Mehta and harmonium player Abhishek Iyer.
“It’s going to be a fantastic evening,” says Khan.
Their dedication to promoting top-quality classical music and dance with “dignity and class” hasn’t changed since the festival began, Khan says, though the format of the festival has evolved.
In the early years, Khan and Kushwaha spent more time behind the scenes, hiring an MC to present the festival more formally. But they found it made people feel more distanced from the performers, and audience members said they wanted to see and hear more from Khan and Kushwaha personally.
“What we came to realize is when we open the doors to that theatre, it’s people coming in to our house,” Kushwaha explains.
Now they MC the event themselves – they’re able to tell personal stories about the performers and explain what it is about the musicians’ skill that appeals to them, and the audiences have responded.
“The audience has become more endeared to that,” Khan says, noting they’re building a more personal connection with the artists.
The two want to build the feeling that the audience is at a mehfil, an intimate concert space where they can interact directly with the performers.
“The artist and the audience play hand in hand,” Kushwaha says.
With the festival format limiting the performers to about a half-hour of performance time each, Khan notes each performer has to ensure they pick out the most stunning parts of their repertoire to show off their skill in a short time.
With Kushwaha’s flying feet kicking off the night, and Khan’s flying fingers bringing it to a close, audience members can expect the entire evening to be full of what Khan calls the “choicest and most envigorating” moments each performer has to offer.
“It’s more awesome when you put everything together,” Khan says. “The audience is so overwhelmed when they come out.”
With the artists providing background information about the works being performed, the audience doesn’t need any knowledge about Indian classical music in order to appreciate it.
“It is a festival for everybody; it’s not just for the Indian diaspora,” Kushwaha says, noting that the MC’ing is in English and translations are provided when lyrics are in Hindi or Urdu. “Music is a universal language. We cater it for everybody, not just Indian people.”
The two are hoping to be able to grow their audience numbers – one year they topped out at 581 tickets, but their usual crowd sits around the 400 mark.
For many who do come, though, it’s now become part of their annual planning. And it’s not just people from New Westminster and area who are coming.
Though the audience is largely from the Lower Mainland, some are travelling from farther afield – Penticton, Kelowna, even the U.S., with attendees from Seattle, Portland and as far away as San Francisco. This year they’ve already sold tickets to some visitors from New York who will be in town at the same time and made a point of ensuring they attend the festival.
Kushwaha notes that the support the two have received from the Massey Theatre – its executive director Jessica Schneider and her whole team – has always been integral to its success.
“The Massey Theatre has been amazing as always,” she says. “It’s really kind of a New West family for us.”
Khan noted they’ve had interest from Port Moody and Kitsilano in moving their festival to those communities, but they’ve never been inclined to leave.
“We’re happy to be in New Westminster, because this is our home,” he says.