Mushtari Begum Festival returns to Massey stage

Watch Cassius Khan's fingers dance across the surface of the tabla, his head and body in full motion, and you get an immediate sense of what music means for him.

It's not just a way of creating sound, but a full-body experience that draws upon the physical, the emotional and the spiritual.

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It's that sense of music that he hopes to bring to the stage at the Massey Theatre later this month for the third annual Mushtari Begum Festival of Indian Classical Music and Dance.

The Queensborough resident produces the festival alongside his wife, Amika Kushwaha, who is a dancer in the classical North Indian kathak form.

This year's event is set for Saturday, Oct. 25.

The festival named for Khan's vocal teacher, and in his guru's honour he works to assemble top-calibre Canadian and Indian artists in classical forms.

Khan notes that, in only its third year, word of the festival is spreading in Canada and in India - he's hearing from increasing numbers of artists who are looking for a chance to perform in an event that celebrates classical music.

 "It is classical music, and classical music always suffers compared to pop and rock-and-roll and Bollywood and bhangra," Khan points out.

He promises that audiences in search of world-class classical music will not be disappointed.

This year's performers include Dr. Deepak Paramashivan on the sarangi - a rarely seen Indian bowed instrument that resembles a cello. Recognized as a master of the instrument, Paramashivan lives in India but will be in Canada for the festival.

Also on the bill will be singer Kirthana Iyer, a specialist in the carnatic vocal form, alongside musicians Abhishek Iyer - her husband - on tabla and Mukund Shankar Krishnan on violin.

Kushwaha - on the phone from Calgary, where she's been working in her other career as an engineer - notes that having the second husband-and-wife team on the bill has been a treat.

"It's really, really cute," she says, noting the Iyers married just this past July and are still very much newlyweds. "To have them onstage with us is something very special."

Kushwaha will dance to the accompaniment of Khan, along with Sharanjeet Singh Mand on sitar and Akhil Jobanputra on vocals.

She notes that performing to live music, rather than a recording, brings an element of the unexpected each time she steps on stage.

"Each time is something new, something different," she says. "Dancing to live music, you can expect something off the fly."

Closing the festival will be Khan himself, with his renowned combination of tabla playing while singing the ghazals - a form of Urdu poetry that's never sung in combination with tabla playing because both forms are considered too complex to perform simultaneously.

Khan is hoping to see even more interest in this year's festival. The first year saw more than 300 attendees, and last year topped 500 - but Khan is hoping to see even more growth this year as word gets out about the event.

Kushwaha notes that this year's date coincides with celebrations of Diwali, so they're hopeful that the festive time of year will encourage people to turn out.

"We hope that people will come out and support us," she says.

And no, the festival isn't just designed for those who are experts in Indian classical music and dance - quite the opposite, in fact.

Kushwaha notes that they make it their mission to have the artists engage with the audience and explain the nuances of their particular art form.

"We try to make sure the artists educate the audience," she says. "We try to keep the audience engaged."

Khan is still dreaming of an even bigger, better festival - eventually, he says, he'd like to see it become an outdoor event in traditional Indian fashion, when the music can start late at night and carry on through until morning.

He expects that may take a couple more years, since he notes that getting any major festival running on a large scale often takes at least five years.

But he hopes that local audiences will turn out to the festival and come to appreciate what's being presented on their own doorstep.

 "We are doing something great for the Canadian music scene," he says with a smile.

The Mushtari Begum Festival is on Saturday, Oct. 25 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 regular, or $18 for seniors, students and youth. Children under eight can attend for free. Buy through www.masseytheatre.com or call 604-521-5050.

Check out www.MBFestival.ca for more details.

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© New West Record

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