This beautiful image comes from an illustrated manuscript of Padmavat, an Indian-Islamic (Sufi) romance. I joined a sizeable audience at the British Library to see/hear a performance of this story with music, dancing and video devised by Vayu Naidu. Since I have myself contributed music to many of Vayu’s storytelling performances in the past, it was a rare pleasure to sit in the audience having no idea what would happen.
A few features however were instantly familiar. Hearing the sound of Sarvar Sabri’s tabla playing once again was like recognising a long lost relative on the telephone – exactly as it was, despite the passage of time. Sonia Sabri has extended her basic training in Kathak dance so far that just about anything she does – it might just be widening her eyes very slightly – presages an intense sensation of feelings clearly communicated. Vayu’s mode of address is warm and relaxed, but meanwhile her brain is presumably whirling as she organises an endless list of Indian saga happenings – oceans crossed, wars fought, magic parrots intercepted – into an extended narrative.
A powerful addition to this group was Melinda Maxwell’s oboe playing; in fact it might be the most gripping 75 minutes of oboe I’ve ever heard. Melinda, an eminent classical and new music performer, is also a jazz player and improviser, and here she seemed to deploy her whole arsenal, from raucous multiphonics to plummy cor anglais, in an expertly engineered sequence which complemented the storyline to perfection. On the whole it’s the fate of the oboe always to sound pastoral and reedy, whatever the composer intended; but during this evening of bizarre Indian goings-on, the English countryside was totally forgotten.