It’s a moment that stays in Amika Kushwaha’s memory.
She was tired, feeling stressed from the demands of being one-half of the team producing the Mushtari Begum Festival of Indian Classical Music and Dance. The annual event at Massey Theatre was founded by Kushwaha and her husband, Cassius Khan, in 2012.
It was the third or fourth year of the festival by then, and Kushwaha had found herself questioning whether it was all worth it, frustrated by the amount of work involved.
Then that moment happened.
Kushwaha and Khan were standing in the wings, watching the performers onstage.
“He said, ‘Look at them, look at their faces,’” Kushwaha remembers, smiling.
They both watched the smiles on the musicians’ faces and the light in their eyes and realized: “This is why we do it.”
The Queensborough couple realized that talented young Indian classical music artists just didn’t get opportunities like this one: to perform professionally at a major festival, in a beautiful venue, for an appreciative audience.
Realizing they were opening doors for emerging artists, and at the same time helping to keep Indian classical music and dance alive as an art form in Canada, renewed their passion to continue with the festival.
It’s still a lot of work, mind you. The two still do pretty much everything – production, promotion, publicity, program design, musical direction – and they both perform every year. Kushwaha dances kathak, a Northern Indian classical art form, while Khan is known for singing ghazals while playing tabla.
But, as they ready for this year’s festival – coming to the stage on Saturday, Sept. 28 – they’re feeling energized and inspired to continue the work they began seven years ago as a tribute to Khan’s former guru, Mushtari Begum, who died in 2004.
“If we don’t do it, who else is doing it now?” Kushwaha says. “It’s something we want to keep for a future generation too.”
“We have to take the responsibility on ourselves in order for this to become part of the fabric of our country,” Khan adds.
Audiences at next weekend’s festival will experience a rare treat in the form of a kathak dancing duo. Kushwaha will be joined onstage by Prajakta Trehan for both solo and duet performances.
“We’re doing a rhythmic dialogue, and then we’re going to blend it into storytelling; two women who are enjoying the rain,” Kushwaha says.
They’ll be accompanied by two tabla players, Khan and Amarjeet Singh.
Also on the program is another duo, a Carnatic music duet from two Southern Indian classical musicians: violinist Kaushik Sivaramakrishnan and Abhishek Iyer on mridangam (a percussion instrument).
Audiences will also hear classical strings, with Sharanjeet Singh Mand on sitar and Baljit Singh on dilruba.
As has become traditional, Khan’s tabla performance will serve as the evening’s finale.
Kushwaha and Khan do their best to ensure the performances are approachable for all audience members, whatever their cultural or musical background; they offer insight into the music and talk about the performers, explaining what each individual onstage means to them.
“The Massey Theatre becomes our home. It’s better to treat people as though they’re at our home,” Khan says. “It’s a very different kind of presentation.”
Over the years, Khan says, that approach has reaped rewards in audience loyalty. He still laughs about one man who got dragged along to the theatre against his will, expecting to catch a snooze in the seats. The man was so riveted by the performances that he became a regular festivalgoer.
Khan and Kushwaha have both been rewarded by seeing their audience grow beyond just aficionados of Indian classical music and into the community at large.
“We’ve seen a change in the overall community acceptance and the anticipation that this is coming every year,” Kushwaha says.
They’re hoping this year will once again see both regular festivalgoers and some new attendees turn out to experience for themselves the festival’s motto: “When your ears begin to see, the eyes listen.”
And they have a message for anyone who may think “classical music” means “boring”: Think again.
“There’s so much explosiveness on the stage,” Khan says. “It’s just going to be a mind-blowing experience.”
CHECK IT OUT
What: Mushtari Begum Festival of Indian Classical Music and Dance
When: Saturday, Sept. 28, 6 p.m.
Where: Massey Theatre, 735 Eighth Ave.
Tickets: Regular $34, seniors/students $18, children 12 and under $1.25. Buy four tickets at the adult price and get one free. Purchase through www.ticketstonight.ca.