Celebrating Cultural Diversity: India/UK Together, a Season of Culture

Culture unites. It defines. It is diffusive. And it can be different. Yet, in these differences lie unity, and a shared cultural experience. Today, in the 21st century, as the global village becomes increasingly aware, and gets ready to face significant global threats together, it is imperative that cultural heterogeneity be recognised, celebrated, its contours blurred, and new cultural identities discovered and forged in a seamless bond of friendship, diversity, mutual respect and humanity.

In June 2022, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, British Council launched ‘India/UK Together, a Season of Culture’ in a unique bid to bring together and celebrate the rich cultural heritage of both nations. With over 40 collaborative ventures between India and the UK, and 1400 artists, the programme seeks to inclusively create and promote a platform for cultural exchange and exploration for arts organisations, artists and educators from the two countries. More importantly, the Season of Culture endeavours to foster artistic excellence among emerging young talents in the Arts, Education and English across India, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales, strengthen bilateral ties and initiate a cultural conversation among the younger generations for years to come.

With Maestro A.R. Rahman as the face of the season, the programme proudly boasts discourses in key issues in the sociological, political, economic, cultural and technological domains across music, theatre, dance, fashion, literature, and the visual arts such as cinema and photography. As the Brand Ambassador of India/UK Together, a Season of Culture, the Mozart of Madras stated,

“As an artist, it is my absolute pleasure to support such an important cultural landmark, enabling creative excellence, shining the spotlight on diverse artists, and bringing diverse audiences together to appreciate the arts and culture”

The Concert for Friendship was conceived when the Maestro voiced an apparently simple, yet compelling dream of music eroding boundaries and promoting friendship among young people from around the world. The KM Music Conservatory, Chennai, founded by the legend himself in 2008 with a similar vision of offering world class higher education in music to an entire generation of budding artists and musicians, joined hands with the Sunshine Orchestra, Chennai and Nagaland Chapters, under the auspices of the A.R. Rahman Foundation. The Sunshine Orchestra, a symphony orchestra in the making, had started out as a heartfelt, empowering initiative by the Rahman Foundation to provide free musical training to children from the socially and economically backward sections of society who demonstrate an inclination for musical learning. Soon, other forces joined the Concert for Friendship project in the shape of the Scotland-based charity organisation, Sistema Scotland, with their immersive Big Noise programme that, similar to the Sunshine Orchestra, supports children and youngsters from underserved communities as they train in instrumental music and hone a range of life skills together. While the programme runs across various cities in Scotland, it was Big Noise Raploch (Stirling) and Big Noise Gavonhill (Glasgow), with teams comprising an average age of 16-18 years, that participated in this unique project.

For several months before the weeklong outreach and activities that culminated in the surreal evening of the Concert for Friendship on March 4, the various groups associated with this project worked remotely to familiarise themselves with the vibrant musical traditions of the regions, cultures and communities involved, and before long a symphonic concert had taken shape. Dr Adam J. Greig, Artistic Director, KM Music Conservatory, and Project Director for the event, noted, “Bringing young people together to make music is a transformative experience, especially when this happens across country and culture boundaries. We are excited to be able to host our guests from Scotland and Nagaland here in Chennai and look forward to creating an exciting concert together, building new friendships and celebrating the India/UK Together season”.

The week leading up to the concert kicked off for the young participants with a visit to the Dakshinachitra Heritage Museum that prides itself on being custodians of the South Indian art and culture, and the Kapaleeswarar Temple, ending with an evening of fun and frolic at the beach. Workshops were held at the Bala Vidya Mandir, a senior secondary school, in association with Rhapsody Music Education, followed by a mesmerising afternoon of musical extravaganza at the Tamil Nadu Dr. J. Jayalalitha Music and Fine Arts University. The Concert for Friendship teams were exposed to fascinating Indian dance forms and the diverse cultures came together in a melting pot as the guests from Nagaland and Scotland were introduced to Indian classical music traditions and instruments. As part of the Season of Culture, KM Music Conservatory was then represented at the British Council in the presence of other dignitaries from the educational and cultural scene of Tamil Nadu, engaging in an arts policy roundtable to support music education, and create and foster a cultural economy in the state. Rigorous rehearsals with all the performers, along with the faculty and staff of the KM Music Conservatory, continued unabated every day.

As D-day dawned, a special matinee rehearsal was held in collaboration with the public charitable trust, Ability Foundation, for children who would otherwise be unable to access or experience a rich musical ambience. These kids, many of them specially abled, were then given a sensory tour, organised by inclusivity advocates, Access for All, of the various musical instruments, in an attempt to pull down barriers of physical and social spaces in artistic and cultural domains.

After an exciting week of outreach activities, workshops, and experiencing different musical traditions, the performers prepared in bated breath for the evening of March 4 at the Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall that saw the presence of numerous luminaries across art and culture. The momentous occasion was graced by the likes of composer A.R. Rahman, Founder-Principal, KM Music Conservatory, Founding Director, AR Rahman Foundation and the Brand Ambassador for the India/UK Together, a Season of Culture, Oliver Ballhatchet MBE, the British Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai, Thiru Anbil Mahesh Poyyamuzhi, Hon’ble Minister of School Education, Tamil Nadu, and Janaka Pushpanathan, Director South India-British Council, among others.

The concert took off with a spectacular rendition of Tamizh Thai Vazhthu, the state anthem sung by the students of the Tamil Nadu Dr. J. Jayalalitha Music and Fine Arts University, conjuring a magical moment as audiences, and performers from diverse cultural backgrounds, paid tribute together to state, country, and music as a whole. What followed was an extraordinary amalgamation of different musical strains, combining western opera, choral symphony, orchestral renditions of songs based on Carnatic raagas, and folk music from Tamil Nadu, Nagaland and Scotland. Whether with the resplendent notes of Richard Strauss’s Wiener Philharmoniker Fanfare, Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s sensually hopeful Morning Mood from ‘Peer Gynt’, or the soulful folk tunes of Oh Hi Yo (Naga), Hermosa Escosia or Azhagana Scotland (Scottish), and the vivacious Thottu Kada (Tamil) complete with the pulsating beat of drums, the 100 odd performers held the concert hall spellbound with their stunningly varied repertoire.

Soprano Divya S. Iyer, an alumnus of the KM Music Conservatory, delivered what Rahman hailed as a ‘world-class’ performance with a brilliant solo rendition of the celebrated ‘Habanera’ aria from Bizet’s opera Carmen, and a medley of Puccini’s O mio babbino caro and Si, mi chiamano Mimi. The evening also saw the world premiere of American guitarist and composer Matt Bacon’s original composition, ‘Malabar’. As the audience sat enthralled, the captivating evening reached an appropriately superb crescendo with Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, as all those on stage, conductor, vocalist, brass or string, put in their very best for the climactic ending to the Concert for Friendship.

The sweat, hard work, meticulous planning and practice that had gone into making the evening a success found validation as Rahman, the British Deputy High Commissioner, the Hon’ble Minister for School Education, TN, and the Director South India-British Council, took to the stage afterwards to congratulate the organisers. Conductor James Bunch, American composer and faculty of composition at the KM Music Conservatory, and the performers, were also congratulated for a job well done. Rahman declared the evening to be the culmination of a 15 year old dream of forming a symphony orchestra.

The Concert for Friendship, as part of the India/UK Together, a Season of Culture, will, one hopes, pave the way forward for many more landmark collaborations among musicians across countries to map new directions in the cultural landscape of the world. However, above all, it is perhaps the moments of human joy that this event created, wherein 8-10 years old Naga orphans delighted in flying or seeing the beach for the first time, a motley group of youngsters from India and Scotland played cricket together or indulged in an afternoon of traditional Scottish dance, that elevated it beyond the art.