A festival for the senses, the Bollywood Masala Orchestra and Dancers of India (BMO&D) presented viewers with a bold showcase of traditional Indian music and dance. Their performance of Spirit of India, which took place at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on October 5, consisted of entirely acoustic, western brass and percussion instruments paired with ornamental vocals and beautiful dancers dressed in colorful costumes that took audience members on a lively musical journey through traditional Indian style.
BMO&D’s performance was a passionate exhibition of traditional Indian music. Typically, brass band and classical musicians do not play together in India, though each is used for celebrations such as weddings and royal feasts. “What we play, we play with all our hearts and love,” said Rahis Bharti, founder and artistic director of BMO&D. “Our group is made up entirely of traditional Indian and western brass instruments to create a new sound which is traditional, but modern because this combination of instruments has never been done before.” When asked what it’s been like to incorporate the two, Bharti said, “People love the combination of the brass with the traditional instruments and the high pitched voices. It’s a new vision for music and dance.”
The evening began with an impressive tabla (drum) solo, followed by a duet of musicians using wooden clappers in a comical sound battle. Many different kinds of traditional Indian instruments were played during the show including tabla drums, a harmonium, bass drum, and side drum, in addition to brass instruments — trombones, a trumpet, and a tuba. “Most importantly are our voices,” said Bharti before the performance. “Our lead singer, Sanjay Khan and also Maestro Tabla Amrit Houssain are leading figures in the world of musicians from Rjasthan.” Right he was.
Khan’s beautiful performance of “Nimbooda,” a traditional Rajasthani song, was one of the evening’s highlights. He sang with a powerful, clear voice and impressive ornamentation, while accompanying himself on the harmonium. The song included call and response vocals in which Kahn would sing the line, “Nimbooda” and ask the audience to repeat. What made this so fun was how he would challenge the audience with more and more difficult vocal ornamentation.
Before intermission, viewers were treated to a courtly spinning dance of the Maharaja region. This was the dancer’s first cameo; the costumes were spectacular. When the dancers twirled, their brightly colored, sparkling skirts lit up the stage and the audience felt the full effect of the brass and percussion fusion. The combination of the two styles, the lovely traditional dances, and the comedy of the musicians produced a theatrical feel that was unique for a traditional Indian piece.
Of note in the second half was an exciting acrobatic performance called Chari Dance. This was a traditional Rajasthani dance where the acrobat balanced a brass pot full of water on his head. It was exciting to watch as they increased the level of difficulty by adding glass cups between his head and the pot. What really got people out of their seats, however, was when the assistant brought out a wooden board with nails protruding from it and placed it on the ground in front of the acrobat. He then stepped up onto the nails single footed with the pot still perfectly balanced.
The final performance was a Kalbeliya Dance, or snake-charming dance. The dancers entered the stage quickly, spinning in circles furiously. The dance was filled with beautiful skirt work, snake arms, and some acrobatic moves by a soloist, who at one point, did a full back bend into a bridge while her eyes were covered with gold coins.
The evening concluded with Bharti introducing each musician and dancer to the audience. They asked spectators to stand and had them follow the arm movements of the lead dancer. As the musicians played, the entire crowd followed her, swaying their hands back and forth, clapping, and coming to prayer hands before a free style jam session. People left the show performing the moves they just learned as they walked out to their cars. “The Public in Santa Barbara was perfect,” Bharti exclaimed after the show.