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Preview: Milapfest, for Sgt Pepper at 50

Preview: Milapfest for Sgt Pepper at 50
Milapfest at St George’s Hall, 11th June 2017

Interview, Patrick Kirk-Smith
Video: Indika 2016, Festival of Indian Arts by Milapfest

50 years on from the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Liverpool will celebrate the legacy of the album, the history behind it, and the contribution of the Beatles to the city. In its early stages, SPLHCB was planned to be a homage to Liverpool, including Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, but that didn’t pan out. In fact, when the album was finally released it was an experimental new journey for the band and their fans, influenced heavily by Indian musician Ravi Shankar and their tours through India while writing the album.

Milapfest, the UK’s leading Indian arts organisation, based at Liverpool Hope University’s Capstone Theatre, will be curating an Indian arts festival at St George’s Hall. Within the midst of Turner Prize winning artists, international galleries, curators and theatre groups, spread across the entire city over two months, there is no more obviously suited event during the Sgt Pepper at 50 festival.

We asked Pravinder Singh, Milapfest’s Head of Programmes & Planning, why Milapfest are so heavily involved in this festival, and what to expect from their events. What we got was an honest and open response which completely summed up the festival and its relationship to the city, and just how important cultural exchange is to the city, so rather than picking out quotes and highlights to share with you, we decided to share this genuine and heartfelt Q&A in its entirety.

Milapfest are probably one of the most relevant organisations working on these anniversary celebrations of the album that brought the Beatles to India, and brought the resulting music to the entire world. How important is it to revisit the music that inspired this album?

It’s really important to revisit that strong connection the Beatles had with India because it was as relevant then as it is today. There was such a mutual respect between George Harrison and Pandit Ravi Shankar that really empitomises the way India and the UK have also developed an enduring cultural connection. Shankar, who was doubtful about Western pop musicians blending their practice with classical Indian traditions, respected Harrison’s sincere interest in the form and his desire to learn, whilst Harrison described Shankar as ‘the first person who ever impressed me in my life’ (more here). Given the world we currently live in, it’s so important to celebrate our differences and explore the new and exciting art forms we can create by collaborating cross-culturally. There is a uniting force behind music, and the arts more generally. There is so much more beauty in what brings us together than in what divides us.

It is also very important for us as an organisation to celebrate this connection because we are an example of how such musical traditions and inspiration continue to flourish in Liverpool. We are here, 50 years on from the release of Sgt Pepper, still celebrating the beauty of Indian music and the unique art that comes from sharing our different traditions and histories with our neighbours from all backgrounds and walks of life, still being embraced by this great city that continues to be at the forefront of music because of its willingness to welcome all.

How important do you think this event is going to be in defining the cultural connections between this album and the city?

Sgt Pepper really is the Liverpool album – just look at the tracks that almost made it on to the album ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’ – they are love letters to the city. The album is so rooted in what it means to be from Liverpool and how uniquely the city influences the music made here. Then you get to the second side of the album and there’s this track that is this wonderful exploration of Indian sounds. On first listening it perhaps sounds a little out of place – but that’s the beauty of Liverpool, nothing is really out of place here. Liverpool has such a wonderful history of embracing other cultures, of welcoming anyone into the fold. It is the exciting mix of cultures and traditions that makes it so inspiring to artists in all fields.

Milapfest itself was created back in the 1980’s by a group of Indian families that wanted to bring together people of all communities and create fresh cultural collaborations that transcend the barriers of language, race, religion and diverse cultural traditions.  Our work has grown steadily over the past 32 years and now has national & international partnerships. The reason why we are still in operation today is because of the great response and the warm welcome they received from the people of Liverpool.

Through this day long event, we hope this culturally dynamic relationship will strengthen and grow  to contribute to bringing people together in a celebration of today’s multicultural Britain.

It’s not just music though, there’s a full day of dance, music, food and yoga. Why this sensory explosion?

The idea behind the Indian festival village and all of the activities going on within it is to give visitors a real sense of what it was about India that influenced and inspired Harrison so much. In an interview a few years back, Olivia Harrison, George’s widow, said that “when George was in India, he wanted to be in the real India, in someone’s home, in the temple. He didn’t want to be in the city doing city things though he did that too and had fun” (more here). It wasn’t just about listening to Indian music and liking the sound of it that inspired Harrison so much, it was about India itself – its philosophy, its culture, its people all really meant something to him. It was the sights and sounds and tastes he experienced just walking around that really inspired him.

What was your response to Within You Without You? Is there something in that song that leaps out as being profoundly linked to Milapfest?

Within You, Without You is a very special track for Milapfest. It was inspired by George’s relationship with his mentor, The Late Pandit Ravi Shankar, a musician who is very dear to us as an organisation. It is also based on one of Shankar’s own compositions, which follows the pitches of Khamaj Thaat. Both the song, and Shankar as musician, were pioneering forces in bringing Indian music to the West, and we often find it is what provides our audiences with their first experience of Indian classical music which we look to develop with them via our Artistic Programming.

Harrison devised the melody using a traditional Indian instrument, the harmonium, and the song itself features other classical Indian instruments such as the sitar, tabla and tambura. It uses traditional Indian scales, or ‘ragas’. But there’s something beyond just the musical inspiration Harrison absorbed in his travels to India, there are elements of Hindu philosophy in there too.

It is not just this celebration of Indian music that the song encapsulates that is so important to us as an organisation, but its unifying message, about the beauty of combining different traditions in order to create something new and exciting whilst still remaining respectful and thoughtful. Alongside the classical Indian instruments is a Western string orchestration arranged by George Martin, and just look at the lyrics – ‘We were talking about the love we all could share […]With our love, we could save the world’. Our mission at Milapfest is to ‘Unite Hearts Through Arts’ and isn’t that exactly what Harrison is also trying to say in this song?

The festival is as much about Liverpool as it is about the Beatles by all accounts. Where do you see Milapfest in the city, and what links do you see in your every day work?

Milapfest really sees Liverpool as its home – we really wouldn’t exist in the form we do today without the city. We are based in Everton and we’re really proud of the way our community supports us. And though today, Milapfest programmes its work throughout Britain as well as internationally, it has hung on proudly to its roots in Liverpool, a truly international cultural destination. We have truly a diverse range of people attending our shows and it is great to get to share what we do with so many and we receive such a positive response in return. We don’t just produce concerts and shows that showcase Indian classical arts. We also work in Education for all age groups and support emerging British artists through our work. We also created and manage two National Youth Orchestras for Indian music. We provide music and dance lessons at our Saturday Arts School, and run workshops in schools and communities around the city. Again, these are so warmly and enthusiastically received.

A lot of what we do focuses on the ‘inner’ nature Indian arts have, a quality that George Harrison loved so much. We all live such busy lives and it is such a turbulent time for the world – politically, economically, socially. A lot of Classical Indian music focuses on reflection & meditative contemplation. It offers a way of reconnecting with the self and with the world around us, which is so vitally important right now.

Liverpool has a great way of making everyone feel welcome. We see ourselves not as an Indian arts organisation producing events for the Indian community in Liverpool, but as a Liverpool organisation producing events for all of our community, and beyond! We are so proud to be a part of a festival that not only lets us explore the musical traditions of our roots, but let’s us celebrate Liverpool, the great city we now call home and of course the legacy of its four greatest sons.