By Shirish Nene
The thunderous applause, the swaying, toe-tapping crowds, and the chest-reverberating music are now silent. What’s left are reminiscing smiles and the melodies echoing in our minds.
The three-day DC South Asian Music Festival made a spectacular debut in the Washington, DC, area on July 21. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a strain of music wins a thousand hearts. Everywhere in the hallways of the Wheaton High School, the suburban Washington venue, I could hear people excitedly discussing what they had just heard and how they couldn’t wait for next year’s event.
The DC South Asian Arts Council (DCSAACI) aspires to be the leading ambassador of South Asian culture in the region and this music festival beautifully rounded out this mission already pioneered by the repertoire of film and literary festivals.
There are many South Asian musical events in the area, but this is the first one that encompassed such a rich variety of genres, geographies, and talent. Music melted boundaries as classical instruments and vocalists enthralled audiences with an assortment of traditional ragas, Rabindra Sangeet, and thumris. Popular Bollywood tunes were juxtaposed with Mirza Ghalib’s ghazals, Bulleh Shah’s Sufi songs, East-West fusion, and Marathi lavanis.
South Asian maestros and masters of ceremony from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the United States joined forces with those from Syria and Iraq to enthrall their audiences. The cultural exchange extended outside the auditorium with an amazing array of stalls offering South Asian clothing, jewelry, food, and even spiritual and meditation CDs from the Brahma Kumaris.
One of the hallmarks that sets DCSAACI festivals apart was the personal ambiance and connection between the artists and the audience. It was my pleasure to open DCSAMF 2023 to carry on this tradition.
On opening night with emcee Pooja Shah Talwar, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, his sons Amaan Ali and Ayaash Ali Bangaash, along with renowned tabla players Anubrata Chatterjee and Ishaan Ghosh drew in and held the packed audience spellbound.
READ: DC South Asian Music Festival hits DMV this July (July 4, 2023)
The incredible acoustics of the 900-seat auditorium were the perfect setting for the event. Vishwas Shirgaonkar, Suryaksha Deshpande, and Ravi Shreyas demonstrated what an irresistible force classical singing continues to be.
Alif Laila (sitar), Anubrata Chatterjee (tabla), Laith Alattar (oud) and Khaled Maoulaoui (Arab percussion) opened with a riff on raga Kirwani a raga that demonstrated shared musical foundations between the Far and Middle East. The duo of Sid Lahiri (guitar) and Harsh Khinchi (vocals) won hearts with their ghazals. Actor, director and producer Noor Naghmi shared some fascinating background about Vatsala Mehra as she along with Bobby Rozario (guitar), Haroon Alam (tabla), Ganesh Jagtap (dholak), and Ravi Shreyas (harmonium) capped the evening in a rousing performance.
Acknowledged as the Queen of Ghazals, Vatsala Mehra easily demonstrated that her versatility and prowess also extend to Sufi and Bollywood music. Her rich powerful voice swayed the audience, compelling audience members out of their seats to dance in the aisles.
Between performances, actress, model, anchor, and dance teacher Reema Kapani as the emcee engaged the audience in impromptu singing and dancing keeping a continuous flow of entertainment.
The seeds of future performances were also planted on Saturday: Nurturing upcoming talent with an amateur singing competition was a welcome touch. Judges Dr. Uday Kamath, Shilpa Sharma, Swati Patwardhan Kanitkar and Neema Nene had a delightful selection of budding entertainers to choose from.
Congratulations to all the finalists; especially the winners Ananya Chilakamari, Aashana Parmar, Saurabh Pande, and Shrikant Ektare. Kudos to the Sitar Niketan Ensemble and their teacher Alif Laila for a stirring instrumental rendition of the devotional song Raghupati Raghav.
Rising high school senior Khanjonavo Sabud showed mastery of the sitar can be achieved in today’s world through mostly virtual training. We will be looking for all of you in future festivals. Closing day began with DMV Fankaar’s romp through the ages of Bollywood accompanied by regional Punjabi and Marathi dances presented by the Lasya Dance Academy.
Emceed by Kartikeya Tripathi, evergreen numbers by Shilpa Sharma, Sangeeta Mathur Simlote, Alok Srivastava, Farid Mahmood, Parasuram Iyer, and Sunila Bali rocked the auditorium and drew impromptu dance participation from South Asians and non-South Asians alike. The Infusion band’s (Wayne Pereira, Aditya Bhat and Akshiena Khanna) combination of Hindi and English songs were another shining example of music bringing us all closer. Music lovers discovered a natural entertainer in Ashwin Hazarika, in his opening act for Falu.
In a fitting grand finale, Grammy award-winning singer Falu engaged her audience in a back-and-forth riff of the notes of raga Jog and had them dancing to a garba in front of the stage. Falu and her husband, Gaurav, along with drummer Greg Gonzalez, guitarist Bryan Vargas, and bassist Leo Traversa enchanted their listeners with an amazing repertoire of ghazals, film songs, and the evergreen Damadam Mast Qalander.
DCSAMF proudly featured the first-ever LIVE performance of her song Abundance in Millets, dedicated to banishing hunger through these highly nutritious, readily available grains. Falu composed its lyrics in collaboration with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi! DCSAMF’s music broke down barriers between genres and geographies bringing us all closer over the three-day period. It is only fitting then to conclude with the words of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.
This festival is clearly here to stay. If you couldn’t make it this time, check out for more events and know you have a treat waiting for you next year. See you there