When Pranita Nayar, executive artistic director of Mandela South Asian Performing Arts, came to a gig of Fareed Haque’s at the Jazz Showcase and asked him about composing a score for a Diwali dance piece, he was intrigued.
“My dad is Pakistani Indian from New Delhi before the partition, so Diwali was on our radar,” says guitarist and composer Haque. “His side of the family is the Muslim side, so we didn’t celebrate it specifically. But I’ve done so many Diwali gigs and it’s always a huge party.”
“Diwali: Illumination” is conceived around the Indian festival of lights celebrated for five days between mid-September and mid-November. (It starts November 12 this year.) It is primarily associated with the return of Prince Rama and Sita to their kingdom after the defeat of the demon king Ravana as told in the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Oil lamps illuminate homes, special foods, music, dance, family reunions and remembering ancestors are central to the celebration.
“It’s like Indian Halloween,” explains Haque. “It’s kind of amazing because the more you get involved in the Indian music community, the more you’re like, ‘Yeah, we can’t do a show then because everyone’s got Diwali shows.’ All the Indian cats are busy running around doing that. The other side of that is, ‘Oh, let’s do a show right after Diwali because so-and-so will be in town or that player or singer is coming to town from India for Diwali gigs and then going home.’ It’s a huge engine that drives so much of the interaction between musicians.
“Pranita’s idea was to create something cross-cultural to celebrate. We have Christmas from all over the world and there’s a certain ethnocentricity in saying everybody in the world is trying their best to be like us. This is almost like, let’s flip that.”
Although there are songs and ragas traditionally associated with Diwali, Haque was actively discouraged from using them and so proceeded in a new way.
“When I checked out the work of the choreographer, Nejla Yatkin, I was floored,” says Haque. “My assumption was they’re bringing her in from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Istanbul, but this amazing talent is right here in Chicago. It’s so incredible. It’s part of my commitment to the arts in Chicago. Historically, we’ve been a working town, and we haven’t celebrated our own collaborations and our own work in the city enough. It’s one of the things that drove me to the project.”
Haque collaborated with Saraswathi Ranganathan and Meera Krishna on the music. “There were a number of ragas that we used and South Asian rhythmic compositions that we based a lot of the music on but then obviously the objective was to bring some of the elements of jazz and Western music and expand on that. So I took all of these—I think it was twenty-six iPhone recordings—and strung all of those together into my digital workstation and put them all together so at least we had a working demo.”
Everything was then rerecorded at Haque’s new recording studio in Edgerton, Wisconsin called Wahdude Studios. Haque will open the evening with a live set with Subrata Bhattacharya on tabla, Chethan Anant on flute and John Christensen on bass.
“The first act is sort of a creation story. Air, water and emergence. The second act is a celebration of earth and nature in which there are all these traditional South Asian dance routines that celebrate different animals from the Indian jungle. So this is a dance for the deer and they would have me come up with a riff for the deer, the monkey. And so I had deer music and monkey music, peacock music and elephant music. And then the last movement, of course, is light and fire where all that comes together in creation and destruction. That’s the most intense one.”
“Diwali: Illumination” will be presented at Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph on October 12 at 7:30pm.
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: email@example.com