Amritsar. It’s where Sita’s sons Luv and Kush were born. It’s the city where the Golden Temple thrives. It’s the city where the scars of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (April 13, 1919) and the violent Partition (1947) are still fresh.
Today, it’s also home to The Sacred Amritsar, a music and poetry festival organised by Teamwork Arts, the people behind the Jaipur Literature Festival and The Sacred Pushkar. The two-day festival, held on March 25 and 26, 2023, immersed people in Kabir’s and Meerabai’s poetry, stories of Urdu Dastangos, musical performances of Alif band and Rabbi Shergill and memories of the Partition. There was also a heritage and food walk of the second largest city of Punjab and a guided tour to the Partition Museum.
“Amritsar is the holy city of saints and gurus and a place with a rich legacy of poetry and music,” says Sanjoy Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts. “We had to come here and introduce Amritsaris to the rich culture of the city along with some great music.”
Remembering the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy
The prelude to the festival, the opening reception, started with the reading and musical rendition of Khooni Vaisakhi at The Earth, a resort that stands on a restored structure that formerly served as a hospital.
Khooni Vaisakhi is a moving poetry written by late Punjabi poet and playwright Nanak Singh, who at 22, was one of the survivors of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The poem was banned by the British in 1920, only to be translated into English by Singh’s grandson Navdeep Suri, a former diplomat and a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. The translated version was published on April 13, 2019, marking the centenary year of the massacre, which killed hundreds of unarmed men, women and children.
While Suri read the moving account of men and women jumping into a well to save themselves from the shower of bullets and of parents rummaging through dead bodies to find their children, singer Harpreet sang the lines in his strong, powerful voice. “There couldn’t be a better start to the festival,” said one of the audience members. I agree. Nothing defines a city’s character more than its tragedies and Amritsar has had a fair share of them.
Entranced by musical maestros
On day two, writer and poet Saumya Kulshreshtha and Arvinder Chamak recited moving poetries of love and longing and the Partition. There was not a single dry eye in the audience.
We were then introduced to the magic of Taus, originally known as the mayuri veena. It is a bowed string instrument with a peacock-shaped resonator called a mayuri, and is played with the neck of the instrument on bow. Master instrumentalist Sandeep Singh took the audience on a spiritual journey with his instrumental performance of Ektaal. Singh comes from a family of traditional raagis (Sikh devotional singers) and has been influential in reviving string instruments like Taus and Dilruba. He is also the first artist to play these at the Harmandar Sahib, the Golden Temple.
The other highlights of the festival included Bhakti songs and poems by Shabnam Virmani, founder of the Kabir Project, and a performance by Kamala Shankar, the first woman Indian classical slide guitarist.
My absolute favourite was the performance of Dastaan Miyan Azad Ki by Dastangos Askar Naqvi and Valentina Trivedi. Dressed in all-white Lucknowi salwar-kurtas, the duo took the audience through the bylanes of Lucknow during Holi, inside the minds of a beautiful, young wife and her ageing husband through their funny, romantic and heartwarming Urdu stories.
Foot-tapping nights and old city tours
From the cosy setting of the mornings, the evening set-ups were grander. The stage stood tall inside the 18th-century Gobindgarh Fort. Laser lights beamed through the audience as musicians played loud, upbeat music. The show stealer was Alif, a band that performs in Koshur, Urdu and Hindi. Their songs are about women’s struggles, the nostalgia of college days, the rat race and the follies of the internet, on the tunes of rock and rap and other musical genres.
Then walked in Padma Shri awardee Aruna Sairam. She wowed the audience with her versatility, singing a Carnatic composition, a Dogri number and a Gujarati song. She, of course, received a standing ovation. And the final act was by Punjab’s favourite son Rabbi Shergill, a blockbuster that ended with his popular Bullah ki jaana main kaun.
But the festival wasn’t limited to just the music performances. It took people onto the streets of Amritsar to explore its stories and heritage. Actor and writer Deepti Naval spoke about her memoir A Country Called Childhood, an exquisite portrayal of her upbringing in Amritsar during the 1950s and ’60s. The curated heritage walk took people to the city’s centuries-old textile stores, the akharas, the serai and got a taste of lip-smacking jalebis at one of Amritsar’s oldest sweet shops. There really couldn’t have been a more immersive way to experience a city than from its artists’ eyes.