tue 09/08/2022

Frida Kahlo Through Indian Classical Music, Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall review - a strangely effective meeting of cultures | reviews, news & interviews

Frida Kahlo Through Indian Classical Music, Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall review - a strangely effective meeting of cultures

Frida Kahlo Through Indian Classical Music, Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall review - a strangely effective meeting of cultures

Mexico's finest artist as interpreted by Indian classical musicians

Pain and uplift as India meets MexicoNasirul Islam

This one sounded implausible. Frida Kahlo, the great (and fashionable – collected by the likes of Madonna) Mexican painter interpreted by Indian classical music at the Elgar Room in the Royal Albert Hall. It was, however, entrancing, made a curious sense, and was a different way of immersing yourself both in the music and paintings.

Presented by the enterprising Saudha Society of Poetry and Indian Music, the director TM Ahmed Kaysher, a Leeds-based poet was perched stage left and briefly described his own relation with Kahlo at a time in his life when he was suffering from depression (a fascinating, heterodox thinker, Kaysher describes his spiritual guru as the film maker Ingmar Bergman).

Stage right was Shree Ganguly who read the letters of Kahlo to her lover, who many times betrayed her, the muralist Diego Rivera. In between them on stage there were some exceptional musicians, the sperb California-based Indian violinist Vidushi Kala Ramnath and the top tabla maestro Sanju Sahai (currently residing in the Leicestershire countryside). Towards the end the mesmerising voice of Bengali Shapla Shalique brought the evening to some kind of close – the whole thing was received thoughtfully, and generously applauded by the sold-out audience.

These kinds of cross-cultural mixes are often hit and miss (I have spent some of the worst nights of my life at poetry and jazz evenings) but this one worked. One of her well known paintings "The Wounded Deer" from 1946 came up on the screen. The deer is pieced by arrows, the head is of Kahlo, a human-animal hybrid. On the right, Shree Ganguly read a letter – of course it refers to Kahlo’s physical pain (she was severely injured in an accident aged 18) but also to the pain of her husband Diego Rivera’s multiple infidelities. The painting includes Christian (St Sebastian), Pre-Colombian and even Buddhist mythology. The word “carma” (karma) – is written in the bottom left corner of the painting.

The painting itself is small, but blown up you could immerse yourself in the smallest details. The sea in the distance has some kind of tranquillity and maybe hope. Rather than having an art lecturer pointing this out, the music did somehow translate the painting, so the painting could be understood through the heart as well as the intellect. Indian classical violin is one of the best instruments for expressing longing, but there was also an energy and exuberance in the painting and music. There was the occasional laugh, for example when Kahlo’s letter had her pondering how was it possible that Rivera was so successful with women when he was so ugly (pictures on the screen confirmed he was no looker).

You could point to cultural parallels between India and Mexico, Mexico City and Mumbai, with huge populations attached to sometimes strange, magical and wonderful mythologies. But really the different cultures involved pointed to the universal – of not just physical pain the spiritual pain of separation from the divine, and the pain of a lover's betrayal. But through all that, which made the evening inspiring, a life-affirming will to create something transcendentally beautiful came through.

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