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A Voice, Smooth as Satin, Glides, through Valley of Sharp Notes
By Jawahar Malhotra
Last Updated: May 9, 2008

Abhijit Pohankar signing autographs for guests at the concert
HOUSTON – For music aficionados familiar with New Age sounds, the concert last Friday evening was a rare treat in seeing musical compositions come to life. And for those familiar with the Buddha Bar series of CDs, a compilation of New Age and World Music pieced together by a French company, the sound of Piya Bawari, a well-known cut featured on Buddha Bar III (Chillout in Paris), was unmistakably recognizable.

Piya Bawari, the group that goes by the same name as the song, performed live in Houston for the first time, in an informal but cozy setting at the antiques auction hall next to Shangri-La Art Gallery. The stage at one corner and the rows of folding seats laid out 15 feet away provided a chance to get up-close and comfortable with the artists themselves and see the nuances of their extemporaneous performances.

This was the first concert brought to this market by Shangri-La Entertainment, an off-shoot of the Gallery and another brainchild of the rabid entrepreneur, Atul Vir, who plans to bring similar contemporary shows – like Indian Ocean, Karunesh, Colonial Cousins and Shuba Mudgal - every quarter to Houston.

This first show was keeping in the style that Vir has developed for the art exhibits, and unique as Indian shows go in the city. Entering through the Gallery, guests were able to meet the artistes as they signed copies of their CD which was on sale, while browsing through the art exhibit from gallery g of Bangalore that surrounded them, and partaking of the hors d’oeuvres from India’s restaurant, with a glass of wine in hand.

The concert started slightly late, explained emcee Asheesh Malhotra, also with Shangri-La Entertainment, to allow some late guests to arrive, but Abhijit Pohankar, who started the group 8 years ago, appreciated the delay as he came on stage, quipping “we’re feeling at home, as we are late!”

After a brief introduction of the four members of the group, Abhijit explained that their particular mix of classical Hindustani vocals, as performed by his 61 year-old father, the celebrated Pandit Ajay Pohankar, and the other instruments was an effort to bring Indian music, albeit fusion, to younger people. Abhijit led the quartet on the keyboards, while Amit Chaubey, played energetically and with feeling on the tabla and Raj Sodha, a much sought out Bollywood musician, rounded it out on the saxophone and flute.

“Our first number is called “An Evening in Houston,” said Abhijit as he went into cascading notes, added on by the tabla and saxophone, before Pt. Pohankar joined in with a raga. Amit added a deep dhol with one hand while playing the tabla with the other hand.

Abhijit explained the fusion of each number before launching into it, and kept up a steady humorous banter of how he cajoled his often reluctant father to mix the two styles of music, several centuries apart, together. The group played a romantic song, Saganwal, and Abhijit closed his eyes, perched on the edge of the stage, and grimaced as he hit the keyboards. Panditji went into the lyrics, and with hand signals (throughout the night) brought in the sax and tabla, who had loads of fun closing out the number.

The next number was short and was the group’s namesake, Piya Bawari, and opened with the flute, many people recognizing it with applause. This was followed by Bandish, sang in qawaali style, which, “I had a hard time getting my dad to do this way!” remarked Abhijit as he turned his keyboards into a harmonium. Very soon, the audience clapped to the beat, which was easily a dance tune.

After a short intermission, the group launched into a ghazal, which has the “ethereal sounds” Abhijit felt his dad could do “since his voice is genre free. But,” he added jestingly, “he put me out of the apartment due to this one, so I got one by myself!”

Abhijit went on to explain that, in 1959, his dad was considered a child prodigy and the renowned ghazal singer, Begum Akhtar wanted to listen to him. “She bestowed a gift of 151 rupees on him in 1961 (a large sum then), as a token of her love”. Pt. Pohankar launched into the ghazal and his voice and style mesmerized the audience. He added a short sonnet from a composition by his mother, “who just passed away,” he explained.

Going further afield, the group went into a sankirtan, “Gobind jai, jai, Gopal jai, jai” and the entire audience joined in singing and clapping, much to the performers’ delight. This was followed by an instrumental on the keyboard and another instrumental in which each player showed their versatility, culminating in a crescendo of all three.

The group closed up the set with another ghazal, Naine more, which showed the smoothness of Pandit Pohankar’s voice as it picked up the emotions in the lyrics.

As the evening came to a close, Vir and Malhotra came on stage and offered their thanks to the audience and to the group on the performance. Eagerly, many people came forward to meet the performers, seeking out their autographs, and appreciating their performance in what was truly a unique experience for music lovers.

Piya Bawari is currently on a tour of the US and Canada, having played in New Jersey, Chicago and Dallas, and going onto New York City, Boston, Connecticut and finally at the Toronto Music Festival where Abhijit will perform with Stevie Wonder. For more on their music, visit www.ShangriLaConcerts.cm or www.abhijitpohankar.com.