Queensborough couple's dream of classical Indian music hits stage at Massey
Cassius Khan had a dream but it remained lodged in his head until last New Year's Eve.
That night he and his wife Amika Kushwaha went to a party where everyone was pushed to declare a New Year's resolution, and it couldn't be the garden-variety vow to go on a diet and lose weight.
He told the group his dream was a festival dedicated to classical Indian music.
"I have to get it out of my head and onto the floor," Khan said to the group.
"How are you going to do that?" was the tough reply.
He wrote on a napkin his pledge to put together a show before September. While a few may have kept their weight-loss resolution and many others abandoned theirs by Jan. 2., Khan has kept his unusual resolution by creating the Mushtari Begum Festival. It will honour one of his former musical gurus and will be held at the Massey Theatre on Saturday, Aug. 25.
The Queensborough couple, Khan and Kushwaha, will also be featured performers at the festival.
Khan, 38, has a dynamic personality to match his talent. Growing up in Edmonton, Khan learned to play the Tabla, a two-piece percussion instrument that resembles the bongo drums. It involves complex play patterns with the left hand producing melody and the right hand percussion. He would also sing while playing, a skill that stunned some classical Indian experts who saw him perform something in a way no one else could.
"To play the drum and sing at the same time, that is an unheard of talent. They were quite flabbergasted. They hadn't seen it done before," said Khan. "This is just natural for me."
Khan has done concerts all over the world, but while going to the University of Alberta in 2002 he met Kushwaha who performs Kathak, a form of North Indian classical dance which she says originates from storytelling, mostly in the temples. She can also play the harmonium, an accordion-like instrument.
They flirted at arm's length—he being a Muslim whose family is from Fiji and she a Hindu from India who grew up in Saskatoon. They shared a love of Indian classical music, which they say has been fading in recent decades, that strengthened their bond and they married in 2006.
Much of the classical Indian music was only passed down in families. They only way it spread was when compositions were offered up as part of dowries. A lot of it was lost for political reasons, says Khan and Kushwaha. When Pakistan was created it wanted to be totally separate from India, and India didn't want anything to do with Pakistani culture.
"The greatest casualty was Indian classical music," says Khan.
His vocals have different traditional styles, particularly Ghazal which involves taking poetry and setting the words to music. It was a popular genre from the 1960s to ’80s, but a lot of those musicians have passed away, says Khan.
"The art has been around for a long time, but I present it in a musical, traditional Indian way," says Khan. "Traditional style is really diminishing. My mission is to keep the classic traditional style of singing."
It's like opera, says Khan, where you don't have to understand the lyrics to understand the nuances of the music and the emotions.
"They mostly deal with love and heartbreak. That's something everyone can relate to," Khan says. "When people understand them people become very involved in it. It's just like opera."
Khan often accompanies Kushwaha when she's dancing. Emotions flow from the music and her movement.
"There is fast footwork, multiple pirouettes, always with grace, beauty and delicate gestures," says Khan. "The communication is amazing. You can see it flying all over the stage, and that's where we have an advantage; we're married and we share a similar passion."
"This festival he'll be singing a Ghazal so it will be emotional," says Kushwaha. "It will be interesting to see how we will bring it together without overpowering each other and enjoy the poetry and motion."
They couple moved to Queensborough four years ago basically for the same reason most prairie people move west—to escape the wicked winters. They had also been traveling quite a bit to Vancouver to do performances anyway because there was more of a market for the music, and Kushwaha, a chemical engineer, got a job opportunity out here.
Also headlining the festival is Juno award winner Salil Bhatt, who recently moved to Burnaby and plays a slide guitar called the Satvik Veena, an instrument he created. He is the son of a slide guitar player and Grammy award winner Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.
Another Burnaby resident, 15-year-old singing prodigy Akhil Jobanputra, Sitar specialist Mohamed Assani, and vocalist Kamaljeet Gill will also perform.
Khan wants to make the festival an annual event and to expand on it. Although its' only for one evening, Khan is calling it a festival because he wants to expand it to a day or more in future years to include more performances and possibly workshops.
"There's so much room to expand."
For advance tickets (adults $34, seniors/students/youth $17) go to www.masseytheatre.com or call 604-521-5050. Tickets at the door will be $39 and $24. Children under eight are free.