ALCHEMY, the Southbank Centre’s showcase of the cultural connections between the UK and South Asia, has returned for a sixth year.
Between now and May 25 the festival presents an array of exciting collaborations and new work from a variety of artists from both continents, across dance, fashion, music, theatre, design, comedy and literature.
Throughout the 11-day festival there will also be a wide ranging programme of free workshops, exhibitions, talks and debates for all the family as well as an Eastern inspired food market.
Among this year’s highlights will be the workshopping and performance of the first ever Urdu oratorio.
Taking place on Monday, May 18, The Tragic Love of Sohini And Mahival has been written and composed by London-based blind musician and instrumentalist Baluji Shrivastav.
To create it and tell the story, Baluji has collaborated with Italian Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli who has composed the music.
It will be a sung story in Urdu, which is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Nonetheless, some of the singers Baluji has recruited for the performance have had to learn to sing in Urdu for the first time.
As well as the music and song, dancing by Gauri Sharma Tripathi, puppetry by Jonny Dixon, and a company of accomplished musicians from different traditions, will help bring the story to life, especially to non-Urdu speakers.
Baluji describes the show as more like an open rehearsal and development session, giving the audience an insight into the creative process of making such a piece.
Their feedback will be part of the on going process to create the final version, which, in its full glory, will hopefully go on tour next year.
“I’ve never done anything like this before but I’m thrilled about it,” he tells me.
“It’s something that I’ve been researching and developing for a while now and to create the first Urdu oratorio and bring it to Alchemy is very exciting.
“A lot of participation is required too – it’s an immersive piece and I hope people will want to be involved and give their feedback on what we have done with the piece so far.
“It’s a new experience for me so I don’t know how it will go – but that makes it exciting.”
The story is inspired by a popular folktale from Sindh, Punjab, Pakistan and India, Sohini And Mahival.
Like Romeo and Juliet, it is a story of forced marriage, honour killings, forbidden love and passion.
In the tale, Sohini, a married Hindu girl, and Mahival, a Muslim boy, fall deeply in love, defying convention, and paying the ultimate price.
“It’s a fascinating story and comes from the 17th century but is as relevant now as it was then,” says Baluji.
“It’s got elements and themes comparable with what is happening in Asian communities now with female oppression, honour killings and forced marriage.
“In the story Sohini was married off before her birth. So before her parents knew there was a daughter on the way, they promised her to someone and she got married regardless of what she thought about it.
“These things are still going on so awareness of the issues is important.
“The younger generation is quite willing to change and change is happening – but the older generations keep imposing themselves and the younger generations fight against it.”
Although it will be sung in Urdu, Baluji says people will be able to follow the story with the images and puppetry even if they don’t understand the language.
“Urdu is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world so why shouldn’t we have an opera sung in that language?” he says.
“We have operas in many other languages and people don’t question it. Even so we have to make it obvious what it’s about.
“Historically Urdu is a mix of languages and has some English words. We wanted to add the visual aspects so people can understand - there will be no need for subtitles!
“I am visually impaired and I can feel music and feel the story and I think emotionally the audience will understand what’s going on.”
The music will be a mix of styles, something Baluji says was also a new experience, and features a variety of Indian and Western instruments including sitar and piano.
“I was looking for a composer who could collaborate with me and am so pleased that I was able to meet Dario as working with him has been wonderful and a new inspiration for me,” he says.
“It was lovely working with a new form of music because I normally only play Indian style music.
“Indian music is originally rich in melody and western music in harmony and the mix is fantastic. I want the audience to understand that music is music whether it’s Indian or Western or something else.”
It’s not the first time Baluji has performed at the Alchemy festival but he admits it’s very different from his previous shows.
“It’s been an incredibly interesting project and I hope people will come along, see what it’s all about and get involved.
“If it works then we would like to take it on tour. Let’s hope internationally!
“This is a wonderful project and what could be the nicest place to bring it to than the Southbank Centre, a place where people come from all over the world?
“Alchemy is an exciting festival and that’s why we want to perform here and luckily we have got a chance to do so – it’s very exciting.”
The Tragic Love of Sohini And Mahival takes place on Monday May 18 in the Blue Room, Spirit Level at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.
Tickets cost £5. Visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk or call the box office on 020 7960 4200.