DIARIES FROM INDIA – by Mischa Macpherson

Towards the end of November ’23 as the temperature dropped and the rest of Glasgow was beginning to feel Christmassy, I found myself running from chemist to supermarket trying to find factor 50 suncream and a good mosquito repellent. I was heading back to India for some more concerts, after an incredible trip there to perform as part of the G20 Summit for the Indian Government in Varanasi 4 months earlier in August.

I landed in Kolkata at around 2am and was met by a friendly face from the production team. He didn’t speak English, and so I was put on the phone to the production co-ordinator, still in Mumbai, who welcomed me back to India and told me where I was going. We jumped in a car with a driver and drove for an hour through the pitch black streets of Kolkata to the venue’s location, and our hotel for the next 4 nights.

I sat in the back – unable to converse properly with either men in the front – and smiled. Nothing makes me feel more alive than driving through the streets in India. Even in the small hours, there was so much to see and take in. Whole families, piled onto the backs of single motorbikes, in a hurry to get somewhere; stray dogs playing and chasing each other; and the odd shack still open, serving chai and snacks to those who walked the streets at night. It was funny seeing the roads so quiet, where I imagined gridlocked traffic and noisy car horns to soon fill up the space.

I landed almost 36 hours earlier than my duo partner for the trip, Andrew Waite. I’ve learnt that I need at least one day to acclimatise to Asian heat and the new time zone before beginning any work. So my first day was a snoozy one. I walked around the ‘venue’, which was a never-ending golf course of well-manicured lawns and neatly planted trees – and home to some beautiful and exotic birds, as well as hyenas and fox-like creatures called jackals. I knew that it was a stark contrast to the bustle of the city centre just an hour away, but it made for the perfect location to ease into Indian heat and pace – I was going to be in India for just over 3 weeks, so a gentle start felt good. The sky painted itself pink and orange over the green fields, and I sat watching the sun slowly set as I sipped my first chai of the trip, beginning to come round from the jet-lag.

Andrew arrived the next morning for our rehearsals and soundchecks later that day. The festival, known as ‘Ruhaniyat’ – which runs over 2 months and in 8 different cities – pulls together a diverse selection of Indian artists from all over the country, each presenting their own traditional music, as well as a few international acts from abroad at each event. And so we met with a handful of the musicians and watched the magnificent transformation of the unassuming golf course into a large outdoor stage set up – with tall speakers (several times my height), a red carpet running through the audience to the stage and an impressive lighting rig that projected purple and blue onto the towering trees behind the stage, making the most spectacular backdrop. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Indian production, it’s that they don’t do things by half.

That evening, we met with the festival directors – a husband and wife, and two of the kindest souls I’ve ever met. They’re visionary in preserving traditional art forms in India and giving voice, stage and status to otherwise declining traditions from rural and often forgotten about communities. They welcomed us – as they do everyone – like well-loved, returning family and introduced us to the remainder of our new collaborators for the next few days.

There are two sayings in India I’ve come to learn; the first is that ’the world is one family’, and the second, that ‘guest is god’. After three visits to the country, I’ve yet to experience any place or situation where I haven’t instantly felt these with great warmth and affection – and been handed a cup of sweet, hot chai in the process, which they also did immediately.

We were sharing the Kolkata stage with three sisters and their father from the Punjab region; a band from Maharashtra, which included an extraordinary blind harmonium player; a group from Rajasthan; flautist from Kolkata; and a lively Qawwali band called The Nizami Brothers. Also joining the team, was Ripon Sarkar from Bangladesh, who I had met and performed with as part of the G20 Orchestra in Varanasi. Rippon is one of life’s great characters and musicians. He breathes, eats and sleeps music – it’s beautiful and infectious, and it was a great pleasure to get to introduce him to Andrew and watch them match each other’s energy and enthusiasm.

We rehearsed under the open sky late into the night – working on a collaboration with the entire team of musicians – and then Andrew and I joined the directors and some of the production team for a close-to-midnight dinner of various curries. I’m in love with Indian food and spice and although it wasn’t a competition, I utterly out-spiced Andrew, who will unfortunately never live down claiming to ‘love spicy food’, and then almost choking on the dhal.

We went back for more rehearsals the following day, after inviting a flautist to join one of our slower songs and two percussionists (on tabla and dholak) to join a Puirt-a-beul. We were so entertained by the group from Rajasthan. They wore beautifully vibrant turbans and waistcoats and had come from the Rajasthani desert, travelling for over 24 hours by train to get to the festival. Despite speaking no English, they were desperate to have some craic, and sat next to me and Andrew for most of the afternoon speaking at us in fast Hindi, with great entertaining facial expressions and hand gestures.

The gig itself was sold out, with an electric atmosphere backstage – chai and savoury Indian snacks in abundance. The festival has run successfully for over 20 years and built a loyal and appreciative audience in the process, so their excitement and energy generously filled the space. The format seemed to work well and I found something very refreshing about each act unapologetically presenting what they know best, without bells or whistles. I sang a selection of Gaelic songs with Andrew, Rippon presented traditional material from Bangladesh and so on, and the magic lay within the simplicity and variation between each act, before the finale collaboration when we all came together at the end of the night.

One of my favourite things is to sing outside in uncovered spaces. We could see the audience in front of us and the huge expansive sky behind them. It feels like you’re no longer just singing to the people on seats, but to the hyenas, birds and wildlife listening in too and the horizon itself. We were both really chuffed at the warm reception and after the formalities of being presented with flowers and some official photographs on stage, we were handed the best gift of all – a hot, fresh samosa in the dressing room. I took my heels off and Andrew and I stood side of stage, with our happy, post-gig adrenaline and samosa in hand, watching Rippon single handedly bring the audience to tears with his voice under the purple lit trees and warm evening breeze. It was one of those rare moments where the rest of the world dissolves away, but you’re still fully aware of how lucky you are to be there.

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Our first internal flight was leaving Kolkata the following afternoon, and so Andrew and I woke up at the crack of dawn, determined to explore some of the city before leaving. We jumped in an Uber to a temple in the city centre, but unfortunately Andrew was refused entry since he was wearing shorts. They let me sneak in, after covering my hair with a headscarf, removing my shoes and confirming that I wasn’t taking a phone inside. I walked through a narrow hallway into a tardis sized kaleidoscope of mosaic glass and colour, trying hard not to make a sound with my bare feet. A group of around 30 people sat, kneeled and stood in the middle of the room – praying, singing and chanting. I sat quietly at the back with my eyes closed – breathing in the heavy scent of incense, deeply moved by their powerful, spiritual singing.

I could have happily stayed sat there until our flight – I find huge peace in almost any temple – but I tip-toed back outside after a short while to meet Andrew. We found, on the same street, carts of fresh green coconuts and young men selling them after chopping the top off with a machete and sticking a straw inside. It’s the nectar of gods and highly addictive. We decided to walk around the neighbourhood instead of jumping back in a taxi to our next pinned location, and within 5 minutes found a parade beginning a few streets down with excruciatingly loud drummers, horn players and singers warming up with large speakers. Everyone was dressed in red and we were told it was ‘a celebration of all the gods’. They immediately invited us to join them, and so we did, drinking our fresh coconut water and trying to dance like the locals, which caused much hilarity, especially with the children.

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This was just the first 3 days of a 3 week long trip to India. From Kolkata we flew to Mumbai, where we stayed in the heart of the city next to the ‘Gate of India’ for just over a week and took part in the slightly longer festival there, with a host of different musicians – including great singers, friends and characters from around India, Egypt and the UAE. They transformed the impressive ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya’ Museum into the backdrop for another spectacular outdoor stage. It looked like something from Hogwarts, and possibly even trumped the backdrop of purple-lit trees, which I didn’t think would be possible.

It took me a while to warm to Mumbai, missing the rustic nature of the more rural places I’d visited before – like Hampi, Dharward and Varanasi, where cows and monkeys line the streets – but by the end I was completely converted to the ‘New York of India’ and had decided I wanted to move there permanently.

The city has so much to offer and an incredible charm, unlike anywhere else I’ve been before. It’s stretched across the coast, and every evening thousands of locals sit on the edge of the famous ‘Marine Drive’ to watch the sun set and birds dip into the ocean. Andrew and I tried to join them as often as we could. It was very special to feel some independence in the city, discover our favourite coffee shops and restaurants and make friends (literally) wherever we went, navigating our way ourselves – almost always successfully (with the exception of getting on the wrong boat on our first day and ending up 7 hours away from where we were supposed to be).

The festival brought all the magic and energy of Kolkata, but as the production team and majority of sponsors are based there, it felt more like a ‘home gig’, with much excitement and adrenaline. The stage was breathtakingly beautiful – with palm trees dotted around the audience and birds and bats flying over head as we performed. We had invited friends we made throughout the week to our concerts too, and performed in two large cross-cultural collaborations, in addition to our selection of Gaelic songs. After upping our spice tolerance, and baffling the producers by choosing to walk through the hot, crowded streets of busy Mumbai to get to rehearsals and soundchecks instead of using their dedicated drivers, on the last night we received a round of applause on stage – cued by the festival director – for being new adopted locals.

It was an emotional goodbye with Mumbai as I travelled north by myself to Rajasthan for the last 10 days of the trip, for more adventure and the chance to explore the rural mountains (mostly on mopeds, sorry Mum). Each day was filled with music and more unexpected turns than the last. We woke up at 5am some mornings to drive high into the hills and watch the sun rise from different points, with men at the top making us fresh, hot chai with tiny stoves and bags of spices they’d carried up. I watched a folk dance show with women balancing buckets of fire on their heads, got invited into small shacks to share tea with fellow musicians, and got lost in the markets, narrow streets and ancient palaces of Udaipur. Very quickly my travel notes from Kolkata felt like a distant cosy memory, as India continued to surprise and delight in all the ways it does.

It’s been a real privilege getting to explore this country more and to sing to local audiences in Gaelic has felt particularly special. I’m also very grateful to have shared the experience, in August with Angus Mackenzie, and in December with Andrew Waite – both of whom were the perfect travelling companions, musicians and humans to have around.

If anyone is considering going to India – if the itch is there, for work, or to go on holiday, or to travel – I can’t recommend it enough. You’ll need to bring some patience and an open mind for the chaos and madness – which we didn’t experience in the bubble of our Kolkata venue, but you’ll find in abundance almost everywhere else. The place pushes you in beautiful ways and has expanded me as a human. It has reminded me of the genuine kindness in people; the connections you can make so quickly, if both parties are open and willing; and the simplicity we can find and enjoy in life, within the complicated tapestry of the world.

Mischa x

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Mischas next concert is on Saturday 20th January (2024) in Barony Hall, at Celtic Connections. Featuring Gaelic songs with Donald Grant, Jarlath Henderson, Innes White, James Macintosh and the Scottish Ensemble, as well as special guests Ailie Robertson (Harp) and Edgar Meyer (Double Bass). 

Tickets: https://www.celticconnections.com/event/1/scottish-ensemble-with-edgar-meyer-mischa-macpherson-donald-grant-and-ailie-robertson