Shifting classical Indian music into the 21st century

Audio 20:06
Daniel Brown

This week we meet artists with passionate links to Indian classical music. But young Sona Mohapatra and the veteran dance duo from France, Brigitte Chataignier and Michel Lestréhan, use very different approaches to transmit their passion. From traditional to modern visions, they explore untested ground in India’s great musical heritage.


“In the entertainment industry of India, things are very cliched and primitive,” explains Sona dryly, her dark eyes flashing with anger. She sits back, ignoring the large crowds milling around the Womex trade fair, and shoots from the hip.

“It’s male-dominated and women with a point of view have to be put in their place. I have a good laugh because I won’t be put in any place but where I choose to be.”

Quiz of the Week

Singer Sona Mohapatra works regularly with talented composer Ram Sapath. They recently brought out a single inspired by one of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s songs. Can you send us the name of the tune? The answer is in the programme. You are invited to listen to it and mail your answers to

She chuckles, understating just how successful she has been. Sona has become a household name in India and performed in concerts across the world. And she has done all of this on her own terms.

“I’m very excited at the moment. We artists are no longer dependent on regular channels to release our music. I didn’t wait around for Sony to bring out my latest album Rat Din. With my open contract, I did it myself. Since then, I’ve gone to 22 countries, supported by a certain telephone mobile brand, and promoted it myself. It’s doing tremendously well.”

Rat Din means “night and day”. It reflects Sona’s ability to mix her classical Hindustani training with rock, pop and even Romani music. This dexterity has opened her up to unlikely collaborations like the remix of “Afterglow” with the legendary Australian band Inxs. The vibrant performer reflects her city of Mumbai well: she combines tradition with unbridled modernisation and energy.

“It was very tough,” she admits. “I had to convince show organisers I was fronting a band. They have set archetypes, you see: woman she be with dancers dressed up in some colourful outfits. Or,” she says provocatively, “you’re ugly, plumpy and serious. You can’t be both. You can be looking good and be a credible performer.”

It took an eight-year stint in India for Brigitte Chataignier and Michel Lestréhan to convince Indian traditionalists they were worthy students of classical Indian dancing.

Since then, their Prana dance troupe have successfully combined traditional Mohini Attam dance with contemporary inventions of their own. Their latest choreographic invention, a production they call Ganga and Kalam, is being performed in Paris until March 2011.

Meanwhile, Chataigner has shown she has an ability to adapt her art in the cinema world. She is the associate director of the 2008 documentary The Dance of the Enchantress. The film has been shown widely to critical acclaim on both sides of the Channel.

Albums picked by Daniel Brown for World Tracks on Radio France Internationale


Here is Daniel Brown's choice of albums played on World Tracks this month:

1) Asmara’s got soul, Asmara All Stars (Outhere), Eritrea/France.
2) My Roots, Suzanna Owiyo (KKV), Kenya.
3) Dem Naa, Naby (Iris Music), Senegal.
4) Cool Beats for Hot Dancers, various artists (WMD), various.
5) Patita Salada, Edith Tamayo (Snail Records), .Mexico.
6) Afrocubism, various artists (World Circuit), Cuba/Mali.
 7) A la Panxa del Bou, La Troba Kung-fu (Chesapik), Spain/Catalunia.
8) i Vinens Speil, Mahsa Vahdat & SKRUK (KKV), Iran/Norway.
9) Shukta My Hometown, Shukta (Fosim), Macedonia/Roma.
10) Aou Amwin, Danyel Waro (Cobalt), Reunion Island.,-le-nouvel-album-de-Dany%C3%A8l-Waro


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