Ensemble Tempus Fugit: Calcutta

Ensemble Tempus Fugit
Tara Theatre, Earlsfield. 22 April 2018

I’ve often wondered what the distinctive little building next to Earlsfield Station was as my fast train into London thundered past. It turns out to be the Tara Theatre (the home of Tara Arts, founded in 1977) an Indian-influenced extension to what was originally an 1891 drapers store. It was a very appropriate venue for Calcutta, the innovative music & theatre project created by Ensemble Tempus Fugit, with musical direction from harpsichordist Katie De La Matter and stage direction by Francesca Bridge-Cicic.


The concert was based on life in Calcutta (now Kolkata, and the capital of West Bengal state) around 1780. Developed from three villages in the late 17th-century (and named after one of them), Calcutta soon became a thriving fortified port under the British East India Company, eventually becoming the capital of the British Indian territories up until 1911. British residents (or, perhaps more accurately, their wives) brought musical instruments out with them, including harpsichords, but soon became fascinated by the local musicians and Indian classical music. Ensemble Tempus Fugit’s research revealed two such East India Company officer wives: Margaret Fowkes, who invited local Indian classical musicians into her front room, and her friend Sophia Plowden, who arranged for some Indian tunes to be written down. 

The theatrical structure of the Calcutta show was based on a performance by a lively British musical and theatre troupe in the court of an Indian Queen. After the Queen had processed to her seat in a side gallery, the troupe bounced in, stopping for a deep bow. The only slightly incongruous aspect was the fact that the Queen later left her seat to join in the music making, something I would have thought unlikely in the stifling formality of Indian court life. The opening sequence told the story of a forlorn young military man about to leave his love and journey to Calcutta, to the tune of Dowland’s ‘From silent night’ and ‘Now, O now, I needs must part’.

Calcutta 1.jpg

The journey itself was accompanied by some clever projected shadow puppetry, designed and made by Peyvand Sadeghian and Lori Hopkins and operated by Peyvand and Dominique Munday, accompanied, appropriately by music from Matthew Locke’s ‘The Tempest’. Two dancers used jellyfish brollies to reinforce the nautical theme. His arrival in bustling Calcutta was accompanied by piercing tones of a shawm as the bustle phased in and out of the ‘eternal hush’ expressed in Purcell’s ‘O lead me to some peaceful bloom’. Countertenor James Hall, as the young man, had an ideal voice for this repertoire, his clear tone reflecting the musical clarity of Purcell’s music.

The Queen (who turned out to be the Indian classical vocalist Debipriya Sircar) joined the Brits to sing three evocative Indian songs to the accompaniment of Jonathan Mayer’s distinctively twangy sitar. The first was a 20th century Bengali ‘Nazrul’ song reflecting the theme of the lost love of the young man through the cry of a cuckoo; the second, a traditional Hindi song also using the cuckoo as a messenger to a distant lover. Anybody who thinks that western Baroque vocal ornamentation was a complex issue should listen to Indian classical singing, with Debipriya Sircar making extensive use of elaborate and subtle ornaments and microtones.

Although late 17th-century Purcell was popular amongst the ex-pats in late 18th-century Calcutta, the evening finished with two pieces more appropriately related to the latter period, starting with the beautifully sensitive Paradevate, setting a text of devotional praise to an Indian supreme goddess to the Welsh tune Ap Shenkin composed in the early 19th-century and curiously, given its gentle underlying mood, better known as a military march. This was followed by a medley of traditional Ghazal melodies that Sophi Plowden collected in 1780, and the only time during the concert that the two musical cultures of India and the West really combined, in this case in a sort of mutual jam session. This was not one of those Indo-European musical fusion events of some decades ago, but a fascinating contrast between the two cultures.

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The musicians not already named were Jamie Akers (lute & guitar), Emily Baines (recorders & shawm), Lucia Capellaro (viola da gamba), and George Clifford (violin). Actor Lara Alier joined in many of the dance sequences. This was a very impressive musical invocation of a fascinating period of British and Indian history, well acted, well staged, well sung and well played. The plethora of Indian bits and bobs in the Tara Theatre added to the mood, as did the surprisingly good acoustics of the space, given that it was designed for theatre rather than musical use. It is a reflection of modern times that this production was the result of a successful crowdfunding scheme, as well as Arts Council England funding.

Image may contain: 5 people, people sitting and text


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