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The 2015 San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF) boasts a chart busting line-up of 150 performances in 18 days, presenting international and local companies. “In effect, we have become the largest annual gathering of performance artists in the western United States,” claims Andrew Wood, Executive Director.

Bay Area’s Abhinaya Dance Company (Bharatanatyam) and famous maestros Purbayan Chatterjee (sitar), Aditya Kalyanpur (tabla), and Madan Oak (santoor) will represent India and Indian culture this year.

Since 2003, the festival has hosted artists from more than 50 countries. 2015 has become a chart-buster because Fort Mason has come on board as a co-presenter instead of just a renter of space. The idea is “to change the public perception of Fort Mason and have people view them as a fully fledged Arts Presenter. Instead of the usual two stages, this year we have seven,” says Wood. The more than tripling of space was no problem in terms of artists; there is no dearth of talent. So quality of performance was an area that the organizers focused on. Wood typically travels extensively to experience the artists live or watches videos of their performances to acquire a taste for the specific art. Speaking of how Abhinaya got selected, Wood revealed, “We had an open call to ask local performance ensembles to send in their ideas for a performance. Abhinaya were the best fit for what we are doing: they present work to a high professional standard and have the ability to draw an audience.”

Abhinaya’s entry-winning performance is actually based on an idea they first presented in 1999, Love Exquisite.  It will have a completely new avatar for the festival, exploring the timeless concept of love through traditional and contemporary poetry, inspired by ancient Indian and modern concepts. The production goes on a journey through the various stages of love, starting with blossoming of emotion, followed by the intensity of longing, the pangs of separation, and finally, the bliss of union. It is essentially an exploration of Sringara-bhakti (devotion through love) or personification of the soul yearning to be one with Divine.

Of the 2015 avatar, Rasika Kumar, Associate Artistic Director of Abhinaya says, “We are taking all the original items and reworking each and every one of them in order to make the original concept relevant to the present time. While the original production was a collection of separate items, we are working on crafting the production to follow a single path from one item to the next, a journey through the stages of love.”

Mythili Kumar, Artistic Director, adds, “We have been fortunate to perform in many festivals in the Bay Area; Ethnic Dance Festival many years and various Asian dance festivals throughout our 35 year history.  This is our first time at the SFIAF. As an Indian dance company based in the United States, we’re always exploring innovative ways to showcase bharatanatyam to new audiences and this festival gives us this chance to do so.”

Chatterjee, Kalyanpur, and Oak who will together present Wings on Strings, had a more serendipitous entry into the Festival. Oak is based in the Bay Area and is active in the arts community. He is known for putting together events and acted as a promoter of sorts this time. Oak explains, “I have known Andrew Wood and his team of volunteers for many years now. We have worked together on cultural activities, shows and concerts like the SF World Music Festival. I accepted their invitation to present classical Indian music. Purbayanji and I were in touch about his US tour- his tour dates and this Festival coincided and now I am looking forward to his magical sitar performance myself. Adityaji and I have played together in the past; he is an amazing tabla player. I have always wanted to invite him to perform in the Bay Area and took this opportunity to do so.”

Oak has performed in many cities around the world and was awarded the Guru-Satkar by Pandit Hridaynath Mangeshkar in 2014. Through his organization Shatatantri Media, he successfully brought together many artists including Pandits Swapan Chaudhuri, Hariprasad Chaurasia, and Shivkumar Sharma for Tihai 2014 in California.
Kalyanpur shot into fame as a child; he was the young tabla player in the popular Wah Taj commercial for Taj Mahal brand tea that aired in India many years ago, featuring Ustad Zakir Hussain. Known as an astute accompanist, Kalyanpur is currently the leader of his fusion band Fuzikk and a member of the group Bombay Jazz comprised of jazz legends Larry Coryell, George Brooks and Indian flute maestro, Pandit Ronu Mazumdar. Chatterjee is an artist of international repute, known recently for forming the “Shastriya Syndicate,” a one of a kind classical band. He has also claimed fame in new age music circles by collaborating with world renowned musicians in his album called StringStruck.

Wings on Strings will be a special concert: one instrument is played by plucking strings (sitar), the other is played using a pair of wooden mallets (santoor). The program consists of classical ragas and light music compositions.

Wings on Strings: Sunday, May 24, 5:30 p.m. The Chapel, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. Love Exquisite: Sunday, June 7, 3 p.m. Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. Tickets: $15-$25.