Big Idea

An Indian Oasis

Call it the NCPA of Dubai — the Malhaar Centre for Performing Arts is making Indian classical art forms irresistible for expats in UAE

"It’s never too late to pursue what one wants to do in life. 2017 ended on a fantastic note. I did something I always wanted to do — I began learning music,” Jogiraj Sikidar of Malhaar Centre for Performing Arts describes an email sent by Reckitt Benckiser CEO Rakesh Kapoor on January 1, 2018 to his 45,000 employees. The encouraging missive only reflected the 59-year-old executive’s joy on having reignited his passion for music when on a 10-day holiday to Dubai. And today he flies from London to West Asia every week to attend his music class. A feat that was made possible thanks to Sikidar’s UAE-based centre.

Kapoor is one among two dozen corporate honchos, who begin their morning with a class at MCPA. “We have top executives from Nielsen, Coca-Cola, and several other companies in Dubai,” beams Sikidar, who leads Malhaar. A former media professional, Sikidar has worked at Zee, National Geographic, MTV and Nickelodeon over a span of 22 years before he quit his job last July.

Born into a family of musicians in Assam meant that Sikidar was initiated well into the pursuit but didn’t take it up as a profession. However, it would always find a way into his life. When he couldn’t secure a seat at Delhi University on the basis of his scorecard, his proficiency in Hindustani classical music enabled him to get admitted to Kirori Mal college, that had a vibrant theatre and performing arts environment. During his graduation year, he met senior journalist Vinod Dua, who happened to hear him sing one day. A few months later when Sikidar approached Dua for a job, he insisted that the college graduate had to train his daughter and him in music. It’s here that Sikidar got the opportunity to interact with maestros such as Padma Shri awardee Rita Ganguly, a senior disciple of Ghazal queen Begum Akhtar. After much persuasion, Sikidar managed to persuade Ganguly to take him under her tutelage. This exposed him to the nuances of stage performances and event marketing.

A few years later, when Sikidar moved to National Geographic channel, it was his background in theatre and music that impressed the recruiter and got him the job. From there on, a demanding work schedule left no time for music. In 2006, he moved to Dubai with his wife and toddler to join a broadcasting house, a decision that the family soon regretted. And here again, it was music that saved him. Sikidar, who one day was humming away along the aisles of a supermarket, was asked by a fellow shopper to teach her music, which he happily obliged. Soon enough he had more than one student and within a year, his weekends were booked for classes. That’s when an innocuous discussion at the office cafeteria led to something more ambitious. “I broached the idea of organising a choir with people of different calibers. As for the name, I wondered what’s the best thing that could happen in a desert? Rain. And how could one associate that with music? Malhaar. And soon enough singers gainfully employed with day jobs were brought together to form a group named after the raga of rain.  

Curtain raiser
In 2008, the Indian pavilion in the global village of Dubai witnessed Malhaar’s debut. It was refreshing for an expat audience otherwise restricted to only Bollywood music. “We performed a lot of compositions by Calcutta Choir. Given that Dubai hosts a lot of Malyalees, we sang songs like kadalinakkare ponore a popular track back home in Kerala,” he describes. Among the huge crowd that poured in that night was also the Consul General of India. And the troupe left quite an impression so much so that the bureaucrat invited them to perform at the Consulate on Republic Day. And Malhaar shot to fame.

But Sikidar was already charting out the next step — merging music with theatre. He says, “Before we entered the scene, Indian performing arts translated into the glitz and glamour of Hindi cinema. Also, there were small groups performing music, but that was just singing. So, there was this gap between the two offerings and I wanted to cater to that. If we just sang we would also be like the other groups.” And that’s why in 2010, Malhaar launched its first big production Rooh-e-Ishq, a magnum opus that combined music and theatre, and paid tribute to great Sufi poets such as Rumi, Bulleh Shah, Amir Khusro and Kabir. The show was an instant hit and the group soon added four more titles to its repertoire — Jashn-e-Awadh parts 1 and 2, O Ganga and Draupadi. “The best compliment we ever received was from a critic who said, ‘Malhaar’s show was like a live [Sanjay Leela] Bhansali movie on stage’,” Sikidar shares exuberantly. And while it may not have the advantage of an exorbitant budget like that of a blockbuster movie, its production processes are as elaborate as that of a film. Supported by corporate sponsorships, a single show takes nine months to produce and can cost 150,000 dirhams (Rs.2.7 million). None of Malhaar’s artists charge a fee and all the money raised goes towards charity work in India and Dubai. “Our main purpose is to showcase our rich heritage to the world,” says Sikidar. Its calendar for the current year has three productions lined up — Mohana, which looks at three women in Lord Krishna’s life; Buddha’s Wife, the perspective of Gautama Buddha’s wife on Nirvana; and Lady Macbeth.

In addition to showcasing India’s culture to a global audience, Sikidar’s other goal has always been to connect NRI kids to their roots. “Another concern for me was these kids knew only Shah Rukh Khan or Salman Khan, not a Kabir or Bulleh Shah. This was a way to introduce them to our heritage,” he adds. To popularise this further, the centre even organises classes where parents can learn along with their children. And 3M regional HR business partner, Sriganesh DS is one such parent who is part of a choir along with his seven-year-old son.

“Singing in a choir is a very unique experience. It’s a great platform to learn the importance of teamwork, patience, discipline and diversity. Being a part of this choir has been a humbling experience and Malhaar has also had a great impact on my son’s personality,” he shares.

Setting the stage on fire
With Malhaar having established a name for itself among the expat community, it was time to go beyond the existing Facebook page. In February 2017, MCPA registered with the Dubai government. “The idea was to collaborate with artists and establish a one-stop-shop for all kinds of Indian performing arts,” Sikidar explains. The training centre adopts a holistic method whereby a student of vocals will also be exposed to basics of playing an instrument or a dance form. It conducts early morning music classes for executives and offers relaxation programmes for corporate groups combining Indian classical music with Tibetan crystal bowl therapy.

Samipendra Chaudhury, chief financial officer, Nielsen Emerging Markets, is one such executive who’s gained a lot from MCPA’s programs. “Through various special sessions that Jogiraj da arranges, we get to listen to the gurus. We have learnt from Pt Jasraj, Pt Ajoy Chakrabarti and Shubha Mudgal. Even an established music school in India would envy such a strong lineup of great artists,” he avers. MCPA, which currently has over 200 students, offers courses for training in Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, several musical instruments and various forms of Indian classical dance. The centre trains students of multiple nationalities and has pupils who range from the age of four to 72.

Says Deepak Bisht, asset manager – Middle East, Africa, Asia Pacific, Ensco, who was urged by his wife to join MCPA, “What differentiates MCPA is its family-like atmosphere that’s rooted in the guru-shishya philosophy”. Sikidar is expanding this further by tying up with schools such as the GEMS Modern Academy, Dubai International Academy and Indian Heritage School and plans to add more schools. It has also started a loyalty programme named Classic Club, where a member for an annual fee of 2,000 dirhams (Rs.35,000) could attend all Malhaar productions. The centre makes money via club memberships, student fees, school programmes. Individual one-hour sessions cost 300 dirhams (Rs.5,400), whereas group sessions can be availed for a fee of 50-100 dirhams (Rs.900-1,800). The ticket fee for shows ranges from 75-500 dirhams (Rs.1,350-9,000). The centre currently sees a high monthly overhead expenditure and Sikidar knows that he has his task cut out. “I’m still struggling to draw my salary, I have invested my entire savings in this. Hopefully it will turn around soon,” he admits. 

Malhaar has no plans to divert the money from its future productions to the centre. The choir would continue its charity work, while Sikidar tries to rope in more corporates. “We wouldn’t be able to sustain without corporate patronage. Even if you look at history, art has always thrived under the patronage of kings,” he argues.

His dreams might come true some day given that Malhaar is a melodious story composed by not just Sikidar, but also by all those patrons united in the pursuit of something wonderful like the enchanting discovery of the rain in a desert.