The Sher Mandal at the Purana Quila (Old Fort) in the Capital was turned into a canvas of moving 3D projections giving the ruin a surreal look, splashed in vivid colours, lights and fascinating patterns. The stage was set against this visually magnificent show, which seemed to hold a promise that something special was going to transpire on stage. And what started as a visual feast soon turned into a musical extravaganza, complemented of course by the awe-inspiring backdrop. This was the opening night concert of the Oz Fest in Delhi, inaugurated by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly a man representative of the thousands of years of Australias aboriginal culture and music. It was to some extent an irony that Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, increasingly getting recognised internationally as one of the true and rare gems in the Australian music industry couldnt visually sense the opulence and magnificence of the venue and the stage he was set to perform on. Other performers included sitarist Anoushka Shankar and twice-Grammy-nominated Australian didgeridoo virtuoso Mark Atkins.
The aboriginal singer-songwriter, who was born blind, was escorted on to the stage by his close friend and band member, Michael Honnen. Gurruumul did appear to be shy from his mannerisms, which were in contradiction to the pomp and the larger-than-life air that one often sees around many an international star. He quietly took his seat as Honnen introduced him to the crowd. And instantly, as Gurrumul held his guitar upside down (hes left handed) and struck a chord, his melodious, fragile and extremely emotive voice filled the huge expanse of the fort. He wasnt able to see the hundreds of admiring gazes focused on him, but he sure must have felt them. On the mic, this otherwise timid artiste oozed with confidence and comfort that was representative of his intrinsic, almost destined bond with sound and music. Gurrumul is a member of the Gumatj clan on Elcho Island, off the coast of tropical North East Arnhem Land, and sings in a language called Yolngu, spoken by just a couple of thousand people. Yet, the language was not a barrier, and his voice was warm, inviting, velvety and even mesmerising.
His music is about his identity, spirit and connection with the land, its elements and the ancestral beings he is related to and even this performance featured songs on his identity as the child of the creation, on his father and the importance of a father in a family and aboriginal society, and one particularly interesting song about the salt-water crocodile. He's born as a crocodile. We don't think like this but he thinks that he was born as more than just a person. Aboriginal people take up these things, which anthropologists call totems, where they believe that they're more than just people. This connection is intrinsically embedded in his identity, says Honnen, who is also assigned the task of speaking on behalf of Gurrumul as the latter is again back to being his shy self after the performance. Interestingly, his crocodile identity throws light on the oral tradition among the aboriginal people and their special bond with nature. Everyone is illiterate in terms of Western education but the oral tradition is extremely strong. So he would be singing about the crocodile, someone else would be singing about the clouds, or the north wind or the octopus. In a large clan, this is the way they stay rooted to their tradition and ecosystem. You embody them, you tell people about them you live them out, you are them. These associations are primarily made to keep the aboriginal ecosystem intact in terms of knowledge, adds Honnen.
It was about five years ago that Gurrumul took Australia by storm and gained a global reputation. Prior to that, Gurrumul was part of a few large bands. It was Honnen, who was by then an extremely close friend of Gurrumuls and played in large bands with him, who pushed him to go solo. I kept hearing him in these big bands and his voice wasn't coming through. It was kind of hidden in the band, Honnen recalls. He adds that the aboriginal people and culture are extremely passive about their art forms and would never be proactive in going out and showing the world who they are and what they can do. It was on Honnens insistence that Gurrumul came out with his first solo album in 2008. The album Gurrumul has sold half a million copies worldwide and his second album Rralaka released in early 2011 has hit Platinum. Today, Gurrumuls fan club includes the likes of Elton John, will.I.am and Sting. He has performed for some of the biggest names in the world, including the Queen of England, US President Barack Obama, and Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary of Denmark. In fact he was one of only two Australian performers at the Queen Elizabeths Diamond Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace. But somehow he remains his own man, completely unperturbed and unaffected by the fame. Its almost as if he makes an effort to stay away. We met Barack Obama and Gurummul didnt talk to him! Obama said, Hello, how are you and Gurummul didnt say anything. Obama then took him by the shoulder and greeted him but all he could manage was a shy grin, recalls Honnen. In fact, he tells us that Gurrumul wanted to speak during his performance in Delhi and the duo practiced a few words but he just shied away at the performance .
Sher Mandal at Purana Quila is an early medieval observatory and perhaps it was befitting that a star, albeit a rare one performed under its towering presence.