Songs From Punjab Open White Lights Festival



Kiran Ahlawalia and bandmates kick off the White Lights Festival at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium with a night of Punjabi folksongs. Photo Gregory Moomjy.The White Lights Festival opened its third annual season on Oct. 18 with a free concert of Punjabi inspired folk music called “Without Shadows,” performed by Kiran Ahluwalia at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium.  Ahluwalia, who was born in the Punjab, raised in Canada, and now lives in New York City, describes her style as a combination “of my background as an Indian raised in Canada living in America. It’s a mix of both worlds,” using both Indian and Western instruments.

While many performances in the month-long series take place around Lincoln Center, venues also include the Baryshnikov Arts Center on 37th St. and the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College on 10th Ave.  The White Lights Festival, dedicated to making classical music less elite, joins other recent audience-building initiatives associated with Lincoln Center, such as The Metropolitan Opera’s Summer HD Festival, which offers audiences seated outside in the Josie Robertson Plaza the chance to see past opera performances, for free.

In an introductory note to this year’s festival, posted on their website, Jane Moss, artistic director of Lincoln Center, describes the event as an “exploration of the unparalleled power of performance to illuminate the many dimensions of our interior lives.” This year’s program centers on “the body as a vehicle for transcendence” and the purpose of the performances is to provide what Moss calls a “sanctuary from the storm and stress of urban life.”

This week’s concert included music, based on Sufi chants, which explores the mystical side of Islam.  Ahluwalia and her band played to a standing room only crowd of all ages that clapped or sang along with gusto when she asked them to.  Additionally, many pieces Ahluwalia performed dealt with the individual struggle for inner peace, including a piece entitled, “Jaag Na Jaag,” who lyrics can be translated as “You spin the rosary but the heart did not spin/ What’s the point of holding the rosary?” referring to the difficulty of leading a spiritual life.

The setting for the concert, the David Rubenstein Atrium, promoted the idea of classical music made accessible for all. Opened in 2009, the Atrium is a multi-purpose facility, that advertises current and upcoming performances on a flat-screen monitor, offers Wi-Fi internet access, and has a sandwich shop, ‘wichcraft.  People use the facility for a wide range of activities that are not necessarily related to classical music or the performing arts, which is the point.

As Corina Bardoff, acting tour program manager at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, said, “A lot of people come here to the Atrium just to get a coffee and sandwich from the shop and realize they could catch a performance at Lincoln Center.”

The Rubenstein Atrium attracts a wider demographic than other venues at Lincoln Center, according to Bardoff.  The Met’s Summer HD Festival, Bardoff said, tends to be “specific to” opera lovers, while the atrium hosts artists who are not necessarily as famous as the Met’s roster of opera singers, yet still have a diverse following.  Ahluwalia agreed, saying the venue works “very nicely” and is “more intimate.”

“It helps that it is free so more people are willing to take a chance,” she added.

Eileen McMahon, director of publicity and publications at Lincoln Center, likes the fact that audience members can eat and drink during performances. “It is more casual than being in a concert hall, or a church, where we have some other White Light performances,” she said.  Many people who attended the concert were new to Lincoln Center, such as Tyler Shernin, who said he “got an email through NYC Go and it sounded interesting.” Also, he added, “It was free and after work.”

After the concert, the musicians stood against the wall, talking to patrons and handing out their latest CD.  The ‘wichcraft Café stayed open while people remained to talk.