THE FESTIVAL TRADITION IN THE UK

Sampoorna Sangeet Mela 1995, is the third Festival of Indian Music and Dance organised under the umbrella of Pandit Ram Sahai Sangit Vidyalaya. The Mela is following in two traditions, the Festival tradition as described by Shantaram-ji, on page 10 and the tradition of the British National Federation of Festivals of Music, Speech and Dance. We are members of this Federation which is preparing to celebrate seventy-five years as an association.

Competition in the arts has a history that is documented back to Greek contests in 586 BC but in Britain the first contest is generally acknowledged to be the 1872 festival in Workington.

Many of these early British festivals were in rural districts and much can be understood about the people taking part from the literature of the time. In Tonypandy in 1899, the first prize for the Male Voice Choir class included “… a pair of boots for the Conductor,” and the second prize “… a pair of trousers for the Conductor”. One description of a Pennine choir reported in the Musical Times in 1908 included

“the .. choir consists of 40 voices, mostly cotton-mill workers and colliers, leavened by the inclusion of the learned village newsagent, whose decision is absolutely final whenever methods of pronunciation are in dispute.”

In 1904 the first association of competition Festivals was formed with a yearly congress to be held in London. At the same time as the development of festivals in rural areas, there had been a great growth in the number of festivals taking place in urban areas. In 1920 these festivals held their own conference in Birmingham to consider ways of increasing co-operation. Federation between these two groups took place in 1921, and throughout its history it has been generously supported by the Carnegie trust.

I remember well my experiences as a child, playing Schumann’s “Merry Peasant” very fast, perched behind an enormous grand piano in the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh. I also remember my determination to practice harder after I failed to come first and the excitement when, the following year, my efforts were rewarded by receiving a better mark. As a young school teacher, conducting my first choir at the local festival, I saw the more experienced pupils at the local ‘High’ school walk away with the prize, yet once again, and many years later, as an adjudicator myself, I appreciated only too well the feelings of the candidates performing before me. My thoughts today, however are also with candidates parents. No parent will ever forget the first time his/her ‘little one’ steps onto the plat- form. It is a little like the first time you take them to the dentist. Will they be happy with the experience? Will the teeth demonstrate all your hard work teaching them how to brush properly? It is therefore very necessary that we all work towards making it a positive and enjoyable experience.

Music and Dance are creative performing arts, and learning to perform, as opposed to playing and dancing for oneself, is an art that cannot be learned without the opportunity to produce one’s art in front of an audience. This opportunity is one of the most valuable that can be experienced by the novice performer, and is provided by taking part in this Mela. In 1923, one of the federation delegates suggested that the purpose of competitions was “by means of them you make the singers not beat each other but pace each other on the road to excellence”.

Adjudicators are very experienced teachers and performers who will be looking for the strengths of the performers, and, if necessary, pointing out areas which may be improved to help them onto ‘this road to excellence’. Because they have themselves, grown up through the system, they are very aware of the feelings of the performers, and look to support, not humiliate. As suggested by a former Federation Chairman the aims of a competitive festival should be “choice without favour, correction without offence and praise without flattery”.

Acknowledgements to Dr Christopher Wiltshire for permission to refer to his history of the federation “The Road To Excellence”.

JILL SCARFE September 1995
Lecturer in Music

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