Alchemy festival celebrates South Asia in London

The fourth annual festival, which celebrates sounds and artists from India, South Asia and the UK, is this week. Here are the highlights.

The Bollywood singer Hariharan will be featured on April 19. Courtesy Southbank Centre

Experimental, genre-splicing music that straddles the UK and South Asia is at the heart of Alchemy, a festival on the banks of the Thames. It also encompasses dance, theatre, comedy, food, film, literature, design and debate.

Some of Bollywood's biggest singers will be performing alongside British-Asian rappers, Tamil-descended rock heroes and sitar superstars, while authors will debate the effect of colonial rule, aerial dancers will swoop from the rafters and spicy snacks will be dished out from a chaat shack. Here's a guide to the highlights.

Rock 'n' roll meets Sufi mysticism

Susheela Raman had a sell-out concert, a standing ovation and five-star reviews when she performed at Alchemy last year. It's no wonder the magnetic musician is back, performing today backed by an all-star band of qawwali singers (including the nephews of the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), Rajasthani musicians and virtuoso tabla and guitar players.

Raman has made her name playing everything from Ethiopian-influenced covers of Jimi Hendrix jams to trance-inducing devotional music.

Sitar-playing royalty

Trained by her father, Ravi, since she was a child, Anoushka Shankar is a brilliant sitar player. (She's also part of an extended family of super-celebrities: her half-sister is Norah Jones, her husband is the Atonement director Joe Wright and she's performed live with everyone from Madonna to Nina Simone.)

Besides all that, she's a thoughtful, boundary-pushing musician in her own right: her last album, Traveller, traced the roots of flamenco back to north-west Indian gypsies. She'll play the entire record live on Saturday, accompanied by Rajasthani dancers.

Skateboarding in a war zone

In Kabul, an NGO called Skateistan is teaching street kids how to ride boards in a gigantic, custom-built indoor skate park - and giving them a source of education, community and empowerment. The pioneering founder, Oliver Percovich, will discuss the charity's work and screen short films on April 21 as part of an all-day event dedicated to the culture and politics of contemporary Afghanistan. He'll get Londoners on wheels, too, with an all-abilities skate lesson along the banks of the Thames.

Post-September 11 fiction

Two foster brothers from a tiny Pakistani town travel to Afghanistan in the months following September 11 to provide medical care to civilians but are caught up in the fighting with devastating consequences. That's the plot of Nadeem Aslam's latest novel The Blind Man's Garden, which came out in February to widespread acclaim and which combines romance, an exploration of religious devotion and a peek inside the American military.

Aslam, who grew up in Pakistan and moved to the UK as a teenager, will talk about the book and answer questions on Tuesday.

British-Asian street sounds

It's not always easy being what the Pakistani-British rapper Shizzio called in a recent TED talk "a brown kid doing black music in a predominantly white country".

Shizzio has been credited with coining the term burban - "brown urban" - to describe the hip-hop and dance music being made by South Asian Britons, and although the word has ruffled some feathers, it has also helped shine a light on a group of diverse artists with links to the subcontinent.

The best of a new crop of "burban" talent will be showcased at The Burban Mela, an all-day event hosted by BBC Radio 1's DJ Nihal on Sunday.

Bollywood superstars

Playback singers, the vocalists who record songs for actors to lip-synch to, are an institution of Bollywood cinema, much as they used to be in Hollywood golden age musicals. The Kerala-born musician Hariharan is one of the world's most celebrated; he's won two "Indian Oscars" for his work. He will play a show in London on April 19.

The following day, the two-time reality show winner and major playback singer Harshdeep Kaur will perform some of her hits opposite Ash King, who has also remixed tracks for Lady Gaga. It's a rare chance for Londoners to hear Bollywood classics - as well as brand new collaborations - live.

The Alchemy festival is from today until April 21 at the Southbank Centre in the UK. For more information, visit and


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