Raising spirits through a colourful city beat

HELPING HANDS: Keranjeet Kaur Virdee, Chief Executive of South Asian Arts-UK with Seetal Kaur Gahir, Sukhmani Kaur Rayat and Dilrani Kaur Lall.
HELPING HANDS: Keranjeet Kaur Virdee, Chief Executive of South Asian Arts-UK with Seetal Kaur Gahir, Sukhmani Kaur Rayat and Dilrani Kaur Lall.
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A Leeds-based charity has been bringing people together through the power of indian traditional music and dance for the past 17 years, as Claire Schofield discovered.

Sitting in the sunshine outside a pavement café watching the world go by, you get a real sense of what a fine, cosmopolitan and vibrant place Leeds has become. Voices of all nationalities can be heard in the passing throng, restaurants and bars serve up

exotic dishes and entertainers bringing the streets to life with their music.

There is a real sense of community spirit and having recently helped celebrate a hundred, incredible days of arts which promoted all the best that Yorkshire has to offer, Leeds is fast establishing itself as quite the cultural hub.

The city has a rich multicultural heritage and one charitable organisation is beginning to make waves through the celebration of the colourful and vibrant world of traditional and contemporary Indian classical music.

Established in Leeds in 1997, South Asian Arts UK (SAA-uk) is a registered charity committed to enriching people’s lives through participation in traditional and contemporary South Asian music and dance.

The organisation provides training to enthusiastic youngsters and adults alike and works to hone and develop musical talents, as well as celebrate and preserve this traditional cultural art form.

Founded by Ustard Dharamdir Singh, who wanted to ensure old Indian traditions were kept alive, the organisation enables people from various cultures and backgrounds to engage in the arts and develop and nurture their creative talents.

For the past 16 years, Keranjeet Kaur Virdee, from Chapel Allerton, has been the chief executive of the organisation and is dedicated to preserving the art of Indian classical music which dates back more than 1,000 years.

“My greatest passion is bringing people in and trying new things. Getting people to celebrate their own potential is very important,” she says. “Indian Classical music has a language and a grammar and I worry that it will end up like Latin and fade out. It is about taking a language that is so beautiful and has so much to offer and really celebrate that.

“It gives people the chance to learn things that are culturally relevant to them and creates this open door for people to develop the confidence to believe in themselves.”

Having moved to England from Kenya at the age of six to, Keranjeet has recognised the importance of providing a place for cultural learning and growth. “When I first came to England, we were the only Asian family in Beeston where we lived. I came to realise that there was no access for me to learn anything that was culturally relevant to me. I hungered for the language and that understanding. We work to give people a sense of belonging and a chance to give back to the community they live in,” she says.

“It’s all about positive engagement and that is really important because it makes the place more attractive. We are not there to change the world in one go, it is just one step at a time and seeing people develop has been very enriching.”

Keranjeet believes that SAA-uk has added to the rich cultural diversity that now exists in Leeds. “People from different backgrounds live amongst each other now and we are creating and celebrating music that they can share,” she says.

“I am very proud of my culture and my heritage. My African and my Yorkshire culture are part of who I am. A Yorkshire person is very much like a Punjab; the salt of the earth and very open and friendly. I feel a great sense of belonging in Leeds.”

The 53 year-old says her job is her passion. “I am fortunate that it allows me to explore a world that I love. The work has its challenges but without going through the rough of the storm you can’t get to the calm afterwards.”

Keranjeet works a busy week, as well as some weekends, and often has to call on her two children, Amardev Singh Gahir, 26, and Seetal Kaur Gahir, 23, to lend a hand.

Despite the busy hours (she jokes that she doesn’t have time for a husband) she insists it is all worthwhile because of the difference the charity has made to people.

“The positive responses are what you do it for. Hearing parents say ‘oh my god, my daughter or son has really come on’, those magical gem moments that is what really makes my job worthwhile,” she says. “It acts as a distraction from whatever is going on in their lives for that time period and having people say they are glad they came out of their house and getting such positive feedback makes you realise what impact you have had. They are the things that make it worth it.”

On June 21, SAA-uk held its third summer solstice festival on the longest day at Holy Trinity Church on Boar Lane. More than 100 people listened to a whole host of internationally acclaimed Indian classical musicians from dusk till dawn.

Made up of a set of notes that are supposed to express a mood, emotion, moment in time or season, the festival allowed the melodies, known as rāgs, to be performed at the time of day with which they’re associated.

“The whole event was just amazing,” says Keranjeet. “It’s really hard to describe and try and put it into words because you get a whole range of mind, body and soul experiences. You think you’ll get really tired and will struggle to stay awake but everyone was just really exhilarated and yet so calm at the same time. It was beautiful. It really was the most magical feeling.”

Cushions and mattresses were scattered about allowing listeners to move around and chat with different people, while Indian chai tea and coffee were available on tap to help combat tiredness as the music played well on into the night.

“There was no alcohol; none of that is needed. Music is what keeps you up all night,” says Keranjeet. “The word has got out about the solstice a bit more now but some people have been coming every year. Hopefully we will keep growing it because people do stay right the way through it all. Ultimately I would love to take it to Kirkstall Abbey one year because I think it is the most beautiful setting.”

The arts have also been a way for Keranjeet to overcome her own struggles. Growing up in a family with five siblings, together they shared a great community spirit, playing games and making mud huts.

But sadly, her third sister, Pritpal Kaur Virdee (aka Pinky) died on 23 June 1988. The date has become poignant for her and her family, particularly as it coincides with the solstice during which her siblings would challenge each other to stay up until sunrise.

Keranjeet credits the escapism offered by the arts, as well as support from her family, for getting her through this difficult period. “The arts help you to deal with emotions and having a few hours to forget helps to give your mind and your body a break. People come out of concerts feeling very different.”

With the organisation attracting more participants all the time, Keranjeet hopes it will continue to grow and keep old Indian traditions alive.

“I believe you can still keep the past alive and let it live in the present day. The past doesn’t have to be old and boring, it is actually really fascinating and beautiful but the challenge is to get people to appreciate that. But doing anything new has its challenges; doing anything new is risky and it takes hard work to achieve a result you would like, but I do think that doing this has made a difference to life.”

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