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'It's been a struggle': Mushtari Begum Festival heading into its 12th season

Musician and festival organizer Cassius Khan says putting on the event has included some challenges

Amika Kushwaha, left, and Cassius Khan, right, pose for a photo overlooking the Massey Theatre seats. Supplied.

It’s a labour of love that hasn’t been without its struggles, as Queensborough’s Cassius Khan speaks with The Anchor by phone to talk about how wonderful and challenging it is to put on a musical festival that continues to keep Indian music alive.

The next edition of the Mushtari Begum Festival takes place Saturday, Sept. 23 at 7pm—and tickets are already on sale.

Khan is the one and only disciple of the late Malika e Tarranum Mushtari Begum and Tabla maestro Ustad Rukhsar Ali of the Delhi Gharana of Tabla playing. Khan’s partner is Kathak/Harmonium maestra Amika Kushwaha, a talented dancer who dazzles her audiences with her fabulous, intricate footwork.

This edition of the Mushtari Begum Festival will include global Indian musician Salil Bhatt and Dr. Kamaljeet Gill, a classical Indian vocalist.

“It’s important to have the support of the community… I fund this festival entirely on my own and have been since the beginning. I have not received any government grants, so it has been a struggle at times,” Khan tells The Anchor. “We’d like to present in a more grand way, but unfortunately the funding is what prevents us from going even further.”

What Khan fails to mention during our interview is that the Mushtari Begum Festival—now in its 12th year—is considered a big deal: so much so that Via Rail noted in 2015 that it’s one of the amazing events you can experiences from coast to coast to coast. Khan and Kushwaha have been working tirelessly to keep these musical traditions going, despite some of the difficulties they’ve faced.

“We [do it] because we want to provide a platform for those artists who don’t receive a platform in the Canadian music scene,” explains Khan, who adds that his music is sometimes not considered by some to be “Canadian enough.”

“When I was growing up, there was no such thing as an Indian classical music festival. We didn’t have that platform: we had to apply to folk festivals and try to get a spot… there are 6,800 world musicians in this country.”

Even then, says Khan, there’s still an issue with characterizing anything that doesn’t come from North America as “world music.”

"I find [the term] to be a racist term because there are 232 different genres of rock music, and there are 203 different genres of blues music just because they added an instrument here or there. So the genre changes, however the rest of the world and their musical cultures are put under one genre—world music—which is just absurd.”

For Khan, the festival is one way to express a need for thoughtfulness in music—but that thoughtfulness is transposable to other parts of our lives.

“I hope that the term changes… but [as a comparison] even ‘BIPOC’ [penned us all into one category]… why can’t we just be people, you know?”

And while the numbers haven’t quite bounced back since the peak of COVID-19, Khan says he’s hopeful people will find their way to the festival—especially those who may need to find some peace and healing in such tough times.

“Indian music is hypnotic. It’s so nourishing for the body and the soul. We need a lot of healing in the world today… we’re dealing with so much. Just come and unwind and regain some energy, some good spirits, and good vibes.”

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