World Music Feature Print



An Evening in a Palace Courtyard

December 31, 2001 - Cary, NC:


In December, we took a vacation from CVNC and other projects to set off for India. Even after many visits, the subcontinent holds for us a wealth of unexplored cities and regions, good friends and always the unexpected.

Among our new experiences was a visit to Rajasthan, the most popular tourist haven among the Indian states. Hoping to avoid the crush of tourists in popular Jaipur and Jailsamer, we arranged to visit the smaller city of Udaipur. Situated picturesquely on a large lake, Udaipur was one of the separate princely states incorporated into independent India in 1947. Like their former colonizers, the British, Indians go in for pomp and circumstance in a big way. For while Udaipur's maharajas (also called "maharanas" in the local language) and other rulers of once independent kingdoms retained none of their political autonomy after independence, many still had their palaces, fortunes and glamour.

His Highness Shriji Arvind Singh Ji Mewar is now Udaipur's foremost businessman, owner of the HRH group of five star hotels. He is also the city's chief promoter and has taken an intense personal interest in making his domain one of India's prime tourist attractions. He is also a patron of the arts, having given over a wing of his residence, the City Palace, as a museum. Another wing, as well as two of his other palaces, is a luxury hotel. He and his family live in the remaining palace apartments.

On our visit to Udaipur's City Palace we noticed a sign referring to a concert the following evening in the palace courtyard. We asked the owner of our hotel if it would be possible to purchase tickets, but when he came up with a pair the next morning we realized that this was not a public concert and the tickets were actually invitations issued to us from the maharaja to a large, but private, event. The occasion was to celebrate the memory one of India's great tabla (see below) virtuosi, Pandit Chatur Lal, a native of Udaipur who had died tragically at the height of his career. In addition to a documentary film on Chatur Lal, the concert featured internationally acclaimed Indian flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Sh. Rahul Sharma, on the santoor . Sh. Rahul Sharma's father took the santoor , a dulcimer-like folk instrument from Kashmir, and developed for it a technique and sophisticated repertoire that was finally accepted into the canon of Indian classical music.

Some explanations and terminology

Since most of our readers may have only a passing acquaintance-or none at all-with Indian classical music, a few basics are in order. There are two fundamental schools of Indian music, North Indian and Karnatic (or South Indian). The evening's concert consisted of the former. While the North Indian and Karnatic schools have many instruments and musical forms in common, there is a body of instruments specific to each school. The santoor , for example, with its probable Persian origin is used only in North India, while in the South, the modern violin and clarinet-imported during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries-have each been freely adapted to Indian taste and practice. The wooden transverse flute, or bansuri , is common to both traditions and comes in a wide variety of sizes, as is the tabla , a pair of small drums, which is both a solo and ensemble instrument. The tabla is played with the finger tips and palm to create an enormous variety of sounds. The head of the tabla is made of goat skin within which is a smaller circle made from a paste of flour and iron filings giving it a particularly well defined staccato timbre and pitch. The tabla can be tuned precisely using a series of tuning blocks on the side that change the tension of the heads, thereby raising or lowering the pitch.

The quintessential form of Indian classical music is the raga , a three-part composition each one based on one of 72 specific scales or melodic formulas (also called ragas ). While ragas are improvised, the musician must adhere strictly to the constraints of the melodic formulas. There are also rules for how certain pitches may be approached in an ascending or descending context. A good musician is judged by how creatively he or she can mold the basic melodies into new and complex permutations. Of the 72 modes, each one possesses its own particular affect. Therefore, one hears ragas designated for specific times of the day as well as for evoking particular emotional states.

A typical raga begins with the alap , in which the principal musician improvises on the given mode, accompanied only by a tanpura , or drone, a string instrument plucked in such a way as to maintain a constant sound, thereby maintaining the tonal center of the raga from start to finish. After a full exploration of the melody in free rhythm, the tabla enters for the second section of the raga , called the gat , in which the musicians adapt the melodic mode within complex rhythmic and metrical patterns called tala . During the gat the musicians fix on one or more short melodic motives, repeating them within the rhythmic context of the tala . The pace of the raga gradually increases as the principal instrument and tabla interact in ever more complex and virtuosic ways. Finally, the climactic jhala can involve a fascinating spirited musical dialogue-sometimes even a competition-between the two musicians. The musical interplay invariably includes complex cross rhythms. Ragas can last well over an hour, concluding only after the musicians feel that they have thoroughly explored their every resource.

The Indian classical music has no written notation and the rigorous extensive training is handed down orally, often from father to son. Like western chamber music ensembles, the participants in a raga must be exquisitely in tune with each other, both musically and emotionally.

An appreciation

While we are hardly experts on Indian classical music, we do know a great performance when we hear one. The combination of fine musicianship in an exotic and beautiful setting made for a very special evening. Sharma, accompanied by tabla player Ustad Shefaat Ahmed Khan opened the concert with a raga that set the tonal center for the entire evening's music. Unlike the hammer dulcimer, the strings of the santoor are both struck and plucked using the two prongs on the end of the mallets. A system of resonating strings adds a richness and depth to the sound. Sh. Rahul Sharma was particularly adept at precise series of rapid notes and making the instrument speak within a wide dynamic range. Perhaps because this concert was in honor of a tabla virtuoso, both Sharma and flautist Chaurasia gave special prominence to their respective tabla partners, Ustad Shefaat Ahmed Khan and Ustad Rashid Khan.

Then came Chaurasia, the evening's main attraction, playing two ragas that extended the concert to close to four hours (not at all atypical for an Indian concert). Every baroque flautist should study a few of Chaurasia's recordings to hear the amazing variety of sonorities and timbres that can be produced from this simple wooden instrument. Particularly stunning was the seemingly endless array of sonorities Chaurasia produced from subtle changes in embouchure. Chaurasia has a keen sense for large musical architecture which resulted in a ragas that had elaborate musical sub-structures and refrains within the three basic sections. Chaurasia and Rashid Khan also engaged in a lively competitive dialogue in which the flautist would execute a phrase on his wind instrument, challenging the tabla player to imitate it precisely in the percussion.

Will East meet West?

Violinist Yehudi Menuhin was perhaps the most influential musician to bring Indian classical music to western audiences. His promotion of and collaborations with sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar are legendary. Unlike other Asian peoples, Indian audiences with such a rich musical tradition of their own, have never taken broadly to western classical music outside of a couple of concert series offered in the larger cities.

However in March 2002 The Fakir of Benares , an opera composed in 1922 by the obscure French Jewish composer Leo Manuel and lost during World War-II, is being reconstructed and revived by French composer, Aude-Priya Wacziarg, who chanced upon the libretto in a music shop in Paris. The production will supposedly be the first time ever that a full-fledged opera is to be staged in India. And in Udaipur, Maharana Arvind Singh Ji, intent on making his city a center of world culture, is exploring the possibility of mounting performances of other western operas based on Indian themes ( Lakmé or Les pecheurs de perles might do for a start.)

While we have no Maharaja's palace to provide atmosphere, Triangle audiences can enjoy first-rate concerts of Indian classical music by internationally acclaimed artists brought in by the Indian Classical Music and Dance Society (ICMDS) and also by Duke University's Institute of the Arts. These events appear on the CVNC calendar. Perhaps we can even arrange to send some of our local ensembles as musical ambassadors to Udaipur.