Over the years, Duke University has been a leader in cultural diversity in the arts, especially in music. Via its programs in Living Traditions, a long procession of musicians of the highest quality from Afghanistan to Zambia have broadened our aesthetic horizons. Often, however, the performances involve such new – to us – sonorities, instruments and styles that they are difficult to evaluate without a broader knowledge of the cultural and musical context from which they come.
One of the non-Western cultures whose music has become readily and frequently available in the Triangle is India, a country which itself incorporates a wide diversity of musical styles and traditions. The Indian Classical Music and Dance Society (ICMDS) – often in conjunction with Duke – brings to the Triangle the best and brightest stars of Indian classical music. The result is that even as Westerners we are able to evaluate, rather than merely report on, a concert.
Friday's concert featured K. Sridhar, India's leading master of the sarod, one of the most complicated string instruments ever dreamed up by man. (It even makes even the baryton look relatively simple.) Sridhar was accompanied by tabla player Anil Datar and a little electronic box that served as a substitute for a tanbur player, the background drone.
The sarod, originating from the Afghan rabab, is so complex that few musicians dare to study it. Carved as a bowl with a neck from a single piece of wood, with the opening covered by stretched leather, it has a fretless metal fingerboard – and 25 strings. Four of these are used for melody, two for rhythm, and the rest are sympathetic vibrating strings tuned to the pitches of the particular raga being performed. As a consequence, tuning and retuning is an elaborate and time-consuming undertaking.
K. Sridhar was brought up on the Carnatic (South Indian) music tradition by his mother, a descendent of fourteen generations of musicians. He also started to study the Hindustani style of the North and became, at the age of 12, the youngest member of Ravi Shankar's orchestral group. For the last 20 years he has been traveling around the world as a sarod master.
Because Indian classical music is improvised and the modes and rhythms of the ragas are regarded as having particular emotional affects, the performers seldom commit themselves to particular selections in advance. Along with the bios of the artists, the paper programs invariably contain a basic description of the instruments and the structure of the raga for newcomers to the genre. We mention this because the program for the evening was especially well written, containing a brief but clear description of the sarod, the particular sub-genre of raga to be performed and the transcendental state the music was deigned to evoke.
It was, therefore, with some disappointment that we noted the substitution of an electronic tone for a real tanbur player for the omnipresent drone. Now we understand that compared with the featured string instrument – sitar, sarod, veena or whatever – and the tabla, the tanbur is definitely a "back-up" instrument. But it is still an essential one, and for us, the substitution of an electronic instrument for an acoustic one definitely affected the sense of completeness that we experience with Indian raga.
Sridhar generally performs according to the Dhrupad tradition, a style that extends the sections of the raga for the sarod and limits the participation of the tabla. The program opened with a raga based on a lovely scale including microtones. The sound from the resonating strings of the sarod was at times breath-taking; there's a reason why this style of playing focuses so heavily on the string instrument with its special resonant qualities and extended slow alaap (the first section of a raga). This was the highlight of the concert. But before the tabla joined him, Sridhar had to retune his sarod, thereby breaking the continuity and spell of the performance. Datar's tabla performance was little more than accompaniment or imitation of the rhythms set by Sridhar. There was little give-and-take between the two that characterizes other styles.
As if to make up for the tabla's subsidiary role, there followed after a short intermission a tabla solo – really a demonstration of the more complex drumming associated with other raga styles. But again the little black box – this time playing a slightly more complex figure, more an ostinato than a drone – really became annoying. Datar constantly fiddled with it during his performance, adjusting the volume of its electronic sound as he changed tempos and rhythms.
After Datar's riff, Sridhar returned for a second raga, this one based on a mode almost identical with the harmonic minor scale. Perhaps because of its association with a readily recognizable Western mode, particularly Spanish Flamenco, it failed to produce the same effect as other ragas we have heard. Even the improvisatory style seemed less inspired than in the earlier raga. And then, of course, there was that black box.
We recognize that there are considerable costs involved in bringing a live tanbur player to tour with a master. And, of course, a visiting artist of Sridhar's reputation cannot rely on any local tanbur player to fill the role at any stop. Nevertheless, part of the pleasure of hearing Indian music is visual, and the interpolation of electronics into this ancient tradition just didn't fly with us.
For a picture of a sarod and more information on K. Sridhar, go to http://www.Sridhar.org/. Sridhar has recently issued Ocean of Sound, a CD of two ragas, Bilaskhani Todi and Bairaghi, which gives an excellent example of his superb playing and of the possibilities of the instrument. For information go to http://www.eightgatesmusic.com/ [inactive 2/07].