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World Music Review Print

The Indian Magic Flute

October 30, 2004 - Durham, NC:

Three years ago, on a trip to India, we heard famed Indian flautist Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia in a performance in a palace courtyard in Udaipur, Rajasthan. The performance was under the auspices of the local Maharana, once the ruler and now the big businessman and city promoter. On Saturday, in the less romantic ambience of Page Auditorium, we heard Chaurasia's magic flute again, this time sponsored by Duke Performances and CRY America, a non-profit organization for underprivileged children, especially Indian, to provide them with hope and the means to look forward to a brighter tomorrow.

Chaurasia plays the Indian bamboo transverse flute, or bansuri . He was accompanied by "Percussionist Par Excellence" Bhawani Shankar Kathak on the pakhawaj (two-headed drum) in the first half, and in the second half joined by one of his disciples, bansuri player Debopriya Chatterjee Randive, one of only two professional women flautists in North India. Accompanying the two was the 18-year old prodigy, Rimpa Siva on tabla , again, a rare position for a woman in India. The tabla is a pair of small drums 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 well-defined pitch.

With apologies to those in the know, some explanation of Indian music is necessary. The quintessential form of Indian classical music is the raga, a three-part composition, based on one of 72 specific scales or melodic formulas. While ragas are improvised, the musician must adhere strictly to the constraints of the 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. Each of the 72 modes 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 classical 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 an unbroken pitch with clearly defined harmonics that defines the tonal center of the raga from start to finish. After a full exploration of the melody in free rhythm, the drum 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. The raga is governed by equally strict rhythmic constraints that determine the pattern of the drumming. During the gat the musicians fix on one or more short melodic motives, repeating them within the rhythmic context of the tala , or metric mode. The pace of the raga gradually increases as the principal instrument and drum 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. A single raga can last well over an hour, concluding only after the musicians feel that they have thoroughly explored their creative resources.

Chaurasia played two ragas, Jayjaywanti , a North Indian raga , in the first half and Vachaspati , a Karnatic (South Indian) Raga in the second. The most satisfying part of the performance was the opening ( alap ) of the first raga where he gradually built up the scale, adding one tone at a time over fifteen minutes, until the full mode emerged. 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. He has a keen sense for large musical architecture which resulted in a raga that with elaborate musical sub-structures and refrains within the three basic sections. Towards the end of the raga Chaurasia and Kathak engaged in a lively competitive dialogue in which the flautist executed a phrase on the bansuri, challenging the pakhawaj player to imitate it precisely in the percussion.

One of Chaurasia's hallmarks is to create three or four jhalas for each raga , each one a little more flamboyant and virtuosic than the previous one. This practice gives the percussionist a chance to shine, and Kathak was certainly up to the challenge. The two musicians have been playing together for years, and like a string quartet of long standing, they know exactly how to play off each other to create the best music and the best show. The duo were both musically satisfying and entertaining, at times even humorous, in a way only old friends can be.

The improvisatory nature of the musical development of the raga was made clear particularly in the second half of the program, when Ranadive joined Chaurasia in a bansuri duet, accompanied by Rimpa Siva's tabla. Ranadive never knew when Chaurasia was finished with a phrase or willing to pass it to her. She frequently raised her bansuri to her lips, only to have to lower it again because he wasn't finished. While her tone and general execution aptly mirrored that of her teacher, Ranadive, recognized as Chaurasia's heiress apparent, clearly plays "second fiddle" in his presence. Siva, who played without her master, was able to be more independent, especially for the jhalas .

For the finale, Kathak joined the three on the pakhawaj . With all four playing, the clarity of the music became a bit muddied, although exciting. Oddly, even if we don't recognize the theoretical nuances of Indian classical music, we felt greater unity of the ragas in their preferred instrumentation.