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In June 1967, like tens of millions of other teenagers around the world, I rushed out to buy The Beatles' new album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Just holding the record (for history buffs, those were 12-inch vinyl things that you played on a turntable and had to actually get up under your own power and turn over to hear the other side) and "analyzing" the revolutionary cover was the first revelation. Then after listening to side 1, whether clear-headed or in an altered state, you were transfigured by the remarkable songs and production. Expecting more of the same on side 2, you placed the needle down on "Within You, Without You" and heard this very strange but alluring and mystical sound. Could it be a guitar? Some sort of clever electronic trick? And that drum-like effect? It sort of sounded like bongos but was deeper, more complex, pingier. What most people were hearing for the first time were the sitar and the tabla, instruments indigenous to India but almost unheard-of, then, in Western cultures. Beatle George Harrison had studied the sitar with Ravi Shankar and introduced it to the Western record-buying, concert-going world. For a time the sitar became a prominent instrument on many rock recordings, and Ravi Shankar himself appeared at such places as the Fillmore East in New York and Woodstock.
Thirty-five years later it is Anoushka Shankar, the 21-year-old daughter of Ravi, who has become the acknowledged master of this very complex and difficult instrument. She grew up in both London and California, and in addition to her Indian musical heritage she has strong roots in the Western art-music tradition, for she is an accomplished classical pianist. She has the unique distinction of being the only artist completely and exclusively trained by her father. On November 10, she appeared in a concert sponsored by the Indian Classical Music and Dance Society (http://www.geocities.com/icmds/ [inactive 7/05]) and the Duke University Institute of Arts. It is quite a coup when a local non-profit arts organization lands an artist of her stature, and there was a festival-like air around Page Auditorium on this warm autumn afternoon. Indian food was for sale, and there was a sense of great anticipation.
I would estimate the house was about 75% filled, the majority being persons of Indian heritage. The stage contained a large raised platform for the musicians, where they performed seated - the traditional posture. People with chronic knee or back problems, or those who are unable to sit on the floor cross-legged for long periods, would have found this to be an accomplishment in and of itself.
After a short delay, the musicians came on stage in a kind of ranked order. First were two artists, Susmita Gupta and Kenji Ota (neither was listed in the program), each of whom played an instrument called the tampura. This is a drone instrument with four strings, tuned to the tonic, and without frets. They sat behind Ms. Shankar in the back corners, and these instruments, in this setting, seemed almost superfluous.
Next were the two tabla players - Tanmoy Bose and Bikram Ghosh - who sat at the front corners of the platform. The tabla is a pair of drums consisting of a small, right-hand drum called "dayan" and a larger, metal one, called "bayan."
Finally, Anoushka Shankar came out to thunderous applause. There were adequate program notes on the three main artists including a brief intro to Indian classical music. (For a more thorough discussion, see http://www.chandrakantha.com/ [inactive 6/05].) The key to understanding this music, the notes explained, is that it is based on melody and rhythm only, as in many other non-Western cultures; harmony plays no major role. The music is based on melodic scales that inspire improvisation. Shankar briefly introduced each work in a very businesslike manner, and there were no other comments from the other artists.
The sitar is an incredibly large and complex instrument, but like any great artist, Shankar made it appear natural and effortless. I will not attempt to describe each work performed or pretend that I am qualified to discern the differences between them. I can say that I was overwhelmed by the sheer virtuosity and energy of the performances. The sitar's neck is about three feet long, and Shankar at times played at a velocity that seemed beyond human capability. (Imagine someone playing a double bass as fast as a virtuoso violinist.) Similarly, the tabla players exhibited rhythms that may at some point have been notated but surely had to have been part of the players' very beings for most of their lives. It was interesting to observe the technique used in playing these "drums," especially the use of the heel of the palm to get a deep, melodic "whoosh." One piece in the second half suggested "dueling tablas" wherein the sitar went into the background, simply repeating a very uncharacteristic descending arpeggio, while each tabla player took turns displaying his(?) remarkable virtuosity.
There was a wonderful sense of playfulness among the three main artists as their improvisations progressed. Listening as the program evolved, it becomes apparent why this music became so attractive to jazz musicians, including John Coltrane, in his final years.
"But it all sounds the same..." is a common statement often uttered when the unfamiliar is first encountered. Many of us say it about the music our kids listen to (as our parents said, about our music). I'm sure people of other cultures say the same thing about our classical (and other) music. A Haydn string quartet would probably sound identical to one of Bartók's to someone who knows little or nothing about Western "art" music. There is great variety and richness in the music played by Anoushka Shankar, and that music is steeped in history and tradition. Patience is not one of our culture's strong points (and certainly not mine), but a little of it will go a long way in discovering this ancient art.