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Traditional Indian classical music isn't typically heard at Progress Energy Center, but the groundbreaking performance by an intergenerational duo of Indian classical virtuosi at Fletcher Opera Theater showed that it should be.
"A Unique Jugalbandi of Generations and Gharanas" was presented by Zindagi World Music, a Triangle-area world-beat group, and Zindagi member Nikhil Tikekar accompanied each piece on tabla. The evening's main attraction, the jugalbandi ("entwined twins"), a duet in which both musicians perform a feature role, brought together two internationally renowned luminaries of Indian classical music. Santoor master Tarun Bhattacharya, a member of the prestigious Maihar gharana (stylistic group) of musicians, has spent a quarter-century sharing his rhapsodic style of playing all over the world. Vocalist Anurag Harsh combines an MIT MBA and corporate day job in New York City with a reputation as a rising star in Indian vocal music; in March 2007, adding to a résumé of awards and stints studying under Indian musical greats, the former child prodigy became the youngest Indian to perform at Carnegie Hall. Chirashree Bhattacharya provided accompaniment on the harmonium, a curious but versatile hand-pumped reed organ that has been a staple in Indian music since its introduction from the West in the 1800s.
Tarun Bhattacharya and Tikekar began the program with an extended improvisation. After the santoor's sweetly metallic introduction of a raga — one of a few hundred musical modes — marked by effervescent glissandi and gently arching arpeggiated sequences, Tikekar joined in with sinuous tabla rhythms for a wandering, andante-paced "slow" section. A galloping section took on the theme with fiery sextuplets and churning accelerandi, concluding with Bhattacharya raking the mallets across the dulcimer-like instrument's strings in an intense frenzy.
Next, Harsh took the stage for a vocal solo supported by tabla and harmonium. Harsh studied under virtuoso Bhimsen Joshi, well known for the khyal form of singing in which four to eight lines of text are sung and embellished in improvisation. An essential trait of this music is the taan, a technique in which an "ah" syllable is used to sing long passages of rapid-fire melisma. Imagine singing "The Flight of the Bumblebee" articulating each note only with your diaphragm — the technique is jarring to hear at first, but Harsh's skill and highly expressive performance kept my interest piqued throughout the concert. Harsh began by chanting along with the harmonium's reedy drone; after Tikekar established a relaxed, carefully placed tabla groove, the singer let fly with passionate poetry and meticulously rhythmic taan. This combination of hypnotic rhythm, the calming wheeze of the harmonium, and Harsh's intense treatment of the raga was like a meditative trance expressed aurally, an interior peace chillingly brought out in sound to be shared amongst an audience. Harsh closed his solo segment with a short but bold improvisation whose title he translated as "To Call on My Gurus."
After intermission, Bhattacharya on santoor joined Tikekar and Harsh for the evening's much-anticipated jugalbandi. They began what Harsh called a "lighter" raga without tabla, Harsh mirroring Bhattacharya's shimmering phrases in a soothing tone. As the fast section of the improvisation began, Tikekar elevated the energy onstage with active, syncopated rhythms. Voice and santoor continued to trade phrases back and forth, building into a combination of sparkling santoor and melisma that culminated in a driving, visceral 8/8 rhythm to bring the piece to its flashing conclusion.
In the end, Indian classical music isn't so different from Western: Both boast revered luminaries, longstanding formal conventions, and bases in spirituality and religious practice. If the Triangle can draw master musicians from around the world like Bhattacharya and Harsh, there's no reason audiences shouldn't have their choice of ragas, mazurkas, and ghazals alongside symphonies, musicals, and opera.