Masters of Indian Music series
We entered the main hall of the Upper West Side's Symphony Space, a one-foot raised platform on the stage covered with a full, Persian rug and with multiple, classical Indian instruments. In the center, a beautifully carved sitar, deep brown wooden body with a silvery-gold neck of strings and tuners, sat proudly to be admired by the audience, waiting to share its voice with the crowd. The World Music Institute's Masters of Indian Music series began with an evening of virtuosic music by Kartik Seshadri, accompanied by Arup Chattopadhyay on tabla. Long-time friends, these two performers opened their conversation with each other to the entire audience to listen in. Kartik introduced himself as he sat, cross-legged and twisted, covering his right foot with a brown shawl. He began to tune his instrument, all 22 strings, using the drone of the tambura as his "tuning fork" - intermittently, the tabla was being hammered out, tuning to the same drone of the tambura. After what seemed like an almost comical amount of time to tune an instrument, Kartik began to describe the piece he was about to play. With skill heavily dependent on improvisation, this piece was a specific raga celebrating the coming of spring (this time of year to be celebrated in India); a multi-faceted piece, composed of a slower, rubato section of improvisation and then a faster, more staccato section with audible themes.
This was when you noticed why the instruments were ceremoniously tuned - the microtones and overtones used in this music are so exact that even a slight miscalculation would be as cacophonous as fingernails on a chalkboard. Throughout the first piece, Kartik had been simultaneously and seamlessly tuning his instrument as his fingers quickly plucked the metallic sounds out of the giant gourd instrument. It was like listening to magic, a story that unfolded before your ears with narrative and plot and heroes and heroines: a 30-minute composition that brought you on a journey to a place on the other side of the globe.
Kartik remained calm and almost in a meditative state, keeping his posture the same (cross-legged and twisted, sitar resting on his left bare foot). As I mentioned before, his right foot had been covered by a dark, brown scarf, and as he would ever-so-often keep tempo with that foot, his body shape-shifted into a mystical figure, found maybe in the oceans of Atlantis (a mer-man of sorts). His "tail" keeping odd-metered time with his song added even more to the idea of the demi-god like status to his musicianship. Known for playing full-length solo recitals on sitar at the age of six, Kartik had truly been touched by the gods.
The second piece, initially similar to the first, grew with its story, and Arup's tabla playing joined in as a second voice. I had never noticed until this performance that true tabla playing is not a percussive accompaniment but a melodic voice adding to the piece. The tabla had hundreds of different sounds, tones, feels, moods, and voices coming from just two, quick hands and two, small drums. It was remarkable, hearing this melody from a drum; the interactions that the two musicians had while composing intricate polymeters and polyrhythms and then joining in unison for exactly three or four beats was synchronicity on a whole other level. At some point during one of Arup's solos, his hands were moving so quickly, they reminded me of wings of a hummingbird; you know they are there and you can hear them working, but you can't make out a clear picture of what they are doing.
With the two friends ending their journey together, the audience was reminded of the reality that awaited them outside: a cold and grey metropolis. A beautiful evening of transcendent music, thank you Kartik and Arup for sharing your life's work - my hands touch both your feet in reverence.
THE BARE FEET™ FIVE: 1. More concerts: The WMI's Masters of Indian Music series continues in April 2012 with performances by legendary vocalist Pandit Jasraj and sarangi virtuoso Pandit Ramesh Misra. Buy your tickets now! 2. Who to go with: Any yoga-mates, friends who need a night of complete cerebral relaxation, or a date that you want to impress with your culturally rich taste of NYC! 3. More music: I recommend listening to some recordings by Kartik Seshadri's guru, Ravi Shankar, including Best of Ravi Shankar. 4. Little India: Need more of an Indian fix? Hop on the 7 train to the 82nd Street-Jackson Heights subway stop in Queens and experience one of the largest Desi communities in the US! A little bit of a hike from the train, Jackson Heights is worth the trip! 5. Spring colors: The lively Hindu festival of Holi (colors!) is celebrated in March - be sure to catch any of these upcoming events in New York to help you ring in the new season: NYC Bhangra's Holi Hai, Red Baraat's Festival of Colors, or Bhangra Meets Masala Bhangra® at Alvin Ailey.