Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sitar in Los Angeles

I approached the sitar concert with some trepidation.

Would I understand it any better than my first sitar/raga experience last July in Varanasi on the steps above the Ganges River? Or would it be an impenetrable mass of musical artistry?

(I approached it with some tripping, too--my first attempt to wrap myself in a sari without the expert hands of an Indian friend.)

Nishat Khan, a seventh-generation player of sitar, sat before us on the stage at USC, explaining that each raga is composed of a tune about sixteen beats long, introduced and then improvised as the player is moved.

The good news: tuning the sitar took only five minutes, not fifty. Khan later explained that the tuning is actually part of the performance, like getting acquainted with small talk when you meet someone.

During the first raga, "Yaman," I was determined to note the central theme and follow the improvisation but, listening with the intensity of an arm wrestler, I never found it.

Khan moved on to a 170-year-old song, where I did catch the tune easily and enjoyed the variations, at times meditative, at times a frenzy of impossible virtuosity, like Eric Clapton on guitar.

After a third raga and the intermission, there were two more, "Sugre" and "Parovi," which began with the cry "Ta-di."

Khan explained that the entire words to this twenty-minute performance were the passionate demand of a girl to a boy: I want a red scarf--make my scarf red.

In Rajistan, he said, young men wear (wore?) a red turban, so she is saying she wants to marry him.

How this works in a society where marriages are arranged he didn't explain.

The performance was part of a conference in honor of the 140th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth, October 2, 1869.

For some reason the three performers (on sitar, tabla, and another guitar-like instrument) were all men, just as they had been in the concert I saw in India.

Yet the paintings and photos above on a screen included some female sitar players. Abby, who with her husband Davan had invited us, assured me that Ravi Shankar's daughter, Anoushka, plays the sitar.

Abby had another revelation for me: it's okay to sit there and relax, letting the music wash over you as your mind wanders, rather than strenuously trying to follow it.

I'll remember that next time, and my next sitar concert will include a female performer.

An amazing footnote: Abby and Davan's two kids, Armaan and Maya, 12 and 9 years old, sat through the whole performance without a complaint. My kids at those ages would have been squirming and asking to go to the bathroom.

I remember plying them with candy to sit through The Nutcracker Suite when they were 8, 5, and 3 years old.

Armaan's comment on the concert: "It's cool."

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