Posted by Dale Obbie
On Sept. 10 the College's sitar instructor Veena Chandra performed in the Arthur Zankel Music Center's Ladd Hall with her son Devesh accompanying her on the tabla hand drums.
Chandra began the concert by playing a long improvisation on the sitar. Known as the alap, this section serves to introduce the melodic material of the raga. Note by note Chandra painstakingly developed the Bageshri raga, a musical mode. She gave each tone in the scale its due attention and often bending the strings of the sitar to color the sound of the raga with microtonal notes.
This introductory section continued for nearly an hour before Devesh started to play. Once he did, the hypnotic alap gave way to a much livelier section of the raga, brought to life by his inhumanly fast yet impeccably precise drumming patterns. Chandra built upon Devesh's drumming with her sitar improvisations, weaving in and out of the pre-composed melody or "hook" of the song. She said that they chose to play Raga Bageshri because "it is a night melody that is very melodious and supposed to be romantic [and] because it was one of my father's favorite ragas."
For their second piece — which began an hour and twenty minutes into the concert — Chandra and Devesh chose to play a medley of different ragas, stringing them together and flowing seamlessly from one to the next. Every raga is associated with a different time of day, so by playing a medley, they were able to "incorporate some ragas that are rarely heard."
What was most impressive about this concept was that Chandra had not planned which ragas she was going to play before beginning the piece. "I had some idea of which ragas I wanted to get into and what ends up happening in this process is that other ragas come to you and inspire you to play them," she said.
"It is like going to a garden and picking out flowers. You know you want to pick flowers and as you go there you just pick and decide how many and of what variety. It ends up taking its own shape and form."
Professor Chandra, who has been playing sitar for 55 years, said that music has always been a part of her life. "I started my formal training with my father when I was 12, but I have had access to it since I was a baby. He introduced me to music — he played sitar, flute, tabla, harmonium, banjo, etc."
Likewise, Devesh also grew up with music. "People would come for lessons and he would be there sitting. We have always had music in the house. Also, I would take him everywhere to concerts, performances and workshops. I have pictures of him playing at two years old," Chandra said.
Despite the highly technical nature of Hindustani music, Chandra said that it can be appreciated in a purely emotional way.
"One can feel the vibrations of the sitar in the audience. Ragas and these vibrations have been derived from nature. They are connected to our souls. My dog goes into a trance when we play. This is a dip into the sea of music, so understanding formal elements helps, but dipping into the sea with a clear soul is what is important."