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Kahn masterfully performs Indian Classical music

Ali Akbar Khan

At Kresge Auditorium.

April 16, 1994.

By Adam Lindsay
Staff Reporter

Last Saturday, a nearly packed Kresge Auditorium was treated to a rare appearance by the master of the sarod, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. In his first Boston appearance in six years, the world-famous maestro and teacher gave over 1,000 attendees a concert to be remembered for a long time.

Indian Classical music is much more rooted in the passage of time than is any music of the Western tradition. Although artists like Wagner and Tangerine Dream have done much to stretch and alter the passage of musical time, no efforts compare to that which is basic in the Indian tradition. The pieces (ragas) themselves are identified by the time of day (morning or night, dawn or twilight) at which they may be played. The performance of the ragas, certainly those played on Saturday night, reflects a gradual unfolding of musical gestures increasing in complexity and excitement to a thrilling climax. Ustad Khan clearly demonstrated his virtuosic mastery of time, as well as the sarod.

The concert began 20 minutes late, to accommodate the large crowd, with an introduction by MIT Lecturer George Ruckert, who has studied with Ustad Khan. The first raga to be performed was rag Madhu-malati (which may be translated as "garden of sweets"), an evening raga of Ustad Khan's own composition. Ruckert then took his place behind the master on one of the two tanpura drone instruments. One would be hard-pressed to mark the start of the music; it grew gradually from the careful tuning of the twenty-three stringed sarod, as if Ustad Khan was tapping into a music that had always existed.

The alap, or introduction, of the first piece slowly presented the modal basis of improvisation for the raga. Through this exposition the mood, or bhava, was revealed. The mode was full of chromatic alterations, which suggested a focused, mysterious quality within the meditative prelude. After a strummed section, the alap turned to the jor, which took on a more active tone - a clear increase in intensity. Intensity became frenzy, as Ustad Khan filled the auditorium with his energy to bring the jor to a close.

The second part, or gat, of the first piece opened with the same slow, mysterious quality that began the evening. This time Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri added a strong counterpoint on tabla. The young virtuoso played his role as a foil to Ustad Khan in every way. Where Ustad Khan appeared grave, Chaudhuri was affable; where the elder was stately, the younger was active. The counterpoint and interplay of the pitched drums with the sarod was intricate, sharing a perception of the beat, and suggesting beats and notes that were not actually played. Chaudhuri played about and around Ustad Khan as the rhythms of daily life ebb and flow about a grander, stronger rhythm of life.

This grander structure reflected a steady increase in intensity. A rhythmic climax was reached after Chaudhuri knocked aside one of the microphones. Smiling and undaunted, he proceeded with a series of dramatic hits which were met with applause from the audience and an appreciative smile and glance from Ustad Khan. The end section was spurred on by a whispered notice from a tanpura player that the end of the hour was approaching. Thus cued, Ustad Khan seized the raga and the energy and led into an intense climax in unison with the tabla. With the gesture completed, the master put on his glasses, checked the watch beside him and saw that an hour had passed, gave what could be called a perfunctory final gesture, and was finished.

This approach seems a bit strange to Western eyes. However, it had been announced that Ustad Khan would play for one hour before intermission, and indeed he did. The performance was not at all contrived, however; it was paced so perfectly that the climax could not have happened at any other time. Thus the sarod master also demonstrated his mastery of time, intensity, and pacing.

The second half of the evening was an hour performance within the Indian Light Classical style. The form differs from the Classical style in that it is less constrained (there may be chromatic alterations). If the first half of the program was the witnessing of proof (as if any were needed) of Ustad Khan's mastery, the second half was more akin to observing the master at play.

It was thrilling and fascinating to hear the virtuosic conversations between Ustad Kahn and Chaudhuri. The chief raga was Gara-manj, which acted as "home" for the performance. The joint focus on Gha and Dha, the third and sixth degrees of our major scale, contributed to the raga's generally "open" and cheery sound. From this basis, Ustad Khan explored more and more complexities, adding chromaticisms (even to the point of exploring other ragas, creating a ragmala, or "garland of ragas"), reaching a high point, and then returning home.

The musicians also played with elements which normally stayed constant. Between the tabla and the sarod there was continual interplay with the beat, and with the instruments' relationships to and against the established, complex rhythms. All of this exploration was perfectly natural to Ustad Khan and Chaudhuri.

Again, this musical development built into a more intense climax. This one was highlighted by what would equivalently be known in the jazz world as "trading fours." Ustad Khan would present a short phrase which was to be imitated faithfully by Chaudhuri. As could be expected, this process provided a chance for humor, good spirits, and extreme virtuosity. An especially memorable moment was when Ustad Khan ended a figure by going up to the tonic (Sa), which was duly mimicked by Chaudhuri, ending on the small pitched drum which sounds the tonic. The figure was then repeated on sarod, only up a step. Chaudhuri elicited a chuckle from all, including Ustad Khan, when he repeated the figure, surprisingly and quickly changing the last note to the higher pitch. The excitement thus grew, and with the hour nearing a close the two concluded in energetic unison.

The evening ended with a fourth standing ovation (the others being at both of Ustad Khan's entrances and at intermission) as the audience was led in the singing of "Happy Birthday" to Khansahib (a more affectionate name for Ustad Khan), whose 73rd birthday passed last Thursday. It was a strange, but fitting, celebration of the passage of time to an ageless master of time and music. Likewise, it was a joyous and respectful ending to an evening of music in which all who participated, including those who listened, were brought together in Khansahib's virtuosic artistic vision.

(George Ruckert contributed to the reporting of this story.)