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Ali Akbar Khan and Swapan Chauduri

A powerful display of Indian virtuousity

By Amrita Ghosh

Presented by MITHAS in cooperation with Sangam

Every once in a while, the MIT community is lucky enough to host an artist who masters his art to perfection. Last Sunday, that master was Ousted Ali Akbar Khan, a worthy representative of North Indian classical music.

If India can be called the supreme land of culture and expression, then northern Indian music might be thought of as the essence of that cultural expression. During a performance, the artist improvises the music right in front of the audience. His genius is exposed for all the world to see without any tainting or impurity. It is the purest art form of all. Everything that flows out of the musician’s hands is his own expression, happening right there and then for everyone to see.

“Ousted” means genius, guru -- and Khansahib is the guru (or teacher) of MIT’s very own George Ruckert, who with Khan’s son accompanied the sarodist on tanpura. Ruckert is an MIT Professor in the Arts, and his specialty, not surprisingly, is Northern Indian music.

The sarod and tanpura are Indian stringed instruments, plucked to achieve a metallic, echoing sound. The sarod has several large, long strings for resonating melodies and other thin, smaller strings which are plucked for high, chiming accompaniment. The tanpuras, on the other hand, have a total of four strings tuned to the raga -- or key -- of the piece. They are played continuously throughout to help the other instruments stay in tune. Chauduri, accompanied Khansahib on the tabla, a pair of beautifully resonating Indian drums. He brought out the sheer splendor in the ever-fluctuating rhythm, while emphasizing the many treble and bass pitches in the percussion itself, in a way that only a masterfully-skilled tablist can do with ease.

Ousted Ali Akbar’s genius is clearly recognized by the Indian American community. The diamond-studded affair was attended by many of Boston area’s heavy-hitters, major business leaders, and powerful Indian entrepreneurs, as well as by the Indian communities from both MIT and Harvard University.

During the evening of the concert, Kresge looked as grand as the artists who played in it. Behind Khansahib were a set of beautifully colored lights, muted, yet stunning.

The concert started with a brief introduction in the deep voice of Khansahib himself. He declared that his first piece would be in Iman Kalyan. Then his magic began.

He started with a radiant alap, an introductory phase, thought of as a conversation, slowly increasing in ornamentation. The first tones of the Alap reached out as sunlit fingers towards the audience. We were indeed the dawn and Khansahib, the sun, enlightening us all with his extemporaneously composed melodies.

Without the tabla, the rhythm is completely floating, just as the early beginning of a peaceful meditation, with the artists sliding fingers playing the melody. Those who witnessed that deep alap said it was soulful, heart-felt, and traditional. Khansahib’s style is pristine, the notes enchanting in their depth. The delivery was even-handed, and very personal. Chaudhuri later said that “Only he can do that.”

After this he went on to play an amazing jor, a section with fast rhythm without tabla. This is done by plucking the strings simultaneously in a rapid succession of chords. Still using lots of sliding notes, the master adeptly plucked out the energetic rhythm as easily as he played the iridescent melody. The main portions of the piece were two gats. One was in slow tintal, a rhythm cycle of 16 beats easily counted with the fingers. While this was more rhythmically intricate and accompanied by tabla, he worked his way up to a faster medium-tempo beat.

The second gat, this time in fast tintal, was cleverly constructed. It consisted of a couple of notes arranged in a witty variety. Finally, the master ended with a section of jhala, using the chikari strings to produce a “sparkling” sound, as it is described in Sanskrit, that ancient language that describes much of the mystery surrounding this art.

After a brief intermission, the master took to his instrument yet again, performing a light classical piece. This time, he undertook the rag Pilu-Baruwa, a more intimate, romantic piece, and a bewitching minor-sounding rag.

A short alap consisted of a “conversation” between the sarod and tabla. While Khansahib plucked out the rhythmic and melodic variations, Chauduri repeated them in amazing sonority, amazing in accuracy as well as in the performers’ ability to perform them with grace and perfection.

The guru went on to a composition in slow 14 beat and then a jhaptal in medium 10 beat cycles, both of which dazzled the audience with perfection. During this section, he played a ragmala, meaning a necklace strung with snippets of all different rags. He even incorporated the theme of “Greensleeves” and Bach’s “Bourree”!

A touching moment ended the concert, with Khansahib playing a highly inventive composition by his father, fast and in tintal again. The late “Baba” Allauddin Khan was not only Ali Akbar’s father and teacher, he was also mentor to many of India’s greatest musicians and instrumentalists.

What makes Indian classical music so different from western music is its foundation in a different modal system. The difference in pitches are based on quarter-tone steps instead of the Western semi-tone steps. Does this mean that there are twice as many pitches and double fullness in Indian music compared to Western? Some might say that Khansahib’s concert would suggests this. But in the end it is for the listener to decide who is the master, just as it is for the beholder to decide what is most beautiful.

Among the members of the audience were some very important Indian music leaders from the Boston area. They were the guests of Robert Freeman and President Charles M. Vest, who held a reception in their honor.

The event was also highly attended by students as well as many members of the surrounding Cambridge and Boston community. The 1200 seats in the Kresge Auditorium had been sold out several days prior to the performance. Waiting lists emerged for everything from audience members to ushers and volunteers.

George Ruckert and Nini Ansari contributed to the reporting of this story.