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Sounds of the Sitar

MITHAS, Sangam Bring Sitarist Sharmistha Sen to MIT

By Chaitra Chandrasekhar

Staff Writer

Music lovers who braved the Cambridge winds and rains last Sunday were rewarded by an exemplary performance by the Indian instrumentalist Sharmistha Sen.

The MIT Heritage of the Arts of South Asia (MITHAS) group, in cooperation with Sangam and the New England Hindu Temple, kicked off their Spring Concert series with a sitar recital by Sharmistha Sen, accompanied on the tabla by Samir Chatterjee.

The Wong Auditorium reverberated in an ebb and flow between the melodious strains from the masterful performance and the applause of the audience. Sen kept the audience enthralled by the sheer, clean beauty of her skillful fingers racing the length of the sitar.

Sen is one of the few female instrumentalists to have come to the forefront in the field of Indian classical music -- in India and abroad. She is a musician and scholar, having even authored books on music. Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan, who played in the dhrupad-based Jaipur-Seniya style, and the late Professor D. T. Joshi, teacher of legendary Ustad Inayat Khan, are her renowned teachers. Their influence shaped her style of playing, which can be described as a cross between the traditional Imdadkhani style imbibed from D.T. Joshi and the Jaipur-Seniya style absorbed from Mustaq Ali Khan.

Her intensely powerful playing is reminiscent of the Jaipur-Seniya style stemming from the days of the Rajputs. This blended astonishingly well with the Imdadkhani style from her other guru. Her subtle mesh of the two styles with a creative touch that was distinctly her own; her performance provided a refreshing perspective on the styles of playing the sitar.

Her touch, strokes, glides and subsequent production of tonal and microtonal effects are typical of her two gurus, but has a signature decidedly her own. There are very few accomplished musicians today who have had music training both in the unique classical Master-disciple, guru-shishya system as well as in the modern university system Sen earned her doctoral degree from Visvabharati University in Santiniketan.

Sen’s sensitive yet controlled handling of the instrument is testimony to her talent and dedication to her music. Her rhythmic and melodic vitality shone throughout her performance. Her recital began with the quiet dignity of the methodical and reposeful alap in raag bihag and the fuller raag shankara. This was followed by raag chayanat and fast-paced rhythmic taans in the late night raag tilak. Her beautiful rendition kept the audience wanting more as they returned for the latter half of the performance. This part of the program was played in sitarkhani with the teka in the tumri style. It was infused with the vibrant energy of raag kaphi. The Indian festival of color, Holi, is just around the corner. Raag kaphi set the mood for joyous celebration. Sen’s expertise was apparent in the breathtaking range of her repertoire from the subdued alap to the pulsating taan, and mastery of styles from the jaipur to the imdadkhani added to her impressive performance.

Samir Chatterjee, who accompanied her on the tabla, is a musician and a proponent of the South Asian arts in New York, where he presently lives. He is the founder-director of Chhandayan, an organization dedicated to promoting and preserving Indian music and culture in all its glory. He studied under Pandit Bankim Ghosh, Pandit Balaram Mukherjeem Pandit Rathin Dhar, Mohammad Salim and honed his skills under the able guidance of Pandit Amalesh Chatterjee and Pt. Shyamal Bose. He plays in the Farrukhabad Gharana school of tabla-playing of which he is a noted representative.

Sen has been a musician for many years, making her public debut when she was just 13. She has won numerous awards and has participated in many major music festivals in India, Europe and the United States. She is currently Professor of Music in Daulat Ram College at Delhi University.

This was the first of the MITHAS Spring Concert Series. The next concert is on March 9, where Warren Senders, a khayal artist will perform, accompanied by Ramesh Mishra on the sarangi and Samir Chatterjee on the tabla.