January 11, 2010
A real raga
Yesterday I heard a real raga--I went to see professor Samir Chatterjee play the tabla at the Rabindra Sadan, a theatre that has a constant stream of musical, dramatic, and artistic performances and events to see every day for free. I got to hear some tanpura, a drone instrument that is held upright and strummed in the background, the sitar, a classically Kolkata-originating instrument whose strings produce a sharp twangy and gorgeously multi-toned melody, the sarod, a goat-skinned instrument that is nothing like anything I have ever heard, and the Bansuri, an Indian flute, which was simply a breathtaking expression of emotion through sound. I did not know the human lungs and mouth could manipulate a tube of wood to create such beauty. I learned more about the raga from Ben, who is a student of Samir from Pittsburgh. He explained that it is in fact impossible to hear the same piece of music twice. A raga is partly a traditional set of notes, intonations, sequences, and rhythms, but also a template that can be improvised upon by the musician. There is always both composition and improv in a piece, and one song may last a delightful 45 minutes or more as it goes through waves and sets of variations on the raga. All is memorized and often based upon one of the already existing 6000 ragas, though ragas are also created anew. The musicians would first play the more traditional raga, then add and vary its composition for different effects that move the listeners to awes and gasps. I am ecstatic that Kolkata is actually the cultural capital of India. It is already apparent the love and appreciation of the arts here, and the talent for it that pumps so naturally through these Indian veins.