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ISSUE 118 VOL 9 PUBLISHED 11/19/2004

Playing Indians

By Lisa Gulya
Staff Writer


Friday, November 19, 2004

As far as the St. Olaf campus goes, a splash of color is always welcome in the drab autumn months prior to the season's first snowfall. On Monday night in Urness, a concert of Indian Carnatic music provided a much-needed, vibrant vacation from the cold weather blahs.

Advertised as a mrudangam demonstration, the concert actually featured Nirmala Rajasekar, a veena player from Plymouth, Minn. Shrini Vasan accompanied Rajasekar on mrudangam, as did Marcus Wise on tabla. The veena and murdangam are two prominent instruments used in southern Indian, while the tabla is a northern instrument.

Since Monday's event was both a concert and an explanatory lecture, Rajasekar interspersed comments about the music and the three unique instruments with the evening's performance.

The veena, according to Rajasekar, is one of India's oldest instruments, dating back more than 2,000 years. It is a seven-stringed instrument; the four top strings are played, while the bottom three are strummed to keep the meter.

The single-piece veena's wood comes from the jack fruit tree; in terms of appearance, the instrument resembles a sitar with an additional supporting gourd beneath its neck. Unlike a sitar, however, a veena has no sympathetic strings.

Before performing, Rajasekar asked the audience to move forward because she wanted to see the effect of the music on the audience. She said that the Indian style of music "depends on the audience energy." The musicians did not use sheet music; instead, their music was memorized or improvised, following Indian custom.

A varnam, a traditional warm-up for a concert, began the night. Rajasekar described it as a "hardcore" melody with no equivalent in other musical systems. When the varnam ended, the audience was hestitant with applause, not sure if the piece had officially ended or not. No insult was felt by the musicians; Rajasekar acknowledged that for those familiar with Western music, "it is hard to know" when an Indian song has truly ended.

The players were intimate, exchanging glances and smiles with the audience throughout the night. They continued with an eighteenth-century, 16-beat cycle vapati - a song in praise of the elephant god Ganesh - in a musical request to the "remover of obstacles" that the concert go well.

Because performances are likely not as restricted in Indian music as they are in Western classical music, there were informal moments during songs when one of the players would adjust clothing or hair or even speak aloud. These moments were not defects, however; rather, they were part of an extremely intimate and reflective experience that allowed listeners to focus on the music and let their minds wander meditatively.

Another divergence from most Western classical music was the improvisation in the music that makes it seem more akin to jazz. "[Improvisation] is a hallmark of Indian classical music," Rajasekar said.

Wise agreed. "[Improvisation leaves ] room for serendipitous moments of uncertainty," she said.

The musicians' intent was not only to present a concert, however. A question and answer session followed the musical portion, matching it in length. "Really, our mission today is to explain," Rajasekar said. When asked what her greatest challenge as a musician was, she replied, "finding six hours a day to practice."

Consequently, Rajasekar revealed that the evening's program had not been set in advance, which was part of the "challenge" of Indian performance. "It's an experiment that's working," Wise said.





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