Friday, April 1, 2011

South Indian Ragas and More

Kenneth Routon recently attended the annual Savannah Music Festival and filed this report for Afropop Worldwide. Read his previous entries here.

In Sanskrit, the word “raga” means ‘to color,’ ‘to impart a tint or hue,’ the purpose of which is to evoke a certain emotion, mood, or ambience. As an ancient Indian musical genre, the raga is known for its power to conjure. In classical Indian lore, ragas bring rain, turn things into fire, and summon powerful storms. In his novel Midnight’s Children, Salmon Rushdie describes how, during a military parade celebrating India’s advance into the Bangladesh capital, a raga performance fueled and escalated the foul humor and bad temper of an audience so much that it brought them to the brink of pulling out their knives and slaughtering each other.

 Although, thankfully, this sort of frenzied violence was not present at the show I attended last Thursday night at the Lucas Theatre, ragas were everywhere on display. The night began with a gripping performance by Vijayalakshmi, an accomplished and award-winning dancer who has played a big role in reviving and rejuvenating the Mohiniyattam, a South Indian classical dance tradition from the Kerala region. Mohiniyattam refers to both the powers of feminine enchantment and seductive bodily movement, and roughly translates as, “dance of the enchantress.” Accompanied by a raga ensemble consisting of Palakal Rajagopalan on vocals, Sreekumar Kadampatt on edakka, Muralee Krishnana on veena, Gitesh Gopalakrishnan on the double-headed maddalam and mrdangam drums, not to mention the ubiquitous electronic tanpura, Vijayalakshmi demonstrated her gifts as a compelling storyteller, which she does not with words but with highly stylized bodily gestures and dance movements.

As the musicians tirelessly churned out lengthy ragas, Vijayalakshmi performed a number of mythical stories in which Lord Vishnu, usually disguised as a female seductress, lures demons away from a life-affirming elixir derived from an ocean of milk, or else saves Lord Shiva from having his head turned to ashes by the demon Bhasmasura. It’s a unique dance, characterized by bending and spacing the legs in a kind of sitting position, while keeping the torso erect, and then swaying the hips and gently moving from side to side. The movement embodies the the swaying of palm trees in the wind and the flow of rivers in the Kerala region. Vijayalakshmi also communicates with her head and eyes, moving them side to side in a coy, flirtatious manner.

After a brief intermission, the audience was treated to a special performance by legendary sarod master Amjad Ali Khan and tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. Amjad Ali Khan is one of the world’s great sarod players. The sarod is a stringed instrument likely derived from the Aghan rabãb, which first appeared in northwestern India around the mid-18th century. With a deeper, more reverberant sound when compared to the sitar, and ranging anywhere from 20-25 strings, the sarod has one set of strings for melody, one or two other drone strings, and another larger set of resonance strings. Khan is unique in that he plays the fretless sarod not with his finger tips but his nails, making for a crisper sound and sharper slides, often having to pause between songs to file them. Zakir Hussain is a classical tabla virtuoso, one of India’s reigning cultural ambassadors, and widely considered to be a driving force in the contemporary world music scene, as his many collaborations with musicians around the world attest – Ravi Shankar, Bela Fleck, and Mickey Hart, to name but a very few.

Seated upon a dais, their legs covered with cloth, Khan and Hussain, after a while, looked like a couple of legless torsos careening and writhing to the classical ragas emanating from their instruments. Against a constant drone provided by the ever-present electronic tanpura, Khan and Hussain went from sweet, undulating melodies to dizzying improvisations and frenzied syncopations, and then back again, throughout the night. Attracting a large segment of Savannah’s South Asian community to the venue, Khan and Hussain managed to momentarily transplant some of the defining soundscapes of that part of the globe into both the musical pulse of Savannah and the nostalgic hearts of its émigré population.
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