Whether thou come from earth or from the lofty lucid realm of heaven,
Wax stronger in thy body through my song of praise: fill full all creatures, O most wise!
— Samaveda Chapter I, Decade V, vs. 8 (to Agni)
In a city replete with opportunities for musical transcendence, from Jump, Little Children busking the Market to Schnitkke at Mepkin Abbey, anyone with ears to hear can perhaps be forgiven a touch of the ho-hum, been there, done that attitude which occasionally springs forth in post-Spoleto Charleston. This can be quite dangerous. “Walking Together: An Indian Classical Music Concert,” at the Simons Center not only proved the danger, but also faced it and transformed all in its path, waxing strong in its song, and luring the mind into a state which can only be described as divine.
First, the danger… Show time came and passed. Our musicians were present, but there was no sound system set up. The audience sat patiently as the needed equipment trundled in, and we were treated to an on-the-fly sound check. Lindsay hinted at the improvisatory nature of this music in his preview, but this brought a whole new meaning to the word! As Gaurav Mazumdar, our sitar player, jokingly announced the first raga as “suitable for the afternoon…well, now it’s evening…,” the check wound down and melted into raga Valachi/Kalawati.
Thus began what is known in the Hindusatni tradition as the alap, a slow announcement of the the raga and its themes. The sitar and veena, played by Dr. Jayanthi Kumaresh, passed these back and forth several times not only creating unique and delicate variations, but also highlighting the similarities and differences between their respective traditions and instruments. The crystalline rasp of the sitar and the deeper fluidity of the veena matched each other to perfection as the rhythmic center of the raga began to pick up steam.
And then our two drummers pounced! Jayachandra Rao and Anubrata Chatterjee, on mridangam and tabla respectively, called the ensemble to a union of all that had come before; which they returned to occasionally after sitar and veena their solo passes. Our drummers settled into an ornate groove from which the slightest ornamentation from any player could send into a flurry of precise and perfectly balanced frenzy, and then back to the groove on a dime.
And the solos! Each pass from sitar to veena and back again drew the audience and musicians closer and closer to the fiery nature of this joyous conversation. Each pass drew larger and larger smiles from both audience and musicians as well. The raga dove back to unison one last time and ended with an explosion from the drums. What a way to start a performance!
Up next came raga Charukeshi, again beginning with a slow alap. During the first work Gaurav Mazumdar had equitably shared solo time with his compatriot on the veena, yet steered the twists and turns taken by all our musicians. For this raga, Dr. Kumaresh quickly leapt into that position. Her beautifully fluid and caressingly pliable tone amply captured the plaintive, angst filled nature of our theme. As solos were traded, each began feeding off the last, bringing an ever increasing amount of focus to not only the theme, but also to its exploration. If our musicians had created an exciting conversation with their first work (which they did with aplomb!), this time around quickly became a reach for the sublime.
After our drummers had established a deep, deep groove, it struck me that even through the gravity of this subject there existed a flexibility; a sense of space not confining this gravity to sorrow, angst, pathos, or any other emotion the original theme might suggest. Indeed, as the ebb and flow of conversation achieved a level reserved for only those thoroughly conversant in the language and intimately bound by the ties of heart and mind, a flower opened. What is reserved for “only those,” is open to all. There is joy in sorrow. There is humor in agitation. When fully expressed, any emotion is bliss.
Rock musicians (well, guitar players anyway…) like to make jokes about bass solos and drum solos. You know, the part of a concert that’s always there, yet no one seems to remember. Jayachandra Rao and Anubrata Chatterjee were not about to let that happen. During their workout of a drum solo they brought forth from their instruments an amazing array of tonal qualities, in what can only be described as precise mayhem. The conversation of the preceding raga was still going on! It may have reverted to the excitement of the first raga, and now sprang direct from the primordial base of music, rhythm, but this setting allowed the more subtle revelations of our second work to be literally “beaten” into our hearts and minds.
The concert closed in the only way possible: a devotional piece, Bhajan-Vaishnav in raga Khamaj. Its quiet, song-like structure slowly returned the awareness of the audience to the fact that we were merely sitting in an auditorium, listening to fellow humans create music. An effortlessly sweet ending provided a warmly smiling sense of closure.
In all my years of concert going, record listening, and humble attempts at musicianship, there have been a small handful of musical events that not only held my attention rapt throughout, but also pierced me to the core. The closing night of 1985’s Delta Blues Festival in Jackson, Mississippi… The first time I heard EMI’s authorized recording of Sergiu Celibidache conducting Bruckner’s 8th Symphony… The Grateful Dead performing “Dark Star” in Hampton, Virginia, 1989… “Walking Together” now takes its place among those moments, and I am blessed.
All this is full. All that is full.
From fullness, fullness comes.
When fullness is taken from fullness,
Fullness still remains.
OM shanti shanti shanti
—invocation to The Isha Upanishad