Hindustani singer goes extra mile

Boston Globe, September 9, 2007

From yoga to outsourcing to nuclear weapons deals, American awareness of India is as strong and multifaceted today as it has ever been. In music, exposure to the culture of the world’s largest democracy has come lately via bhangra, the party sound based on folk music from Punjab, and through the Bollywood songs that sometimes seem to be the soundtrack to daily life in India.

And with the growth of the South Asian community in the United States, the Indian classical music scene here is developing fast as well.

This fall offers a chance to dive into the music, with no fewer than eight Boston shows, seven presented by MITHAS, the MIT group that has quietly brought top Indian artists here since 1993, and one by World Music. Many of the major styles of vocal and instrumental music and dance from both the Hindustani (northern) and Carnatic (southern) traditions are on the menu. The performers range from global superstar Zakir Hussain, the brilliant tabla master, to emerging players including some Americans.

But the season’s first show, a Friday concert by Hindustani vocalist Veena Sahasrabuddhe, perhaps best encapsulates what strong community-based programming can deliver: Sahasrabuddhe is in the class of established and acclaimed artists back home who make frequent US visits, yet remain under the radar here, their shows drawing an enthusiastic but mostly expatriate audience.

Sahasrabuddhe is a virtuoso of khyal. This Hindustani vocal form allies deliberate, even austere exposition of the early, mood-setting parts of a raga – the basic composition around which one improvises – with developments of deep lyricism and beauty. She’s also an expert interpreter of bhajans, the beautiful and melodic devotional songs that frequently close khyal recitals.

Sahasrabuddhe has come to play in this country since the 1970s; her husband, a computer scientist, has taught at US universities, and they have adult children in California. She has watched the classical scene here grow.

“There are still not many vocalists invited here compared to instrumentalists,” she says, but that is changing. On her current US tour she is playing a few daytime concerts, which allow her to deliver ragas suited for morning and early afternoon. “Even in India I don’t get many opportunities to sing morning ragas,” she says.

As the Indian-American community comes of age, Sahasrabuddhe says she works with more and more US-raised students, either at home in Pune, India, or in workshops while on tour. She also gets students from different backgrounds, like Japan and Israel. She knows that with globalization, the traditional approach in which the student lives with the guru, or teacher, for months or years, studying daily while also performing household duties, is no longer practical, though she says it is still the ideal.

Sahasrabuddhe appreciates that, to Western ears, Indian classical music is harder to approach than the trendy pop fare. Hippie-era fascination with the sitar faded long ago in the psychedelic washout of the 1970s. The most sustained interest today comes from the jazz world, which is drawn to the music for its emphasis on improvisation and technical aspects.

It probably doesn’t help that, because of the strong Indian presence in the typical audience, program notes frequently use Sanskrit. In part, this reflects the simple reality that Indian music is so rich and historically grounded that it doesn’t particularly need to reach out to Westerners. But Sahasrabuddhe says it’s important to her that the audience grow, and that new listeners be able to develop an appreciation.

“Whenever I am touring overseas, normally for the first few minutes of a concert I will tell exactly what are the ragas, what are the notes, the composition, and the composer,” she says. “So a little bit of narration is there. I will explain the meaning of the words, which beat cycle, how many beats are there. It’s quite a good intro that I give before I begin my concert.”

Regular concertgoers will recognize this outreach as a common practice among Indian performers. And between this generosity of the artists and the broad range of styles that MITHAS and World Music are presenting this season, the conditions for a rewarding immersion in Indian classical music have never been better than this fall.