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Duke Performances collaborated with the Indian Classical Music and Dance Society of the Triangle in bringing an electrifying performance by two past masters, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, santur, and Zakir Hussain, tabla, to a capacity crowd at Page Auditorium. The throng attending the sold-out event testified to the vitality of the community of Triangle residents with roots in the Indian subcontinent, who greeted the arrival of the artists with a standing ovation.
Zakir Hussain (b. 1951), the junior of the two musicians, is nonetheless better-known to a broad audience having performed and recorded extensively in the West since the 1970s, including notable collaborations in the group Shakti with guitarist John McLaughlin. Shivkumar Sharma (b. 1938) was the first artist to bring the santur into Hindustani classical music. His santur is what we would call in the USA a hammered dulcimer, played with small wooden mallets, and stemming from an instrument common in Persian musical practice for centuries.
Sharma introduced the music to the audience, explaining the structure of what would follow, an "Alap," or slow introduction, gradually revealing the notes of the raga (or melodic canvas), followed by the entry of the tabla for a metrically regular section. The raga for the first half of the program was Bageshri, closest in Western modal terms to Mixolydian mode, with a whole tone beneath the tonic, and all the other notes the same as the major scale. The mastery of the singer or player in expounding the rag is in how subtly he or she can introduce the higher notes of the scale, moving very gradually upwards until the whole range is heard. Sharma took advantage of different possibilities of articulation with his mallets, contrasting a sharp percussive stroke with a sort of bow-stroke, much softer and more delicate.
After a long alap, in which all the details of the shimmering sounds of the santur’s metal strings could be heard, Sharma was joined by Zakir Hussain for sections in rupak tal and ektal (meters of seven and twelve beats respectively). Mastery for the tabla can be demonstrated by the complexity of patterns performed which, after groupings which are at variance with the basic meter, finally terminate with a tihai, a threefold repetition of a rhythm which concludes on the downbeat. Hussain’s improvisations were repeatedly greeted by ovations from the entranced listeners.
The second half of the program dispensed with the alap, and launched directly into raga Bahar, performed more in the light-classical vein, with excursions into other ragas as well. The meter was dadra tal, in six beats. Impressive here were the improvisations in which Hussain tried to match Sharma’s rhythms by sheer intuition and musicianship.
This was a memorable evening of Indian music at the very highest level, and its appeal here in North Carolina was proved by the enthusiastic SRO audience. I very much hope that Duke Performances can expand its offerings in this style of music, with, perhaps, a series of artists from the subcontinent.
A friendly note to administrators at Duke: a popular program at Page, in which all the seats are full, points out quite markedly the various deficiencies of this venue. The lobby space is inadequate for the number of seats in the auditorium, the sanitary facilities likewise, and the space between rows in the balcony is painfully small for normal adults. I can only imagine how bad it must be for someone who might be well over six feet. An event like this offers the general public a view of the university, puts a public face on Duke. It should not shine a light on inadequacies. If Duke is going to charge market prices for admissions to events, it ought to offer facilities which are modern and comfortable for audience members. Page is neither modern nor comfortable. "To those who have ears to hear, let them hear."