K. Sridhar returned to the place where he made his U.S. debut, the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, N.C., to present a night of Indian classical music. Upon entering the venue, a distinct droning could be heard, which would persist throughout the entire performance. From the very beginning, though, I was entranced by the drone and the resonance of the instruments on display. The performance opened with a solo by Sridhar on the sarod in three parts: slow, medium, and fast. If anyone, like myself, was mostly unfamiliar with Indian classical music, this provided the perfect introduction. It had a repetitive base that Sridhar introduced, and from there he continued to add more ornamentation and embellishment as it built toward the raucous end, almost entirely unrecognizable from the beginning.

Sridhar was then joined by tabla player, Sandeep Hattangady, and we were able to see the coordination needed in an Indian classical music ensemble. While the duo was playing, I kept imagining a circle, where they would start by playing the same idea and then go in different directions before meeting again with the same rhythmic motives. It was a joy to try to spot the subtle cues between the two that would let me know it was all about to come back together again. The way they bounced off one another, reliant on improvisation, to create one composite sound and image through music was impressive.

Following intermission was my personal favorite part of the concert: a tabla solo by Hattangady. In addition to playing a solo on the tabla percussion instruments (which are also very melodic in their own way), Hattangady would break down and explain elements of what he was about to play. One of my favorite parts of this music is the vocalization that corresponds with the different rhythms, and Hattangady demonstrated the vocalization of each phrase he would play, which is just as impressive as the playing itself. This not only gave a glimpse into everything that goes into playing the tabla, but also everything that goes into playing in the ensemble. It illuminated the structure that lies underneath the improvisations and began to unearth the architecture of the music as a whole for me.

The final piece of the concert was a culmination of everything that came before it, starting with a sarod solo by Sridhar and eventually re-introducing Hattangady, building toward the grand finale of the program. The best part of this final piece was the showmanship of Sridhar and Hattangady which had not yet been fully exposed. This was a sort of emptying of the musical gas tank, which led to the two of them going back and forth “trading licks” and showcasing their virtuosity. With this idea of “trading licks,” it was fascinating to find a commonality between Indian classical music and American music genres like jazz and blues, both of which involve a great deal of improvisation, but do not have much else in common.

Sridhar and Hattangady put on a performance that was meant to be felt and experienced, not just viewed passively. With pieces that did not necessarily have a definite beginning or end and could go on for around thirty minutes, it challenged the audience to embrace the length, improvisation, and dissonances and just exist alongside this powerful music. Personally, I enjoyed the challenge of trying not to apply my Western musical thinking to a form of music where that type of thinking is not useful. Of course, it is always an honor to see masters like Sridhar and Hattangady showcase their art. But they were not there to simply entertain – they were there to educate, making for an inspiring, unforgettable night.