North Indian violinist instructs, entrances

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Soaring notes of violin, expressive riffs, and the quick pattering of fingers across Hindustani drums resonated out of Booth Hall Sept. 14 when renowned classical Hindustani musician Sangeeta Shankar and her accompanist Neelamjit Dhillon presented their North Indian craft to a crowd of enthralled community members.

Music professor David Trasoff invited the pair to Occidental for his new class, Music 282: Introduction to North Indian Classical Music. Hindustani classical music is a style that originates from North India and often includes the artist’s vocals and violin, two small drums for rhythm (the larger called a dagga, the smaller a tabla) and a sheroot box for tone and pitch. According to Trasoff, the course partners with The Music Circle, an organization that offers Indian classical music concerts on campus each semester.

“This course will give students insight into the formal structure and historical development of a musical form that rivals Western art music in complexity and nuance, diversifying the Music Department’s current course offerings, none of which currently include an intensive focus on non-Western music theory,” Trasoff said via email.

Often called the “Singing Violin” by those who listen to her music, Shankar began her career with appearances on television at a young age and went on to release “Tabula Rasa,” an album that earned her a 1997 Grammy nomination for “Best World Music Album.” She has been mastering her craft for over 40 years.

Shankar spent most of her performance at Occidental alternating between teaching the basics of classical Hindustani music and exhibiting those tenets on her violin. While the lecture portion of the evening gave the audience necessary context for the music, the concert that followed demonstrated the virtuosity and élan of the genre.

The evening began with Shankar sitting cross-legged on a small blanket in Booth 204, a violin propped vertically between the floor and her chin, and two drums beside her. She wore an orange and light purple sari with sparkling embellishments.

Shankar then invited Dhillon forward. Dressed in a long red kurta, he sat cross-legged behind the drums and proceeded to rub his hands with powder, a small smile on his face the entire time.

“When it comes to Indian music, 95 percent is improvisation,” Shankar said as she began to play scales on her violin. “Only 5 percent is set.”

Shankar explained the two set features of classical Hindustani music: Ragas, which are essentially complex scales that establish a selection of notes the musician can choose from in any given song, and the main playing patterns, which create a variety of rhythms.

“You need to know the rules of the game,” Shankar said. “After that, you’re free to play around.”

And so the performance began.

Shankar and Dhillon glanced knowingly at each other, and tuned their instruments one last time. Suddenly, the laughter and applause ceased and the audience was completely silent.

Shankar clutched her violin close at times while Dhillon shut his eyes and let his fingers dance across the tops of the drums. Shankar’s fingers flickered up and down the neck of her violin, her bow see-sawed across the strings. As the piece persisted, the song grew faster and the two began to smile, sometimes even laughing aloud as they hit cascade of notes perfectly in sync. There was not a single piece of sheet music in sight.

“I really enjoyed how well the two musicians could play together even though it was all improv,” Anthony Stanley (first year), a student in the new North Indian classical music course, said.

When Dhillon and Shankar hit the last note at the exact same time, the audience wasted no time in giving a lasting round of applause. Shankar then opened the floor to questions. A hand shot up and an audience member asked how long Shankar and Dhillon have known one another.

“I hadn’t seen or talked to this man before he walked in this room right now,” Shankar responded. “We just met today.”