Indian music class strikes a chord
Adorned with elegant silver trimmings and decorative designs chiseled through its rich teak wood, the striking beauty of a sitar is often apparent even before a sitarist begins strumming. Its soulfully resonant strings make mesmerizingly unique melodies that Western audiences have come to embrace ever since Indian classical music first appeared in America in the 1960s.
Interest in the sitar and Indian classical music, however, has skyrocketed since the days of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar — especially here at Oberlin — where more than 40 students enroll each semester for the ExCo course in Indian classical music, taught by renowned sitarist Hasu Patel.
Officially titled “Classical Music of North India,” Hasu Patel’s course meets every Tuesday evening, and in addition to beginner and intermediate sitar lessons, also offers tabla (Indian percussion) and vocal lessons.
Patel, who started the course five years ago, is an exceptional musician whose style and approach to the Indian musical system is truly distinct. Trained under the Ustad Vilayat Khan, who is widely recognized as one of the greatest sitar players of the modern era, Patel started playing sitar at the age of six in the Gayaki Ang, or “Vocal Style,” a special technique which involves creating variations in the sitar’s tone and melody to replicate the sounds of a human voice. But after leading an illustrious career as a pioneering sitar player and performing at venues across the world, Patel now dedicates herself almost solely to education, hoping, as she said, “to keep the music alive.”
But keeping the music alive can sometimes be a challenge for Patel, who maintains an orthodox approach to the music and preserves the cultural beliefs and traditions that were handed down to her from the Ustad himself.
A major part of her approach involves seeing music as a manifestation of the divine, and perceiving instruments as a sacred and spiritual means of conversing with a higher power — a notion that somewhat opposes secular Western interpretations of music. Playing the sitar and meditating on its sounds, Patel said, affects her profoundly.
“It’s the sitar’s deep sound that connects with my soul,” she said. “The more one plays, the more humility captivates one. It helps me see my own divinity. Every note is sacred.”
Patel’s insistence on respect for the cultural traditions surrounding Indian classical music, though, only enriches the students’ learning experience, which takes place through a technical and theoretical study of the instruments.
Although Patel teaches tabla and vocals, because of her extensive training in them, she admits that the sitar will always be her “first love.” But while Patel is constantly in awe of her students’ skill and creativity, teaching sitar to beginners is still no easy task.
The long, gourd-shaped instrument with its 18 strings is comprised of “playing” chords that are delicately plucked to produce a main tone, and sympathetic chords that resonate in the background. Control of these two tonal elements, with emphasis given to the fluctuating tonal variation of the “vocal style,” ultimately produces the recognizably bittersweet, soulfully melancholic twang that has grown to become a trademark of India and its classical music.
The technique is difficult in itself, but the philosophical theory that forms the basis for instruments such as the sitar is often more complex.
The Indian musical system, called the Raag Sangeeth is, according to Patel, a “scientific, precise, subtle and aesthetic system,” based on ten major melodic scales and their accompanying rhythmic patterns.
Musical compositions, however, rest on the concept of a raag, which is a construction of ascending and descending notes on a particular scale and rules that prescribe their flow.
The raag then provides melody through instruments, such as the sitar, while a cycle of rhythm is maintained by a tabla. But ragas, according to Patel, are scientifically constructed compositions that must be played under the right circumstances —chiefly, the correct time of day — to achieve their desired effects.
“The ancestors, and I too, believe that the frequency of the notes affects the mind, the body, the soul, plants, animals—everything” she said. “If you play the [raag] at the wrong time of the day, the frequency does not jibe. It does not have the same effect—it does not shine the way it is supposed to.”
The sitar students in Patel’s class thus learn what she calls “time theory,” and distinguish different compositions as morning, afternoon, evening and night ragas that all bring about different “moods.” It is only after achieving competency in basic theory and showing respect for the music’s divinity that Patel’s sitarists delve deeper into more intricate subject matter, such as microtones, alaaps (preludes), antaras (secondary movements), improvisation and harmonic collaboration with other instruments.
It is this level of theoretical knowledge and sublimely nuanced sitar performance that some of Patel’s advanced students are already achieving.
Senior Alex Conway, who has been learning sitar for the past three years and has studied a wide variety of ragas, says that she enjoys the sitar’s complexity.
“Indian music has a theory and history as complex and interesting, if not more so, than Western classical music,” she said. “I started playing sitar because of its distinctive sound and the lyrical qualities it is capable of producing, and now it [has] helped to free me and explore the possibilities of improvisation.”
Improvisation and East-West collaboration are two aspects of Indian music that Patel never fails to promote, especially in upper-level classes where she translates raag compositions into Western notation so that classical musicians, including trombonists, flautists and pianists, can collaborate with sitar and tabla players.
Patel works tirelessly to promote an ancient musical tradition without weakening its cultural roots, while simultaneously striving to make Indian classical music accessible and enjoyable to her students.
Conway, like other students, remains grateful to Patel for introducing her to a new musical world.
“She has also been a strong influence in my life,” said Convey. “Her position as a groundbreaking female sitar player is an inspiring achievement that I respect.”
Patel, likewise, finds her greatest joy not in her music, but in her students.
“They keep me alive spiritually and musically,” she said.
“They are my biggest gift.”