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Music of the Spheres

Local mother-son duo are quietly creating world-class Indian classical music

by Ali Hibbs on January 28, 2010

Good vibrations: Veena Chandra. Photo Credit: Leif Zurmuhlen

When Veena Chandra describes the raga she’s about to perform, it’s as if she’s introducing the audience to a momentary visitor. The song, like the deity it’s devoted to, is defined by its various aspects—the particular beat cycle and intervallic qualities virtually synonymous with that god’s role and disposition. So, it’s not just the teacher in Chandra eclipsing the performer when she introduces an ode to the goddess Saraswati by first listing the set of sharps and flats that describe her. In Hindustani music, the ancient devotional music of Northern India, it’s just good manners.

In this tradition, it’s not uncommon for a full concert to be devoted to a particular religious figure, but on this day the subject of the performance is Chandra herself, who will be turning 65 the following week.

For the birthday celebration, a small audience has gathered in the basement of her unassuming suburban home in Latham, a humble space she uses for performance and instruction as the Dance and Music School of India. Visitors enter through the garage and descend a short flight of stairs to be seated on the floor before the stage area where Chandra has arranged her sitar and harmonium, as well as colorful posters of the Hindu deities to use as visual aid. Her 25-year-old son and accompanist, Devesh, meticulously tunes his tablas by striking the rims with a brass mallet.

Despite the Chandras’ elegant dress and the austere moods that emanate from the droning ragas, the social climate is easy and informal. The occasion, more offering than performance, will drift on for more than three hours, culminating in a delicious Indian meal. Between songs, Veena chews ginger to help sooth a sore throat, and laughs easily when discussing her life and career.

The performance begins, as is customary, with a song for Ganesh, the elephant-headed god who is regarded as the “remover of obstacles.” Veena plays the harmonium, a miniature hand-pumped organ, and sings in unison with her playing. In Hindustani music, singing is the highest musical discipline, above instrumental performance and dance. Growing up in India, Veena listened to her father play flute and sitar in the evening, but her first experience with music was singing in school. She says she would watch her teacher play harmonium and come home to imitate what she’d seen. At 8 or 9, she already knew she wanted to become a musician. Her grandmother would bring her to house concerts, like the one she was staging this night, to hear musicians play harmonium and sing, and it wasn’t long before the congregation came to hear her.

Veena’s father was impressed by his daughter’s progress and consented to her request that she study music in school. Through high school, college, and post-graduate work at Agra University, she learned all the Indian instruments and became proficient at performance and instruction.

To a Western audience, Indian music is closely associated with the sitar, due to the popularity of Ravi Shankar in the 1960s. After a few songs on harmonium, Veena opens the peculiar case and begins tuning her instrument’s 19 strings. A small electronic box at her side produces a steady drone to aid in tuning. This function was more traditionally served by the tanpura, a four-string gourd-based drone instrument similar to sitar that she will occasionally play when a master sitar player tours through the area. She first learned sitar from her guru Satish Chandra, a disciple of Ravi Shankar, and later studied with the master Ustad Vilayet Khan Saheb.

Unlike Western chordal string instruments, upon which a musician can play a simultaneous combination of notes to generate harmony, the sitar, and thereby the Indian raga, is purely melodic. Seven of the instrument’s strings are used for plucking linear notes, while 12 strings lie below the instrument’s raised frets in order to drone. In Sanskrit, raga means “color” and every raga is defined by the scale (although, it may make more sense to a Western musician to think of a raga as a “mode”) utilized to generate that color or mood. It’s this prescribed set of notes that constitutes the raga’s thaat, a melodic framework, much like the “head” of a jazz chart, that functions as the point of departure and return for the improvising musician.

When Veena and Devesh begin to play, it is at first very subdued. Veena states the theme on sitar, while Devesh plays the basic rhythm cycle, or tala, on tablas, two small hand-struck kettle drums, the larger of which is resonant enough for the player to generate and manipulate pitch. Similar to a Western time signature, the tala can be incredibly complex, including over 100 beats in a single cycle; however, common talas consist of around 16 beats.

As the raga unfolds, the playing becomes more vigorous. Veena moves up and down her fretboard developing impromptu variations of the original theme, plucking rapid-fire runs with her right hand and bending notes with a left-hand technique called meend to access wailing, microtonal frequencies. Devesh, meanwhile, parrots his mother’s melodic passages on the lower tabla, while tapping complex polyrhythms on the other. At times, with eyes closed, it seems as if the two have strayed entirely from the constraints of the basic arrangement. Sometimes it takes 10, other times 20, minutes before the two find their way back to the thaat, but when they do, the piece resolves as gently as it began.

It’s in this blissful, post-raga silence that the peculiarity of the event starts to set in: a mother-son duo of master Indian classical musicians, performing in the basement of a Capital Region suburb.

Veena first moved to Connect-icut in 1968 after she was married. Her husband’s transfer to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute brought the two to North Colonie, where they lived in the community surrounding the Hindu Temple Society of the Capital District. For years she worked as a social worker at Memorial Hospital. All the while, she continued performing, traveling around the northeast to universities and international communities, as well as teaching lessons from her home. A musicologist at Skidmore College heard she was in the area and asked her to begin teaching at the university. It’s an arrangement she still maintains, offering sitar and tabla lessons as well as a course on chant and general Indian classical music.

Over the years, all six of her children have studied some instrument with her. Most recently, her 12-year-old granddaughter has begun sitar lessons. Her youngest, Devesh, emerged as a child prodigy. His first words were the tabla syllables “Dha Dha titi” (similar to the solfege “do re mi”), and he began accompanying his mother at the age of 6. His first professional performance came at the age of 13. He studied tablas with Ravi Shankar’s accompanist Ustad Alla Rakha, and since 2002 has spent time with Zakir Hussain, whom Western audiences may know for his collaborations with John McLaughlin, Mickey Hart, and Bela Fleck. It’s with his mother, and the Kathak dancer Shila Mehta, that he most commonly performs.

In the winter of 2007-8, the duo traveled to India to share their music with Veena’s father and to tour the universities and auditoriums of Agra, Dehra Doon, New Delhi, and Bombay. This winter, Veena returned for a similar tour before her teaching obligations resumed in January.

It’s no small feat for American musicians to be well-received in India, as technical mastery is only one half of what makes for competent Hindustani musicianship. The improvisational nature of the raga allows for personal expression, but it also carries a mandate that the performer abide by the mood of the piece.

“You can be playing the right rhythm cycle,” Devesh says, “but not have the right feel. A devotional song has to have that feel to it.” This is a challenge in performance, but even harder to teach.

Of her students, Veena says, “Sometimes they will learn the technical idea, but it will take time to learn the other. We can only teach it to the ready. [The student] has to be comfortable with themselves, which is hard.”

If all this sounds a bit mystical or esoteric, it is, but due to the precise vibrational science of raga, the “feel” of a raga is probably more concrete than, say, the notion of “soul” in American R & B. Every raga—that is, precise arrangement of intervals—corresponds to a season and time of day. The 72 modes each generate 484 ragas, leading to a possible 34,848 distinct musical moods.

“This is celestial music,” Veena says. “They are vibrations that our ancestors put together that are very close to nature. In India, we use music as a spiritual tool, a bridge to reach the super soul, the higher meaning. It feels good to hear song, to vibrate. The power of the sitar is to clean. It can reach your brain and clean up your head from the garbage. You may have fatigue, but afterward you are full of energy and vigor. It allows that you compose your state of mind.”

After years of studying and performing together, Veena and Devesh are nearly telepathic in their improvisations, and their ability to inhabit and generate the mood of a raga will be evident to even the unstudied listener. Veena speaks of a “triangular relationship between the artist, art and audience,” an arrangement that necessitates the presence of a listener for the generation and communication of this mood. Perhaps this is why the musician has decided to perform on the occasion of her birthday. Hindustani music, it seems, is not about the display of talent or the entertainment of an audience, but rather about the collective dwelling in a particularly resonant mood, something equally enjoyable to all parties involved. A University at Albany philosophy professor and his wife, who are present this evening, confess they’ve grown downright addicted to her almost monthly performances.

As if to justify this admission, Veena laughs, “No matter how much you hide yourself, the vibrations get out.”