Rapturous Vocal and Sitar Ragas Last Night at the Drive East Festival

by delarue

There was a point last night at the ongoing, weeklong 2017 Drive East Festival of Indian music at Dixon Place where tabla player Dibyarka Chaterjee looked up at singer Indrani Khare with a sudden grin, all the while maintaining a steady, syncopated volley of notes. Was she going to throw something else like that him again?

Although the greatest Indian classical musicians are all great improvisers, when they fly without a net those flights tend to be on the subtle side. An elegant, graceful presence onstage, Khare had begun her vast, profoundly bittersweet interpretation of raga Puriya Kalyan with a velvety calm, slowly adding ornamentation, up to a big, meticulously modulated crescendo where her melismatic vocalese became a tightly wound trill that basically required her to be in chest voice and falsetto at the same time. It’s a common if breathtaking device in carnatic music, and she was obviously taking some unexpected liberties. Meanwhile, her singing guru, Mitali Banerjee Bhawmik, watched approvingly, occasionally signaling to her star protegee from the front row.

There was another point where Chaterjee and young harmonium prodigy Srikar Ayyalasomayajula exchanged a momentary, wide-eyed stare as Khare sang unacompanied for a few bars: was this really happening? Could a human being possibly channel such depths of tenderness, and sadness, and guarded hope, so unselfconsciously? Chaterjee has obviously played with countless A-list Indian musicians, but something special was clearly going on here.

He eventually got a solo spot where he flickered through similar low-key simmer, matched occasionally by Ayyalasomayajula, whose nimble phrasing often doubled or shadowed the bandleader. Shifting back and forth between crystalline, unadornedly warm phrasing and the occasional fluttering cadenza, even her most dramatic moments never reached for the kind of stratospheric, chirpy tone that a lot of Bollywood singers embrace. At the end of her hour onstage, she incorporated all those same devices in a more concise context with a devotional bhajan ballad.

The next performance on the night’s bill was by sitarist Kinnar Seen, who played a similarly dynamic if much more wildly energetic take of two evening pieces, raga Rageshwari and raga Mishra Bhairawvi. Seen had programmed this as a suite, barely taking time between the two. With a slow, purposeful, nocturnal stroll punctuated by the occasional emphatic low bent note, he followed a series of tangents through torrents of upward and downward riffage, sometimes adding stark accents that brought to mind ancient British folk music.

There were a lot of surprises in the music: the only point where Seen telegraphed where he was about to go was when he hit chopped his strings for what seemed like a minute, building a deep mist of overtones that would resonate when he finally resumed his frenetic cascades down the fretboard.

It’s not often that students get to play with an acclaimed international touring artist, but the two teenage tabla players behind him held their own and were given several turns in the spotlight, the most engaging one being a rapidfire charge together which was a triumph of seamlessness – and these dudes aren’t afraid of showing how much fun they’re having. By contrast, tanpura player Melissa Cheta lingered in the background with her stately accents. 

The Drive East Festival at Dixon Place (161A Chrystie St., just north and around the corner from Bowery Ballroom) continues tonight with music and dance tonight starting at 6 PM with a cross-pollinated Indian-Korean percussion-and-dance piece by Jin Won and Seu Yeon Park, followed at 7:15 by the festival’s artistic director Sahasra Sambamoorthi’s Navatman Dance ensemble with Sridhar Shanmugam and then carnatic vocal crooner Shankar Ramani at 8:30; tix for all of these shows, in various price ranges, are still available as of this hour. Be aware that last night’s performances were pretty full, so some of you might want to reserve those before they’re gone.