Sitar Star Roopa Panesar Kicks Off Her US Tour With an Electrifying, Dynamic Lincoln Center Debut

by delarue

Sitarist Roopa Panesar is a rising star in the world of global Indian music. This past evening was her Lincoln Center debut and the first stop on her first headlining US tour. She was joined by Prishanna Thevarajah on mridangam and Nitin Mitta on tabla, two drums which aren’t often found on the same stage together. In Panesar’s recent work, the addition of the mridangam typically raises the energy and also anchors the rhythm with a boomier low end. As innovative as the concept  may be, it was Panesar’s matter-of-fact, purposeful sense of melody and wildfire attack on the strings that finally got the crowd roaring. 

Her first piece, the North Indian raga Jhinjhoti, was a duo with Mitta. “It’s very romantic,” she told the audience. There was a calm, tender, starlit quality to her spacious alap (improvised intro) – it was as if she was literally caressing the strings. A couple of striking swoops upward signaled Mitta, who gave the piece a spare, steady, elegant pulse. It’s not often that you hear a piece of music so unselfconsciously playful yet with the kind of lingering grandeur that Panesar gave it.

As the dynamics rose and fell, steady, suspensefully melismatic cadenzas gave way to an irrepressibly jaunty, rapidfire tabla solo and steely sitar intensity that resisted easy resolution – evening ragas are characteristically restless. Finally, Panesar landed on a tantalizingly catchy four-bar riff, smiled, then built a kaleidoscope of variations. A feral high note foreshadowed the long tsunami of glistening, ringing, oscillating, insistent waves at the end.

The full trio, with Thevarajah adding subtle accents on kanjira,  debuted a suite of raga themes, easing their way into a plaintively swaying gently circling ambience. As the music rose almost imperceptibly, there was broodingly meditative gravitas and then allusively waltzing angst and longing, the Silk Road stretching to the cold, unforgiving Russian steppes. Then the mridangam kicked in and there was no stopping this harried, paradoxically bouncy march, up to a big audience clapalong. Mitta’s hailstorm tabla brought back a momentary suspense before a thunderstorm percussion duel.

They broke with tradition to end the show with segments from a morning raga, the kind you hear at the end of a wild allnight party if you’ve lasted that long. This one had an irrresistibly edgy Middle Eastern tinge over a tricky 13/8 groove that quickly became a stampede.

This could be what Panesar will be playing at the next stop on her current US tour , at the Chicago World Music Festival in the wee hours of Saturday, Sept 9. That’s happening at 5 AM at the Chicago Cultural Center, Preston Bradley Hall,78 E. Washington St., 3rd Floor South. Admission is free.

This also happened to be the first installment of Lincoln Center’s new cutting-edge concert series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation, which continues tomorrow night, Sept 8 at 7:30 at the atrium space just north of 62nd St. on Broadway with visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer Amir ElSaffar leading an octet with Naseem Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla.

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