If you're a world music fan, mark your calendars for Sat. Oct. 10, because that's when the India Association of Greater Charleston — in cooperation with the College of Charleston — will present a fascinating concert of Indian classical music at the Simons Center Recital Hall. The idea of the program — called Walking Together — is to compare, contrast, and draw parallels between India's two primary classical music traditions: the Hindustani (northern) and Carnatic (southern).
Hindustani music is normally performed on two primary instruments (sometimes supported by others). The sitar provides monophonic melody lines over fixed drone-string textures, while the tabla (a tunable pair of drums) provides the rhythmic component. Likewise, in Carnatic music, the main instruments are the veena (a lower-pitched cousin of the sitar), with rhythmic duties falling to the mridangam: a double-ended single drum that, like the tabla, can be tuned to match the stringed instrument's basic tonic pitch. The main attraction of this event is that all four of these instruments will be present onstage, mostly playing together.
And the performers are all the finest you could hope for. Sitar virtuoso Gaurav Mazumdar — a disciple of the great Ravi Shankar — will represent the Hindustani tradition, along with tabla player Anubrata Chatterjee. The young, but greatly admired Jayanthi Kumaresh will preside on veena, with Jayachandra Rao on the mridangam.
According to Indian and Western music expert Dr. Chris Chellappa, "Melodic foundations — or ragas — are very similar from northern to southern India." These are classic melodic sequences based on basic seven-note scales (in natural "just-intonation," as opposed to Western music's "tempered" intonation scheme). Pentatonic scales, having a more "Asian" ring to them, are also used. All accomplished Indian musicians know the basic ragas by heart, and so no written sheet music is necessary. The art lies in how these melodic themes are improvised upon, something like we hear done in modern Western jazz.
In both traditions, the raga treatments follow strict sequence patterns, even though very free improvisation is permitted within those boundaries. The main theme is usually presented slowly (and often at length) by the solo melodic instrument (sitar or veena), before being taken up again at faster tempos, with the rhythmic instrument (tabla or mridangam) added. Then you usually hear a series of sophisticated dialogues between the instruments, building in speed and intensity to a final climax.
The differences between the Hindustani and Carnatic schools are more matters of characteristic sounds, styles, and moods. The sitar, for example, produces a more delicate, feminine tone — while the veena offers an earthier, more masculine sonic aura — and its comparatively looser strings offer more melodic versatility and greater decorative variation on single tones.
As Chellappa further explained, "There is no real harmony to Indian classical music — only pure melody and rhythm." With no chords at hand, the closest thing to a harmonic dimension is the sympathetic tones and overtones produced by the "drone" strings of both the sitar and the veena. Beyond the improvisational skill of the performers, much of the musical appeal lies in the often microtonal ornamentation of individual notes. Further interest comes with the very complex, constantly shifting rhythmic patterns from the drums: also a spontaneous, ad-lib process. Since "common time" (four beats to the measure in Western music) is 16 beats in Indian music, there's room for rhythmic improvisation. The combined result is a delight to both the ear and the intellect.
Until recent years, the instruments of north and south India were seldom heard in combination. Such a practice (we would call it "crossover") was frowned upon by more conservative musical purists who didn't approve of mixing different traditions. But recent efforts to blend the two schools based on their common building blocks have begun to gain acceptance lately. And we're lucky for the chance to bear aural witness to this mixing of musical waters right here in Charleston.