Learning to Listen - Indian Classical Music Finds A Home in Lexington, MA

By Suraja Roychowdhury
That Boston is a center of culture, art, science, entrepreneurship, education and history is well known.  With excellent schools and a thriving sense of community, Lexington is a Boston suburb that has drawn large numbers of Indian Americans to live, work and educate their children.  And where Indians go, their culture follows.  Of course- there’s the Indian food. But a rich part of this culture is the tradition of its rich classical music, which is said to be several thousand years old.  Although the worldwide interest in Indian classical music is increasing (with its introduction in the west by Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Zakir Hussain and other maestros), an understanding of this art form only serves to deepen the appreciation of the listener.

What makes this music so unique?  The 2 pillars of Indian classical music are melody and rhythm.  Ragas form the framework of the melody, while taals are the various rhythms to which the ragas are sung or played.  The study of raga and taal is complex, nuanced and can be lifelong.  Indian classical music concerts are rarely, if ever, orchestra-based.  There is a main artist- a vocalist or instrumentalist (sitar, violin etc)  providing the melodic aspects, a percussionist playing a tabla or ghatam etc, and an accompanying instrumentalist with a singer- for example a harmonium, violin, sarangi etc.  Settings, while often in large auditoriums, have traditionally been in intimate settings called “baithak”, where the audience gets to experience the music at close quarters, as well as observe the interactions between the artists.  The audience is vocal in their appreciation and often bursts into spontaneous applause or sounds of appreciation when the musicians display their virtuosity.  This is especially meaningful, because the music is improvisational.  A large part of what is performed in a concert is based on instantaneous improvisation, and this is what an educated audience responds to, in pleasure and admiration for the virtuosity displayed.

However, the complexity of the music often intimidates people.  Not everyone wants to spend years trying to understand it, but many people love the music for its beauty, the emotions it evokes, the sense of spirituality and other myriad reasons.  Trying to demystify this music, and make it more accessible for the audience is, among other things is where a unique organization born and growing in Lexington, comes in.

“Shadaj”, www.shadaj.org,  a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, was founded and operated by a group of volunteers from Lexington, MA and the greater Boston area.  Shadaj’s mission is to cultivate, nurture and promote Indian Classical Music in its most authentic form. Learning to understand and appreciate music from the first note is one of their underlying goals.They have been doing this through intimate concerts called ‘baithaks’ (chamber style music) and music appreciation sessions, as a platform for higher cultural integration and community outreach and with the aim to cultivate a community of good active listeners.

Top class artists from India have been hosted by Shadaj to perform in these small intimate settings. But where they have an edge in educating the lay audience is in the music appreciation Q&A sessions that they host with the artist and the community on the night before the concert.  In the ease and comfort of an informal group, people are free to ask questions of the artists and get simple and profound insights into the music as well as the artists’ methods of practice etc. People come away with a better understanding, and having created a relationship with the artists, report a deeper sense of enjoyment when listening to them perform on the next day. It is fair to say that the general public does not usually have access to speak with these top tier musicians in such informal gatherings.
In keeping with their mission of being a community based organization, most of their concerts and music appreciation sessions have been held at local Lexington venues.  Shadaj collaborates with several local music schools and community organizations (ex. Indian Americans of Lexington – IAL, New England School of Music, SPK Academy, Lexington Community Education, Lexington Public Library, Lexington Symphony Orchestra ) to promote the rich traditions of Indian classical music.

One such event coming up in the fall is STRINGS N BEATS.  This is a unique dialogue between dance and music, and is co-sponsored by the Lexington Community Education, Indian Association of Lexington (IAL) and the Lexington Public Library. Three brilliant artists of the present generation: Shambhavi Dandekar (Kathak dance), Shakir Khan (Sitar) and Harshad Kanetkar (Tabla) present this concert. Sparkling duets between dance, sitar and tabla, soothing instrumental classical music, exhilarating rhythmic patterns and impactful storytelling through body language (“abhinaya”) are some of the highlights of Strings n Beats. Shambhavi Dandekar is a disciple of her mother Pandita Maneesha Sathe.  Shambhavi is a well-known and experienced dancer with extensive training in rhythm work and aesthetics. Shakir Khan (Sitar) descends from seven generations of sitarists.  He is a leading disciple of his father Ustad Shahid Parvez, one of the foremost exponents of Sitar. On the tabla is Harshad Kanetkar also a very well-recognized artist, and disciple of the famous tabla maestro Pandit Suresh Talwalkar.

This concert will be held in Cary Hall, Lexington on Sunday November 19, 2017.  The tickets and additional information about the concert can be found at www.shadaj.org. On the previous day, Saturday November 18, a music and dance appreciation session with be held at Cary Memorial Library.  The music appreciation session is free and open to the public and will allow for people to interact with the artists and get an appreciation of what to expect at the concert. Programs such as these help the larger community experience Indian culture and with experience, comes a desire to learn more, and with that, an increased understanding.

It is always exciting when new partnerships are created, with new opportunities for understanding and enrichment.  Initiatives such as these create a different level of enjoyment, making the Boston area in general, and Lexington in particular, such a great place to live in!