Every June for the last many years, K. Sridhar hosts a concert at The Barn at Vahalla. K. Sridhar plays ragas on the sarod with accompanying tablas played by Krishna Ram Dass. Ragas are a Hindustani musical form derived from temple chanting. The fascinating thing about this is that, according to K. Sridhar’s description, the chanting provided the sonic soup out of which the ragas emerged. In a short Q&A after the concert, he said that the ragas came from the monks chanting microtones in the temple. These microtones then elicited a melody that was captured by a composer in the form of a raga. It almost makes me cry to write that sentence. What a beautiful transduction/transcription/ transubstantiation!
In my mind, ragas are the musical equivalent of spiritual enlightenment. Ragas are mysterious because they are rigid forms that are 95% improvised in performance. Ragas often begin in a seemingly formless fashion (frequently I can’t tell when the musicians finish tuning and when the raga starts, which I think is intentional. Audience is given as soon as the instruments speak, not on some cue of “beginning”). From the more spacious opening phrases, the raga builds and accelerates into dense polyrhythms and polyharmonics. Ragas are made up of phrases in various lengths of odd and even numbered beats which shift and change over time. Like enlightenment, playing ragas is presented as a mystery couched in rigorous study and shrouded in an air of unattainable mastery. And when the musicians play, they appear to be immersed in joy. I imagine them making many creative “mistakes” and feeling happy because their teachers are not here to correct them, and we, the audience, surrender to their “mastery” having little clue as to whether they are playing correctly or not; a beautiful cosmic joke that we all “get” on some level.
The annual K. Sridhar concert has eluded me until today. Heading out along Highway 54 West of Carrboro, I found a beautiful compound of sturdy wooden buildings, one of which is The Barn. A group of 60-70 people sat in this lovely ark of a room that smelled faintly of varnish/laquer and sheltered us from the heat of the day. A woman tells us that the opening of the first raga is made up of softer tones created by sliding up and down the strings, so the AC will be shut off for that period of time, but as soon as that section is done,she reassures us, the AC will be flipped back on. Then the musicians enter and mount the stage to play.
K. Sridhar was born into an important musical family and was trained to play for hours a day from a very young age. He joined Ravi Shankar’s Orchestra as the youngest member at age twelve, and has toured all over the world. But he does not seem all that impressed with his own pedigree. He just gives himself to the playing. He has an intimacy with the sarod that transcends any teaching. He even spoke of having escaped from the competitive righteousness that “schools” engender: “that is not how you do it,” “it must be done like this…,” Preferences and biases spoken and upheld as fact. Now he is a “master” and free to play as he pleases. A freedom available to us all.
The sarod is a fretless instrument, slightly smaller than a sitar, with 25 strings in several layers, and a deep resonance. This resonance is created, in part, by a set of strings whose sole purpose is to sympathetically vibrate as the main melodic and harmonic strings are struck. The small group of pegs on the top side of the instrument are used to tune this set of strings to the microtones of the raga being played. The overall resonant harmonic spectrum of the sound of a sarod is lower than a sitar.
As K. Sridhar played the glissandi notes in the beginning of the first raga, the tones softly throbbed the air. As the raga increased in complexity, adding the tablas, the tones began to swirl in the room. And always, for a brief period when the sound was at its fullest and whirling like a dervish, those chanting voices of the temple monks joined in to bring the raga to completion. That was the most amazing aural experience. I asked if K. Sridhar vocalized, and the answer was no, it is the instrument itself and harmonics in the room that create that sound.
I love that K. Sridhar promotes what he does as a Deep Listening concert. The wash of tones and the rhythmic interplay vibrate deeply into the body. Surrendering to it just opens everything up. I felt refreshed and reenergized as I drove through the gravel dust toward the main road heading toward home.