Shiley Theater’s night of Indian music

By Jackson Somes

Photo Courtesy of Jackson Somes/ The Vista

Photo Courtesy of Jackson Somes/ The Vista

As the musicians on the stage put down their instruments, a roar of applause echoed through the Shiley Theater. Already past the 9:30 p.m. deadline that was supposed to mark the end of the show, shouts for ‘one more song filled’ the theater. Tabla master Pandit Abhijit Banerjee and sitar maestro Ustad Shahid Parvez gave each other a smile and a nod and then obliged the beholden crowd.

On Oct. 26, USD hosted an evening of classical Indian music in the Shiley Theater. The event was presented by the Academy of Indian Music. AIM is a local organization dedicated to learning and promoting Indian classical music. The organization was created in 2010 by Indian vocalist Sudakshina Alagia who wanted to support classical Indian music. “We also want to bring this music to the community so that awareness about this music can continue to expand,” Alagia said. The event was also co-sponsored by the USD Music Department and The Center for World Music.

The event at USD was first orchestrated when Alagia reached out to theology professor Lance Nelson and chair of the music department David Harnish. This performance was not the first Indian organization to work with USD to put on a performance. Last Spring, the Orissa Dance Academy put on a dance performance at USD. “Because we did this work with the Center For World Music and the performing group last Spring I thought it would be great to work with another Indian group and I knew it would be high quality stuff,” Harnish said.

Although AIM and and Alagia are both established in San Diego, the event on Oct. 26 featured two musicians from India, Pandit Abhijit Banerjee on the tabla and Ustad Shahid Parvez on the sitar. Both of these are Indian instruments. The tabla is a percussion instrument consisting of a pair of hand drums and the sitar is an instrument consisting of 20 strings similar to a guitar. Pandit and Ustad are titles used by Indian musicians to signify their level of mastery on their respective instruments. Harnish warned that these titles are not necessarily earned by musicians, but can sometimes be bestowed upon the musician themselves. “There are some times when guys will call themselves that, but he [Banerjee] has earned that title,” Harnish said. “That’s how good he was on the tabla drums.”

Harnish confirmed the title of Ustad used by Parvez as well. “Ustad is like the equivalent of Pandit, a top level, top caliber player,” Harnish said. “Again, they could call themselves that so I didn’t know what his quality of musicianship was but he [Parvez] was the best musician we saw that night. He had absolute mastery over everything that was happening.”

The event was broken up into two portions. The first portion featured Alagia and her vocal work with some accompaniment. Junior Elia Rivas attended the event and was pleasantly surprised by what she experienced. “She [Alagia] was amazing. It was interesting how her body mirrored the weird things she did with her voice,” Rivas said.

After a brief intermission, the second segment featured Banerjee and Parvez on the tabla and sitar respectively. “In India these guys are almost like demigods, they are semi-divine characters because of the level of knowledge they’ve acquired an experienced,” Harnish said. Harnish continued to say how musicians of the quality often don’t receive the recognition they deserve in the United States. “When I look at it from a financial point of view I’m a little worried. I think they lost money,” he said. According to Harnish these musicians could charge between 3,000 and 5,000 rupee in India, the equivalent of $48 to $81. For their performance at USD adult tickets were $25, with USD students and faculty admitted free of charge.

According to Harnish, this event was an exhibition of absolute mastery. Even before the performance began, Parvez foreshadowed the level of excellency that was to come. During the soundcheck Parvez required five minutes of absolute silence in the theater in order to properly tune his sitar. “A lot of occasions people would say ‘Oh that guy’s a jerk. Why is he asking for silence, can’t he control his instrument,’ but I knew what he was doing,” Harnish said. “He was getting the sitar in tune and getting himself in tune. He really wanted to have absolute control over the sound.”

Parvez required these five minutes to be able to give the best performance he was capable of giving. “The reason he wanted that control was because he was going to manipulate the space and the sound in order to affect everybody in the audience at a really deep level,” Harnish said, “that’s what the best artists do.”