Sitar player Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury to play Folk Fest
Sitar player Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury splits his performing schedule loosely between concerts in India and those in the United States. Operating as he does in front of two different sets of audiences, Roy-Chowdhury is used to presenting the music, Hindustani classical music of Northern Indian, both to those who are versed in the tradition and to those who are eager or curious newcomers. Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury will play a free concert with tabla player Naren Budhkar at the North Carolina Folk Festival in Greensboro on Sept. 8 at 7:30 p.m., and another on Sept. 9 at 2:30 p.m.
I spoke to Roy-Chowdhury by phone from his home in New York last week. In addition to his career as a performer and recording artist, Roy-Chowdhury also teaches sitar to students in New York City, so he’s used to answering questions about the instrument and about the complexities of Indian music.
Most Western listeners are not entirely unfamiliar with aspects of Indian music, since many artists in the British Invasion — most notably George Harrison of the Beatles — took an interest in the sounds of sitars, tablas and tamburas, incorporating them into rock recordings. Listeners even became familiar with the concept of a raga, something similar to a scale or mode in Western music, but with thousands of variations. And sitar legend Ravi Shankar, who gave lessons to Harrison, had a successful career outside of India, serving as a kind of ambassador for Hindustani music to the world.
Roy-Chowdhury’s music is rooted in ancient traditions. He is known for playing sitar using the veen-kar technique, which refers to the rudra veena, an instrument associated with the god Shiva. (The rudra veena is different from the veena played in the Carnatic music of South India.) The veen-kar style is related to Dhrupad music, which is a vocal tradition. The sitar, with its raised movable frets, allows players to make elaborate, expressive bends and ornaments, swooping and diving several scale degrees at a time. With one pull of the string, a player can go up a fifth, for instance. Roy-Chowdhury said that even though he’ll be performing instrumental pieces, the aesthetic of the playing and even the design of the instrument go back to vocal music.
“That’s the way they’ve been constructed, to emulate vocal ornamentation, to allow for the bends from one note to another, without breaking the note,” he said.
In the same way that many jazz horn players prize the expressive quality of vocalists and seek to recreate some of the phrasing and textures of singers, in Indian music, the voice is often thought of as the ideal model for instrumental soloists. If part of the tradition is devoted to copying vocalists, another strand of sitar music showcases technical virtuosity on its own.
Roy-Chowdhury, 39, has been playing sitar since he was 13 years old. He played a little guitar and piano before gravitating to the sitar. He’s had time to cultivate the required virtuosity.
Indian music doesn’t have the harmonies and chord progressions that captivate many listeners of Western music, but the complexity of melodic variation, the articulation elaboration of the raga, with sophisticated microtonal ornaments, all of that adds to the music’s profundity. But beyond that, the rhythmic structures of Indian music can present seemingly endless vistas of shifting accents, confounding offbeat phrases, and truncated patterns that expand and shrink until all points converge in astonishing alignments.
“It can definitely get to a point of mathematical precision,” said Roy-Chowdhury when I asked about the degree to which advanced mental cogitation is required to execute some of the flourishes.
Most fans of funk and jazz and other intricately syncopated music are familiar with an aesthetic that sets up rhythmic patterns, establishing certain sets of expectations, letting the listener get a feeling of being inside the music and clued into its structures, only to have them altered, subtly undermined or cleverly varied. Indian music takes this complexity to advanced-calculus levels. Phrases can sometimes seem to be staggered incrementally, shifting a 16th note at a time off the expected starting or stopping place, or the pulsation itself can toggle in and out of a triplet feel. There’s a gamesmanship to Indian rhythm, with percussionists playfully complicating the placement of expected accents. Roy-Chowdhury describes these as rhythmic “interventions.” Sometimes it can seem as if the percussionists relish the chance to confound the featured soloist’s ability to keep up with the cascading pulsations.
But fans appreciate the playful back-and-forth as an expression of the music’s richness. The ability to momentarily withhold or offset the delivery of an anticipated event within the music only enhances the pleasure for many listeners. It’s not complexity for complexity’s sake.
“Anything that impedes the musicality is more a distraction than something that adds to the performance,” Roy-Chowdhury said. “Playing with the expectation and the variation that bring surprise, that’s more important than the mathematics. Toying with the expectation of where people expect something to happen, that’s a really special part of Indian music.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.