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World Music Series Concert Introduces Student to Carnatic Music

September 30 Performance Features South Indian Classical Music

by Katrina Leshan

To the left of me sits an elderly man with many memories written in wrinkles on his face. To the right sits my friend Morgan, a music education major who is putting off his essay by attending this concert with me. It's our first Brown Bag event, and as freshmen we don't really know what to expect. I keep picking up my camera, taking random pictures, and looking at the interesting instruments on the stage in front of me. I'm anxious for the performance.

Jamal Mohamed, director of the World Music Ensemble,  stands up a couple minutes before the show is due to start and announces that the program today won't be exactly what was advertised. Poovalur Sriji, a prominent Carnatic musician and the man whose name was on the flyers, is not going to perform, though he is present, because his friend Patri Satish Kumar was able to come on short notice and, as a treat, play the mridangam (a South Indian drum) for us instead. Prasant Radhakrishnan will still be playing saxophone and Thirupomithura Radhakrishnan will be playing the ghatam, an earthenware pot used as a percussion instrument.

These musicians are playing South Indian Classical music, also known as Carnatic music, and it is one of the oldest types of music in the world. It is based on a system of ragas, which are melodic scales, and talas, which are rhythmic scales. There are 72 fundamental ragas and seven rhythmic cycles that are essential to the creation of Carnatic music – in other words, in order to be able to comprehend and play Carnatic music, one has to memorize a ridiculous amount of information and technique while developing high levels of musicianship. This intensely complicated style of music is believed to be “the representation of a rich cultural heritage of south India, the essence of spirituality evolved out of the heart and brain of the pious ones and the gurus of the past.” (1) And when you listen to it, you can really see why.

The first song starts with Radhakrishnan on the saxophone, and it draws me in. I can feel all tension in the air start to melt away, leaving a sense of raw, unadulterated discovery hanging overhead. The man to the left of me closes his eyes, hums softly, and becomes enveloped in the music. As the percussionists enter the song, Radhakrishnan plays as if in a trance. He and his instrument are one and we as the audience witness a conversation between man and music. It is just extraordinary! There is really no way with words to describe the kind of communication between Radhakrishnan and the notes he is playing around him, or the way that it makes me feel.

A little girl to the side of the stage feels the music the most. She literally does not stop moving during the entire hour-long program, and much to everyone's amusement, seems not to care one bit that she's being watched. The little girl spins around in circles, stomps her feet, and even punches her fists in the air at random intervals. She, like the music, is an unstoppable, natural force that the room can do nothing but witness with great pleasure.

Poovalur sits to the right of the stage, monitoring the ensemble. He wears a slight grin and keeps time with his hands. He seems pleased with the music, and nods with enthusiasm after several songs are finished.

The natural, raw feeling of the music takes me over. I close my eyes for about ten minutes so that I can depend on no other sense than that of hearing and just feel the sound. It is such a freeing feeling. I never want to leave.

When the program is over, the audience - comprised mostly of students - gets up to go to class, and several individuals stay behind to approach the performers. Some seem to know the men already, some are just awe-struck and want to get a closer look (I'm definitely in the latter category). After meeting all three performers as well as Poovalur, and posing for a few pictures, I leave with a sense of optimism. Before the show I was extremely stressed because of tests and studying and practicing, but I felt healed after experiencing this Brown Bag event. It was free, it was open to anyone, and it was a great introduction to a culture I knew nothing about beforehand.

I can't wait to see the next world music series Brown Bag event on November 11, which will feature a Russian folk music duo called Kalinka. Before then I'm going to see the Meadows World Music Ensemble (directed by Jamal Mohamed) at the Addison World Music Festival on October 25.

Information in this article was gathered from:
3) Jamal Mohamed

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