By Kim Kandel
The beauty of classical Indian music is that it is entirely improvised.
This is one of the many things that I learned while speaking with Vinod (V.R.) Venkataraman, producer and mridangam performer for the upcoming Divine Vibrations of India: Melody, Rhythm and Dance show on September 24.
For instance, take the gamaga (or gamaka), a feature of classical Indian music that V.R. likens to vibrato in Western music. The origin of the term gamaga comes from the intonations of blending notes in a musical scale. Just like how Western music has “do re me fa so la ti do,” Indian music has “sa ri ga ma pa dha ni sa.” While the gamagas may be based on notes, none of them are written. All of the artists performing on stage, while they have performed together before, “don’t have to know what the other is doing,” says V.R. “What they do is pure unadulterated mathematics.”
By this point in the conversation, I’m both deeply intrigued and somewhat confused. V.R., who also happens to be a mathematics professor, helps by explaining the age-old Indian tradition of gurukulavasam. As young children, musicians live at their teacher’s house and are taught lessons whenever inspiration strikes. The music learned is set to a ragam, a scale or set of notes selected based on the mood they convey, and within it “they do all kinds of gymnastics.”
V.R.’s daughter, violinist Aishu Venkataraman will begin Divine Vibrations of India with music from South India (Carnatic music). Noted santoor player Tarun Bhattacharya will then play music from North India (Hindustani music). Each will be accompanied by percussionists. The percussion section, which features V.R. himself, will perform jugalbandi, meaning “tied together”- imagine tying a wedding knot as this is a marriage of the rhythms section. The evening will culminate with an improvised melody, rhythm and dance section, that V.R. calls a “three course meal.”
When asked to share his inspiration for the show, V.R. brings up the late sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, who he was honored to have known. “He was eclectic in how he would bring together music from different areas of the world.”
“If you understand the culture, you’ll understand the people,” V.R. continued. “Music is a common bond that binds everybody together.”
Divine Vibrations of India: Melody, Rhythm and Dance takes place at the Ford Theatres on Saturday, September 24 at 7:00 p.m.