Last night I got a rare treat: invitation to a private Jalsa of vocal classical music. The performers were Delhi-Benaras gharana teacher Shipra Khan, who comes to Dhaka for a month every year, and two of her students: Shati and Preeti. I came with mixed expectations: this is a new area for me; plus, I normally don't enjoy live performances of unfamiliar music. But my ambivalence rapidly turned to appreciation.
It started with Preeti, the younger student, singing in Raga Imon - first a slow Bilombito, then a faster Teental, and culminating with a fast ta-na-na. She sang beautifully in her sweet and fresh voice.
Shati came next. She sang several "songs". The first one included singing to 35 different tempos. Then came several Thumris. Her singing evoked a range of feelings and emotions. The range and control of her voice reminded me of an accomplished Jazz singer.
Then the teacher herself sang. She sang several Kheyals and Thumris. Again, the vocal range and the power of her vocal chords was amazing.
The sound was loud and melodious, demanding our rapt attention. At times the ladies looked like they were on another universe, belting out their songs. The secret of how they sang with so much feeling and passion I cannot even begin to fathom.
It reminded me of the story of maestro Tansen who, during a drought in Akbar's reign, sang the right raga so well that it started to rain.
Or the one about the first performance of Beethoven's magnificent Third Symphony: a soldier in the audience was so moved that he stood up and saluted because he believed "the Emperor (Napoleon) has come."
There are other apocryphal stories: (J. S.) Bach's music, mathematically perfect, causing resonances in his brain; Mozart being asked by rival Salieri to write the morbid Requiem which effectively kills him; Tansen singing the "hot" Raga Deepika at the emperor's command and burning himself inside.
Indian classical is very different from Western classical, and closer to jazz because there is much room for musician improvisation. On first listening, it sounds less "developed" than Western classical because of the loose structure. Eg, counterpoint, a construction that lends color to Western classical, is absent in Indian classical. On the other hand, Indian classical has microtones which were only recently introduced to Western classical. (Microtones are tones which "fall between the cracks of piano keys".) And - to my untrained ears at least - Indian classical flows smoother than Western classical.
But last night I was blown away not by the difference, but by how similar classical music is, no matter the origin. It evokes a world of feelings, thoughts, emotions, and passions for you, layer by layer, color by color, note by note. The right performance takes you for an unforgettable ride in that world - like it did for me and others last night.
ps, as noted, I am a novice in this area and apologize in advance for any errors.