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The Legends Stand Tall

May 2005
The Legends Stand Tall

Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain play to a full house.


What do you say about a concert that not only ends but also begins with a standing ovation? A concert where excitement or rather giddiness is mixed with reverence? Where people come to see the demigods of an art form they cherish?

Words would fail to do justice to the magical experience created at the fully packed Glenn Memorial Auditorium at Emory University in Atlanta on April 10th, when two of the leading luminaries of Indian classical music performed live. Pandit Shivkumar Sharma (santoor) and Ustad Zakir Hussain (tabla) enthralled and awed the audience.

The music played its part but a lot also had to do with the legends that precede both artists. Zakir Hussain crosses genre boundaries and is probably one of the most recognized names and faces along with Pandit Ravi Shankar when it comes to global music. He has the infectious combination of artistry, skill, celebrity and the ability to make the tabla and Indian Classical music accessible to audience the world over. He builds on the incomparable legacy of his father and guru, the great Ustad Alla Rakha.

Pandit Shivkumar Sharma's path was also influenced by his father who urged him to take up the santoor, then an obscure instrument from the Kashmir Valley. Pt. Shivkumar not only answered the call by popularizing and gaining respectability for the santoor, but in order to do it extensively, he also re-designed the instrument to "cover full three octaves" referring to the range and tonal quality.

Both Pt. Shivkumar and Zakir Hussain's list of accomplishments and awards are long and impressive. In fact so impressive that the audience at the concert rose to their feet when the artists were introduced, even before a single note was played. "We want them to say less and less," Pt. Shivkumar Sharma joked about their introductions, because it meant that the pressure was on to meet the audience's expectations.

Not that they had much to worry about. The first half of the concert started with raag Madhuwanti in Rupak (7 beats) and Ek Taal (12 beats), "a bitter-sweet melody, it can be pensive or romantic, depends on how you take it," Pt. Shivkumar observed.

The raag developed without much hurry, the alaap taking its own time as young and old listened and watched transfixed. And there was much to watch as the evening went on. Two wonderful artists, both with their unique and signature hairstyles playing effortlessly ? fingers and hands flying at times. Moving together, yet asynchronously as the raag builds in and out from being flirtatious to a place where life is passing us by. And in the middle, Zakir Hussain zooms in and out on the tabla crescendo, giving glimpses of his child like wonder, excitement and animation. But he contains it. He works with Pt. Shivkumar, and with the restrain of the raag, giving the audience just a flavor, just enough.

The second half of the concert offered lighter classical pieces played without an alaap, in raag Gara and Kafi. Many in the audience who were new to Indian classical music especially enjoyed the second half as the sounds were more familiar, melody like. Others recognized snippets from folk songs and some film songs since Pt. Shivkumar Sharma has also composed for several blockbuster Indian films. Personally I wanted more of the first half, its complexity and patience, something more classical but the combination seemed to appeal to most people.���

The audience again rose to their feet at the end of the concert and kept standing. They were effusive in their praises of the artists and couldn't stop smiling, even as some offered a minor complaint. "We couldn't hear all that well during the first part," an Emory student who was sitting in the back rows commented. The church is meant for a choir sound and the sound technician had to balance between "keeping the audience happy and keeping the artists happy," as he put it. Now, that's a tough job.

Overall the concert held the audience quietly in their seats for over three hours on a Sunday night. Not a small feat these days! For Jerard, a student originally from Honduras, it was his first Indian classical concert. So was he moved, converted? "I enjoyed the concert but I need more time. I have to listen more," he said quietly. As for the connoisseurs, they were in "heaven" as described by Sandeep Savla, a well known local musician and sound technician. According to Savla, the concert was "extraordinary. It took Indian classical music to the next level."

Indian Classical Music Society (ICMS) along with Emory Asian Studies Department deserve kudos for bringing this concert to Atlanta. Usha Balakrishnan, the president of ICMS said, "The names Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain are indicative of a ?brand-name' that evokes musical magic. By virtue of this magic they have bestowed upon us not only an evening of divine melody and rhythm, but also helped us draw attention to and garner support from within the community."

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