Musician and composer Sandeep Das comes to Brandeis for concert and residency

Photo/Mike Lovett

Sandeep Das.

This article originally appeared in the fall issue of State of the Arts. The article's author, Judith Eissenberg, is a professor of the practice of music and director of MusicUnitesUS, a program that looks to make cultural connections and further understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures through musicThe MusicUnitesUS residency runs from Sept. 26 to Oct. 1., and Das performs Saturday, October 1, 8 p.m. at Slosberg Music Center. Tickets are available online, by phone at 781-736-3400, or at the Shapiro Campus Center box office. 

According to ancient Hindu writings, the universe was created when Lord Shiva danced with his drums in hand. The idea that sound can connect us to the cosmos and to each other is at the heart of Indian classical music.

Musician and composer Sandeep Das is known around the world as a dazzling virtuoso of tabla, the pair of hand drums that serve as the rhythmic foundation in the Hindustani music of northern India.Yo-Yo Ma (no stranger himself to dazzling virtuosity) calls Das one of the greatest artists he’s ever met.

I remember the first time I saw Sandeep play, in Boston. This light, graceful spirit walked onstage, sat down and rubbed a bit of powder onto his hands. He smiled, looked up and out — and began. True to form, the music started slowly, suggesting possibilities, hinting at the journey ahead. Everything that followed, from staggering virtuosity to mesmerizing spirals of intersecting rhythmic cycles, went beyond my expectations. One of the experiences we look for in a concert is to be drawn into another world — to briefly live in another dimension, leaving behind our everyday lives, and to exist only in the moment. This is what it is like when Sandeep plays.

During his week at Brandeis, Sandeep and his guest artist, sitar player Rajib Karmakar, will participate in classes in anthropology, history, religion, and international and global studies as well as in theater and music. They will give an informal concert at the Mandel Center for the Humanities and perform for the Waltham public schools. A special workshop for anyone who wishes to bring an instrument (especially players of traditional Indian instruments) takes place on Friday, September 30 from 4-5:30 p.m. in Slosberg Music Center. Residency curator Anne E. Monius, professor of South Asian Religions, Harvard Divinity School, will give the pre-concert talk at the final concert on October 1.

When I founded MusicUnitesUS in 2003, it was initially a response to 9/11. I needed to understand points of view outside of my own, to leave my comfort zone, musically and otherwise. I found inspiration in Yo-Yo and in the Kronos Quartet, and mentors in musicologist Theodore Levin and my Brandeis colleague Cynthia Cohen, director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts. Now I’ve added Sandeep to the list of people who remind us in their words and actions that the arts have a unique power in peace and coexistence work.

Sandeep is a kindred spirit. “In current times, one cannot live insulated lives anymore,” he says, “and the more we care about and share one another’s treasures, the better it is.” He created the ensemble HUM (Harmony and Universality Through Music) in 2009 to “bring the world back to India.” Through performances that combine Asian and Western music, HUM aims to help Indian audiences appreciate that “the seven notes of music transcend all the false borders that separate us.”

“Cross-cultural collaborations featuring Indian music and Indian musicians are not new,” says Indian vocalist Shubha Mudgul, who had a MusicUnitesUS residency at Brandeis in 2008. “But most of these collaborations are initiated by non-Indian musicians curious to explore the complex music systems of India. HUM is a welcome change, wherein an Indian musician steers a cross-cultural music project.”

Mike Block, Sandeep’s frequent partner in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, will join Sandeep and Rajib Karmakar in the final concert. Block was one of the first wave of cellists to adopt a standing, moving style of playing, made possible by a cello strap of his own design. These are electrifying performers. The New York Times described the combination of Das and Block as “half dance, half dare.”

Typical of the MUUS artists, Sandeep, Rajib and Mike affirm what can happen when we are truly curious about each other. Each a star in his own tradition, together they will improvise new pathways and take us along for the ride. One thing I can promise: I have no idea what they will actually play in the concert, but you will be hooked, from beginning to end.

Watch a sampling of Sandeep Das performing:

The Origins of Tabla (Written by Niranjana Warrier ’17)

Throughout 5,000 years of music making in India, whether in the southern Carnatic tradition or the northern Hindustani, one instrument has proven itself adaptable to both a traditional and a modern role in film and fusion music: the tabla.

The modern tabla was probably introduced by Mughal invaders who over several centuries imported their culture to India, including tabl, a paired drum set. First used to accompany the khayāl form of classical singing, the modern tabla later accompanied dance performances and eventually was played in solo recitals, for which a repertoire developed during the latter part of the 18th century.

Playing a set of two drums, one bigger — bāyan (“left” in Hindi, as a right-handed tabla player would use his or her left hand to play this drum) — than the other (dāyan, “right,” which is played using the dominant hand), the tabla player produces distinctive rhythmic patterns by alternating left bass and right treble sounds, each produced using a combination of signature strokes. Individual techniques vary depending on the musician’s particular gharānā, or lineage of musical knowledge.

Sandeep Das belongs to the Benares gharānā, one of six tabla gharānās. Developed in northern India more than 200 years ago, this gharānā is known for its suitability for solo performances as well as accompaniment for nearly any form of music and dance. Artists of the Benares gharānā typically kneel to play, with their feet together and knees wide apart. This results in the player’s shoulders exerting weight on the drums, especially on the bāyan, which is particularly suitable for the powerful strokes that distinguish the Benares style.

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