Indian classical music is one of the oldest and most revered genres of music in the world. It has a rich, longstanding history that goes back as far as 1200 A.D. and has influenced the course of popular music in the West. Bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were heavily influenced by this style of music during their run in the sixties.
At the Elting Memorial Library, tabla player Naren Budhakar and sitarist Noé Dinnerstein performed this style of music to a captivated audience on Nov. 27. Dinnerstein had been trying to secure a performance at the library for the past year. He had previously performed at the library’s Diwali celebrations in the past.
Dinnerstein and Budhakar are incredibly well trained musicians. Budhakar was born and raised in Bombay, India and he comes from a long lineage of family musicians. Dinnerstein has a career spanning over 50 years, training in both Western and non-Western classical music. The two men formed a friendship in 2001 at the unlikeliest of places.
“Naren and I know each other from the Indian restaurant scene down in the East Village in New York,” Dinnerstein said. “That used be an active venue for employing musicians, [but] not really any more.”
For the performance, the duo’s setup was fairly simple. The two of them sat on a table situated at the end of Elting Library’s recreational room. Budhakar had his tabla, which are a pair of drums that are known for evoking a wide variety of tones depending on how they’re struck, and Dinnerstein had his sitar, a long guitar characterized by its four melody strings, three drone strings and 12 resonating strings.
Right next to Dinnerstein was a synthesizer that generated the droning notes of the tambura, another stringed instrument used in Indian classical music. This provided a root note for the performers to work off of.
“The root note is very important,” Budhakar said. “You can’t change the key [in the middle of a performance]. The drone acts as the base.”
He compared its purpose to that of a harpsichord for Western classical music in that they both provide the artists a base.
The performance itself was as captivating as it was meditative. The first piece that they performed was titled “Raga Yaman,” and is usually played during the twilight hours of the day. This piece was the longest, clocking in at roughly 30 minutes. “Raga Yaman” opened with free improvisation at the hands of Dinnerstein, adding clearer rhythm and melody as it progressed.
Budhakar would chime in with his rhythmic and expressive playing during the latter half of the performance, but even when he wasn’t playing, he provided a unique and unforgettable stage presence. During these parts, it appeared that he was meditating, and falling into Dinnerstein’s richly textured chords and drones. When he was playing, he was incredibly energetic and full of life, frequently exchanging glances with Dinnerstein and grinning widely as he tapped out a captivating rhythm.
“Raga Yaman” ended on a beautiful climax from both performers. Budhakar’s drumming reached a fever pitch during the closing minutes of the piece and Dinnerstein’s drone was enveloping the small room in an powerful, warm wall of sound. This climax wasn’t intimidating, however. It was deeply meditative and insightful to hear.
The duo then transitioned into their final two songs, “Raga Jhinjhoti” and “Raga Desh.” These songs were much shorter in length, but just as captivating. “Raga Jhinjhoti” was a dance-folk piece that originated from the Himalayan foothill regions, near Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. “Raga Desh” was similar in nature in that it was a folk piece but it had a more romantic tone compared to “Rage Jhinjhoti,” being a romantic, rainy season Raga.
“It’s a privilege to hear world class musicians that you don’t usually have the opportunity to hear live,” said Elting Memorial Library Board President Linda Welles.
Dinnerstein and Budhakar were both glad that people came out here to watch them perform the classical style of music.
“This size of the audience, this size of the hall is ideal. From a listener’s point of view, going to a concert like this, it warms up your evening like nothing else,” Budhakar said. “What it brings for an hour or two, is such a beautiful experience that we’d love if more people come and share this.”
“You have an actual interaction between the performance and the listeners,” Dinnerstein said. “Especially if they are knowledgeable in the music, so you can have a back and forth with them, where they have certain expectations, and you play with those expectations. It is delightful.”
The duo have no official performances scheduled for the coming months. However, both men made it clear that they’re always open to performing with one another, usually collaborating once a year.
“It hasn’t been that regular but it keeps happening, and that’s the beauty of it,” Budhakar said.