A New Season

As people in the U.S. adjust to the moved-up time change for Daylight Savings Time, people in Kolkata are marking the end of the cool winter season. There’s no particular celebration, just general commentary that the weather has turned. So it’s the end of the sponsored weekend golf tournaments, travel agents are booking escapes to cooler climes in May and June, and it only takes about 10 minutes for sweat to soak your shirt.

There were celebrations for Holi, the festival that marks the arrival of Spring. One of the puppies that has joined the cadre of dogs that snooze on Ho Chi Minh Sarani was caught in the color crossfire and sported a purple-red snout. If you look closely, you’d see that many people’s fingernails and toenails are tinted various bright colors too. We didn’t play Holi, but we did attend a lovely concert on Holi weekend. The set-up was classic Mughal style, with three of four shamiyanas set up in a large courtyard. On the grass the hosts had spread out immense padded sheets, dotted with cylindrical bolster pillows. Some people preferred to use some chairs that had been provided, but we followed the example of most guests — kicking off our shoes and lounging as we listened to a sitar recital.

I don’t know much about the sitar, although I once tuned my guitar the way a sitar is tuned (very cool effect that I’m surprised bands haven’t employed). I was also expecting to enjoy watching people fall into a stereotypical trance-like state of head-shaking and rocking as if we were at a Krishna Consciousness revival meeting. I was, to put it mildly, wowed by the playing. I’m certainly not an expert, but I’ve always believed that the veena and the sitar contain the eternal sound of India — a repetitive drone that is played behind the melody. It’s that sound that captures for me the visual of looking across agricultural land from a train, or down a city street with the volume turned off. And I did find myself discovering (or feeling like I was discovering) some sort of hidden order in the music. It appeared as if that was the Ustad Nishat Khan’s job — finding the patterns contained in the instrument and bringing them out for the audience. We sat for a good 90 minutes listening to him do this, accompanied by the tabla. Breathtaking.

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