Sitar, Zitar & some Odissi

Namamee was an evening of music and dance featuring Niladri Kumar on the sitar and Zitar (his homegrown musical creation) and an Odissi dance recital by Shubhada Varadkar and her senior students. The Odissi performance, using audio- visuals and dance, traced Swami Vivekananda’s Journey to Divinity. As a Karmayogi, preaching those values in the country, Swamiji believed in ‘Salvation of the self, Liberation of the world’.

The programme was held to celebrate National Youth Day and presented by the Vivekananda Youth Forum (VYF) and Sanskruta Foundation, and supported by the Pandit Kartick Kumar Foundation, in aid of the streetchildren of VYF’s soup kitchen project (towards their education). The key co-sponsor was New India Assurance.

The Odissi recital was conceptualised, directed and choreographed by Shubhada Varadkar. The commentary was by Vidyasagar. Lights were designed by Sheetal Talpade and executed by Ritesh Patade and set design by Ajay Kasurde. Music was by Vijay Tambe and the songs were sung by Manoj Desai, Sharmishtha Basu and Sanjeevani Bhelande. Graphics were by Amit Malhotra. The costume design was by Shubhada herself. Some of the songs used in the performance were penned by Swami Vivekananda himself.

The lyrical dance form traced Swamijis journey through an invocation, his vision of Shiva, the liberation of ego, realisation, the death of desire, worshipping his Guru, scaling sublime heights, and finally Samadhi, becoming one with the divine. It began with a narrative on Vivekananda and his ideals, with visuals playing on a giant screen that served as the backdrop.

The first piece was a Mangalacharan (literally homage at the feet of), paying tribute to Swami Vivekananda’s majestic attributes, against the backdrop of a sunrise, like his own inner light that shone brighter than the sun. A troupe of five dancers, clad in bright traditional costumes, in slow languid movement typical of the Odissi style, danced to Jaya Vishweshwar, Viveka Bhaskar, Jaya Jaya Shri Vivekananda. They moved like nymphs, following in their own art, Vivekananda’s quest for perfection too. The key was – ‘As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap’.

The second was a Thillana, performed by Shubhada and two students. The diminutive, petite Shubhada was clad in a purple and red costume with the traditional silver ornamentation. As the words Bhoge Bharoge Nidhi Karam Karyavidhi were sung, Shubhada’s face bespoke an inner calm and rare serenity, though her limpid eyes are always pools of expression, speaking of lifetimes of experience…To Om Tat Sat–  The choreography for this piece was very intricate and well-executed. The key was- Every Action Bears An Effect In Our Lives.

The third was about the human tendency to worship Maya -the external illusion- this life. The depiction was of Maa Kali dancing on the heart, to destroy desire, the song on Kali – Phule Phool Surabhin Vyakul- was performed by Shubhada and four  students. Despite her tiny form, she held your attention with a larger-than-life portrayal of the devastating Kali Maa. The key was- Don’t Go By External Beauty, Look Within.

The fourth piece depicted how the mother is the most beautiful form and in mother, God is present. Shubhada’s facial expressions were exquisite emotional portrayals. The dance piece told the story of a courtesan whose performance Swamiji was invited to see. He refused because she was a professional, and when she heard of it, she sang, Prabhu More Avagun Chit Na Dharo, Samadarshi Prabhu Naam Tiharo, Chahe To Paar Karo (A Soordas bhajan) A shamed Vivekananda realised how he was being judgemental by virtue of superficial definition and worshipped the form of the mother in her, in all purity. The key was- In Every Jeeva (life- organism) There Is God, And He Who Serves Jeeva, Serves God.

The fifth piece was about how Vivekananda represented India in the Parliament of Religions (1893). Vivekananda’s Guruji Swami Ramakrishna Paramhamsa believed and preached that religion is not for empty bellies. He preached the service of the poor and the destitute. Here the dancers had changed into white and red costumes with the classic silver jewellery.

The music was symphonic – with a blend of desi. It moved from Thillana to the Ramakrishna Aarti in Bengali – Khandana Bhava Bandhana Jaga Vandana Vandi tomay, sung with sargam and alaap in the Namo Namo Prabhu Vakyamanatita– the choreography of the dancers together was very taut and beautiful, to Sarva Mangala Mangalye. The ideology was to give up all fruit of work. Keep no expectation, no attachments, and seek spiritual growth only.

The culmination was the Sanskrit Nirvanashatakam (Aadi Shankaracharya’s stanzas on Nirvana) – Nor am I the ether, the earth, the fire, the air; I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute — I am He, I am He. (ShivohamShivoham). This was divinely inspired and performed.

Vivekananda was always an artist and a poet first. But believed God was the Aadi Kavi, the first and eternal poet. The concluding performance in Bhairavi was Nahi Surjo, Nahi Jyoti, Shashanka Sundara, a Bengali song written by Swami Vivekananda himself. All 6 students and Shubhada, winding up with Asato Maam, Sat Gamaya, Tamaso Maam, Jyotir gamaya, combined with some excellent lighting gave a true feeling of inner awakening.

The post interval portion of the evening saw the extremely talented Niladri Kumar pay his tribute with his mesmerising music on the zitar and the sitar. Niladri is a fifth generation sitar player, and has become a global icon in the past few years.

The baby-faced Niladri is just so charming, he talks even better than he plays the sitar. He seduces you with his talk. He first slew the audience with his words, and then with his wicked playing. His greatest pride is that he is his father, Pandit Kartick Kumar’s disciple. Accompanying him were an extremely talented set of artistes. This handpicked motley crew comprised  Satyajit Talwalkar on the tabla (Satyajit is the son of Tabla guru Suresh Talwalkar and renowned vocalist Padma Talwalkar), Agnelo Fernandes on the keyboard, percussion and Djembe by Omkar Salunkhe (a student of Ustad Taufiq Qureshi) and Sambit Chatterjee (son of the wizard percussionist and tabla player Subhen Chatterjee)on the drums.

They started with an extended playing of rhythm and keys, a humungous sound built up to a crescendo, international rhythm and joined by the tabla as it built up, and then Niladri on his funky red zitar. The echo and reverb effect they created was striking, sounding like a jazz concert. Niladri’s extremely lyrical playing, like he was coaxing words out of the zitar. At the deafening applause at the end of what was a resounding start, he quipped, “Well, what you heard was our sound check. We will now start the concert …” as he picked up the sitar. His quips about recorded applause, and the art of leaving, and fusion and confusion, etc elicited huge laughs from the listeners, most of them already familiar with his music and in love with his persona. And Niladri is in love with the sound of his sitar and zitar. He coaxes them to speak, he makes love to them, their music elevating the rhythm that lifted beautifully as did the sound of the sitar. Oh how he loves excesses… everything was in excess… and as he played, his father conducted the concert, sitting in the first row, his arms waving and keeping rhythm, his chest swelled with pride. And Niladri’s periodic look said, ‘Look Pa, I did good’, as he sought his father’s reactions. It was always good.

Niladri played long and longer alaaps, but he played fursat se (taking time over each alaap). He also gave ample time to each of the talents accompanying him for solo play, and each of them excelled when they did. Omkar’s accompaniment , as also Sambit’s to his lightning speed taans and avartans was outstanding. His gamak phrasing in alaaps were rare combinations of note patterns. He also has lot of silent moments interspersed in the series of notes of great speed, and he loves them. As he does doing the Parveen Sultana on the sitar (traversing five octaves on the strings).

The drum set solo was mindblowingly good. Then Niladri went back to the zitar and played some dhuns (tunes), which had the haunting quality of old Hindi film songs (of the semi classical base), floating out there in the back of your mind. He melded rhythm and ragas, patterns and permutations, and broke all rules, even as he sounded strictly traditional. The pendulum swung from Hindustani classical to jazz to western classical to Hindi music, to winding up with Bapu’s Raghupati Raghav Rajaram… an hour flew faster than his notes. But he was high on his playing. As was the audience. Though he started late, the audience stayed. Even for an encore.

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