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Great Albums You May Have Missed: Hasu Patel's Gayaki Sitar (1996)


When thou commandest me to sing,
It seems that my heart would break with pride;
And I look to thy face,
And tears come to my eyes.

Rabindranath Tagore*

Hasu Patel’s collection of traditional ragas for sitar are little invitations to the world, invitations to reflect on the deepest concept known to humankind: The Divine — the nature of which we acknowledge, from our various traditions, exists somewhere beyond thought and imagination. They are exquisite examples of the evocative, inviting qualities of this tradition and this instrument. Played in a style that is lesser known in the west than others (which alone gives this collection real distinction), the mood she summons will just consume you! I still recall the first time I put on Gayaki Sitar (Preview here); I was sitting in my cubicle, in the library; surrounded by a sea of other cubicles; then suddenly, I was transported to the center of the universe, or realized I was there already; a cosmic deer trapped in God's headlights: stunned.

Now lovers of traditional Indian music, as well as genuine sitar players, must feel some fatigue from the frequency with which a discussion of the sitar in the west so often seems to start with George Harrison. This record has a skip in it, no? But cross-cultural influences and exposures do often have a starting point; and the reason this starting point is so revealing is that, although it popularized sitar in the west, it limited our exposure as well.

And so we know, it was 1965. George Harrison picked up a sitar off the set of "Help!" and played it on the Beatles song "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)."  Providing a wonderfully exotic flourish to the song, it was the first rock record to use the sitar; and it set off a veritable craze in western rock music for the instrument.

Soon after that recording, Ravi Shankar invited George Harrison to India to study the instrument first-hand with an undisputed master. My completely unsubstantiated hunch is that Shankar heard Harrison's playing on the song and humbly thought, "Uh, yea, why don't you come on over to India so we can make sure you know that the sitar is not so much a weird guitar with exotic twanginess, but very much its own thing, with its own voice, technique... and purpose... and some first-hand exposure to real players may help you better appreciate that."

So George Harrison went to India to hang out with Ravi Shankar. And it did seem, rather quickly, that Harrison got pretty serious about learning the sitar, and even its spiritual implications. Compare, for instance, the transcendental allusions (or lack thereof) of "Norwegian Wood" to "Love You To," "Tomorrow Never Knows," or "Within You Without You" recorded only a year or two after. So I don't mean to dismiss this yearning of a western musician to understand; I think it should count for something. And onward from this point, the transcendental sounds of India would grow to become such an integral part of the hippy movement that it is hard to think of "psychedelic" music existing without them.

Indian musical influence had arrived in the west in a big way, and Ravi Shankar had become its unofficial ambassador. Though hardly unknown before, Shankar’s association with the Beatles skyrocketed him to international fame: playing sold-out tours around the world, the Monterey Pop Festival, and then Woodstock; to new fans prepped, albeit largely through psychedelic drugs, to fully appreciate the transcendental sounds of the Indian raga; and its invitation, in fact, to a deeper, or higher, realm of reality. How perfect is that for the hippies at Woodstock? Even Canned Heat, a straight-up, English blues band who would play what many considered the anthem of Woodstock, "On The Road Again," incorporated the Tampura, for its drony, psychedelic (and by association, therefore, "transcendental") edge. And this influence ‘flowered’ out into what would become known more generally as Raga Rock (the pinnacle of which I suggest to be Shocking Blue's "Hot Sand").

All this is great; Indian music had developed with such independence from western influences that it could not have sounded more unique and "exotic" to our ears: its instruments are different, it develops music in very different ways, has a much more varied tonal structure, and perhaps most importantly, approaches music with a spiritual respect rarely if ever matched in the west, certainly in pop or rock music. These overtly spiritual yearnings were compelling, and were welcomed by many in late '60s America. And though this deep and traditional respect in approach was bound to get a little unhinged when incorporated into rock, it seemed to work rather well. It became a cool and interesting way to add a little exoticism to the mix (did I already mention "Hot Sand"?)

But equally true is, how the sitar came to western pop culture also limited our ears and our experience rather than expanded them. The vast difference in western pop culture and traditional Indian culture is neatly highlighted by the hippy movement's use of LSD and its accompanying psychedelic experience, and the Indian, life-long practice of transcendental meditation. In many ways, the terms psychedelic and transcendental are synonymous; but the one term is fed through western pop cultural sensibilities and the other descended down from a centuries-old religious tradition. On a basic level they allude to the same thing, but from dramatically different cultural groundings. Am I stating the obvious?

Both have similar intentions; both share elements and goals and, dare I say, even results (to a limited degree). But one is done from a 'pop' state of mind, more akin, perhaps, to a rowdy teenager doing a cannonball off the highdive, accompanying him or herself with a scream of "let's do this!" The other, approached very slowly over a lifetime of serious dedication, with the utmost respect, more like slipping more calmly into a lake, at its shore, to experience the water without disturbing it. And when one approaches the transcendental in this way, one is simply more prepared, more aware of those goals, and more equipped to recognize the experience for what it was meant to be, communion with the Divine Presence, oneness with the universe: transcendence. For those hippies at Woodstock, I'll bet they got there too; but it was sloppy, less disciplined and informed by a lifetime of focusing the mind; and when they "came down," they were as sweaty, muddy, hungry and tired, as everybody else, as worldly as when they started. Well, probably not quite; those who attended Woodstock will pardon my oversimplification to prove a point. Because all that is to say, I love Harrison's sitar flourishes, I love Canned Heat, Raga Rock, and even doing an occasional cannonball off the highdive. And I really have little experience with these more traditional concepts of which I speak, outside of what this recording so beautifully insists is beyond dispute: that is, there is much more to it than that. I don't mean to overstep, but isn't it obvious that such a long and solemn tradition would get diluted when adopted by a culture that idolizes having a good time over everything else? So if you've ever enjoyed sitar, in any setting, why not ask yourself why it exists? It began as a poetic way of pointing to God. A recording like Gayaki Sitar seems to remind us that this cultural dialogue is a beautiful thing, but let’s not co-opt eachother’s traditions so entirely into our own that we forget their original, deeper, purpose and meaning.

But more interesting still is, with Ravi Shankar catapulted to the international stage via his association with the Beatles, and therefore western popular music in general, other great masters and playing styles of the sitar got eclipsed. And this is really what we are here to remedy.

There was another great master of the sitar in India, one who played in a completely different style and tradition than Shankar. His name was Ustad Vilayat Khan Sahib. He too spent a lifetime focusing on the purpose of inspiring a mood of devotion and surrender through his playing. He even redesigned the sitar to fill it with a deeper resonance; and he honed a beautifully distinctive style of playing, known as Gayaki Ang (literally, 'vocal style'), which aims at playing the sitar as if one were singing through it. It is an amazing approach, and one that even non-connoisseurs of the instrument can quickly recognize upon hearing.

Hasu Patel studied under the great Vilayat Khan starting as a young girl, and her collection of ragas offers a beautiful example of Gayaki Ang style. It was (and is) not at all common for a master sitar player to choose a girl as a student, but the master must have sensed something very special in young Hasu. And here, decades later, we can sense it too.

Another noticeably different approach in these ragas is her use of the Alap. The Alap traditionally begins as a slow and meditative improvised introduction to the raga, before the rhythms of the tabla join in. Here, there is no tabla, only an acoompanying drone on the tampura. Hasu simply stays with Alap for the entirety, which gives the music a more heavily improvised orientation, and an increased reflective quality. And this is really what her incredible style of playing does best; while on many sitar recordings the tabla adds a new dimension, here it would only distract.

What is most remarkable, and I don't say this lightly, but something here very powerfully indicates something more than itself. This music is merely a window: its real purpose is not to call attention to itself, but to invite you to look through it. I have never heard that indicated more powerfully, more undeniably, than on this recording. This is what separates this album from the piles of other CDs that litter my desk, something the very laws of physics insist is impossible: That something can in fact be more than it is. The sound clearly indicates this, and immediately renders the listener speechless.

Beyond her recording for solo sitar, Hasu has written two wonderful concerti for sitar and orchestra. Tabla fans can be comforted that, unlike her solo recording, there are some wonderful tabla rhythms incorporated here. Her concerti bring together elements of Indian and western music, and, In my opinion, they are the best attempts at this hybrid. Yet they are still not as widely known as they should be.

Ravi Shankar famously attempted to bring together the sitar and the concerto a few times. His were admirable attempts; but by retaining the recognizable structure of the concerto, the potential of the sitar to invoke, its raison d’être, seemed to be limited by this imposition.

Hasu does something with the music in her concerti that I believe has never been done before, and this is what makes these pieces just absolutely intriguing to listen to again and again. She uses the western orchestra in a way that compliments, rather than compromises, the structure of raga. That is, unlike Shankar, who inserted the sitar into the concerto form; Hasu has inserted the concert orchestra into the raga form. And so these concerti have the orchestral players echoing the tones of the raga, pairing instruments with the sounds of the sitar, tampura, and tabla, based on their respective sound qualities. It must have been such a creative challenge for the players of this orchestra to work with these very different phrases and changes; to play their instruments in ways they weren't used to playing them! The pieces begin with the Indian instruments, then develop with the unmistakeable fluidity and vocal quality of Gayaki Ang, seemlessly bringing in the orchestral instruments. I'm telling you, there is nothing like it! These pieces are so utterly organic in their raga-like development over time, it boggles my mind!

I sincerely hope you like them as much as I do.

Preview the recordings of Hasu Patel online:

Borrow Hasu Patel CDs from NYPL:

*Quote provided by the artist.



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Sitar Music

Thanks for this very informative article. Sitar Music is wonderful yet I had previously felt very uneducated on the subject. Nice to have a some history on the art form and some guidance as to what albums I should add to my collection. I always enjoy this column.

Hasu Patel

What a wonderful article about Hasu Patel. I have all of the recordings the reviewer mentions and I have been to a couple of Hasu's concerts. She is without a doubt a superb musician. I am lucky enough to know her, her husband Anil and her two grown children personally. They are absolutely wonderful people!

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