Monday, December 6, 2010

"A Nice Evening in Varanasi"

Varanasi, October 19th

“A Nice Evening in Varanasi” is the title on the cover of the CD I bought from the musicians we saw that evening. It’s the adjective that gets me – “nice.” The word is so underwhelming, especially when compared with the reality of spending an evening in Varanasi, India’s holiest city.

Veena had set up a performance for us at the home of a troupe of traditional Indian musicians. She lead us like so many ducklings through narrow alleyways and dirt streets, pausing for rickshaws and cars, steering around wallahs and cow turds. We arrived in a back alleyway defined by a twelve-foot brick wall covered with palm-sized patties of dung. To my left, a middle-aged woman squatted in the mud behind a placid steer forming more patties. She glanced up at us and ignored our presence so fiercely that I don’t think anyone dared take a picture.  (Well, I did, but only when I thought she wasn't looking)

Varanasi, India
We stood on a porch in front of a double door made of thick wood with iron knockers. I wrapped my scarf more tightly around my shoulders, more in response to the darkening sky than to any chill, and kept watch for mosquitoes while we waited to enter. The musicians opened the door and greeted us, showing us in and offering us tea as we sat on a short elevated platform covered with carpets and cushions in the large entry room. Two of the men were short and dark; the third man was tall and androgynous with a pronounced lisp in green and gold robes.

The three men were brothers, each specializing in a different instrument: the harmonium, the sitar, and the tabla. The sitar is a classic instrument – when you think of the mysterious east, the soundtrack you hear in your head probably features a sitar. It’s a whiney, discordant sound. But as soon as the tabla player began, my eyes were fixed to his hands which beat like hummingbird wings on the two drums. The tabla drums are a little bigger than young coconuts; every beat sounds different depending on where the drum is hit, and what part of the hand is used to hit it. To learn to play the tabla takes eight to nine hours of practice per day for years, he told us, as he created deep, round metallic sounds, and light percussive tapping sounds for demonstration. The brothers have played all over Europe, traveling with dancers who accompany their music.

The tall androgynous man with the lisp didn’t look at all like his brothers. His skin was lighter, his face and body round, and his entire demeanor captured attention like a Broadway performer. He played instruments too, but his role tonight was to dance the part of Ganesh. A female dancer entered the room to play Lakshimi. They both wore percussive bells on their ankles that allowed them to add their own rhythms to the music. She whirled and the bells sewn into her clothing and clasped around her ankles tinkled and pounded in questions and answers to the tabla drums.

We all bought the CD. 

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