October 01, 1993

Sitar Struck

Filed under: Archive,Music

Alan Posselt
and Aneesh Pradhan

Elder Hall

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Derived from the Persian “seh-tar” meaning three stringed, the sitar- multi-stringed, long-necked lute from Northern India- has been a featured instrument of the classical Hindustani tradition since at least the sixteenth century. Apart from musicologists and Indianists, Western audiences only began turning ears to its ineffable cadences in the late 1950s when Ravi Shankar gave his first recitals in London and New York.

By the early sixties folkies like the ubiquitous Davey Graham were playing and recording guitar “ragas” but it was George Harrison’s solo on the Rubber Soul album that sent the sitar global. Cranking through a few runs on Norwegian Wood, George gave a hint of what was to come. Love You To, on Revolver, indicated he was getting the hang of things and by the time he recorded Within You Without You for Sgt Pepper half the pop musicians in London had their leg over a sitar. Brian Jones, Traffic and Eric Burdon’s band, for instance. On the West Coast there was Richie Havens and when the Byrds went Eight Miles High they took an electric sitar.

It was no accident that the modal weavings of Indian classical music came to prominence at the same time as psychedelics. It wasn’t just Timothy Leary’s Millbrook soirees that used ragas for their lysergic adventurings. Every provincial kid in the world was putting Portrait of Genius on the turntable before trying out some high-grade dried banana peel. Understandably Ravi Shankar was unimpressed with becoming Captain Trips, even though he himself produced some rather interesting movie music for Conrad Rooks. After performing at both Monterey and Woodstock, Shankar withdrew from the pop circuit and gradually the fad for things Indian turned to rhinestone cowboys instead.

The jazz fusion musicians turned out to be the true carriers of the flame – John McLaughlin with his Mahavishnu and Shakti projects and talented Shankar proteges like the late Collin Walcott whose splendid group Oregon once performed to thirty seven people in Adelaide. Now Indian music comes to us from the Festival and Womad circuit – virtuosi such as Ali Akbar Khan and L. Subramaniam continue to amaze audiences of Subcontinent nationals and Western enthusiasts alike.

It was no surprise to find just such a mixed audience at the Elder Hall for the sublime sitar and tabla recital given by Australian Alan Posselt and renowned young Indian musician – and, I’m told, star of his own Taj Mahal teabag commercial- Aneesh Pradhan. Originally a classical guitarist, Posselt, who studied sitar in India with Ustad Alludin Khan (father of Ali Akbar Khan) has also reached great proficiency with sarod and other Indian classical instruments.

They performed three works consisting of ragas, the basic melody line, and talas, their rhythmic counterpoint. Raga Madhuvanti began first in tintala or slow tempo, shifting to jhaptala- fast tempo- and returning to tintala to conclude. For nearly an hour Posselt gathered the room around him, building rhythms to intense energy and releasing them again into melodies of subtle delicacy. His technique, while not as breathtakingly fluid as Shankar, is nonetheless remarkable. And Aneesh Pradhan’s tabla work is brilliantly deft and fluent.

The second item, Raga Eshri proved to be even more accomplished as Posselt moved from slow tempo to ever more intricate cross rhythms while Pradhan’s hands turned to a blur of speed and sound on the tabla. It is not surprising that ignorant listeners like me are inclined to compare the vivacity and freedom of Indian music with the improvisations of jazz and blues but in fact the motifs and scales have to be painstakingly learned. “It’s almost scientific,” Shankar once said, “but at the same time you’re free as a bird.”

Alan Posselt and Aneesh Pradhan were just such scientifically free birds- and the audience did its share of flying as well. The evening concluded with Raga Bhairavi, a total of two hours aural pleasure. David Arbon’s sound rig was excellent and 5UV taped the performance which will go out on Global Rhythm in the Saturday midday slot. Watch the 5UV program guide for details.

Commissioned October, 1993 for The Adelaide Review
but not published.

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