King Cat Theatre, Seattle, Washington–USA. May 3, 2003.
When I saw the mostly Indian audience dressed in their finest saris and suits crowd into the King Cat Theatre, I could feel the anticipation. Two of India’s most brilliant musicians, tabla player Zakir Hussain (the son of the legendary tabla master, Alla Rakha) and the world-renowned santoorist, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma would soon bless the audience with their musical presence. And as promised by a fateful invitation, Zakir and Shivkumar did indeed delight their devoted fans and novices such as myself with their sheer virtuosity. And novices to classical Indian music could easily be fooled into thinking that it was Zakir’s concert when in fact, Shivkumar was the featured performer. Every nod or gesture on Zakir’s part brought shudders and applause. Watching the musicians master their instruments or play off of each other’s energy ended in elation and wonderment. As did, focusing on the ripple of muscles under Zakir’s bright orange shirt while his rubber-like hands pounded out beats only he could invent.
The first set began with a Hindustani (North India) raga called Buriya Kalyan. Shivkumar flowed through the alap section, then introduced rhythm in the jor section that grew more complicated through the jhala section. This flowed into the composition and gats section in which, tabla beats were slowly added. It was at this point that the audience elation grew thus waxing and waning with slow rhythms and applauding after musical climaxes. The atmosphere created by the musicians fell somewhere between the sexual act and mathematics as the musicians continued through the rupak tal and ek-tal sections. An intermission came after an explosion of tabla beats and santoor rhythms. Both the musicians and audience members needed a breather.
Of course, the intermission lasted too long and concert goers were still drifting into the theatre and winding their way to their seats long after the raga of the second set, Mishra (mixed) Khmaj had begun. These were obviously people familiar with the slow and tedious alap and jor sections. They were waiting for the interplay between tabla and santoor that in time did occur this time adding playful elements and more complex rhythms with the introduction of folklore elements. Shivkumar had commented earlier that normally a vocalist would be added on this section. Yet the absence of a vocalist appeared to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. Ever so often, the musicians would wipe sweat off their foreheads and Zakir would hammer on his tablas, most likely to tune them. They worked their way through slow and fast 16 beat talas while teasing the audience with false endings. The real ending created uproar of applause and left the musicians legendary status intact.