vibrations: Veena Chandra.
of the Spheres
mother-son duo are quietly creating world-class Indian
Veena Chandra describes the raga she’s about to perform,
it’s as if she’s introducing the audience to a momentary
visitor. The song, like the deity it’s devoted to, is
defined by its various aspects—the particular beat cycle
and intervallic qualities virtually synonymous with that
god’s role and disposition. So, it’s not just the teacher
in Chandra eclipsing the performer when she introduces
an ode to the goddess Saraswati by first listing the set
of sharps and flats that describe her. In Hindustani music,
the ancient devotional music of Northern India, it’s just
In this tradition, it’s not uncommon for a full concert
to be devoted to a particular religious figure, but on
this day the subject of the performance is Chandra herself,
who will be turning 65 the following week.
For the birthday celebration, a small audience has gathered
in the basement of her unassuming suburban home in Latham,
a humble space she uses for performance and instruction
as the Dance and Music School of India. Visitors enter
through the garage and descend a short flight of stairs
to be seated on the floor before the stage area where
Chandra has arranged her sitar and harmonium, as well
as colorful posters of the Hindu deities to use as visual
aid. Her 25-year-old son and accompanist, Devesh, meticulously
tunes his tablas by striking the rims with a brass mallet.
Despite the Chandras’ elegant dress and the austere moods
that emanate from the droning ragas, the social climate
is easy and informal. The occasion, more offering than
performance, will drift on for more than three hours,
culminating in a delicious Indian meal. Between songs,
Veena chews ginger to help sooth a sore throat, and laughs
easily when discussing her life and career.
The performance begins, as is customary, with a song for
Ganesh, the elephant-headed god who is regarded as the
“remover of obstacles.” Veena plays the harmonium, a miniature
hand-pumped organ, and sings in unison with her playing.
In Hindustani music, singing is the highest musical discipline,
above instrumental performance and dance. Growing up in
India, Veena listened to her father play flute and sitar
in the evening, but her first experience with music was
singing in school. She says she would watch her teacher
play harmonium and come home to imitate what she’d seen.
At 8 or 9, she already knew she wanted to become a musician.
Her grandmother would bring her to house concerts, like
the one she was staging this night, to hear musicians
play harmonium and sing, and it wasn’t long before the
congregation came to hear her.
Veena’s father was impressed by his daughter’s progress
and consented to her request that she study music in school.
Through high school, college, and post-graduate work at
Agra University, she learned all the Indian instruments
and became proficient at performance and instruction.
To a Western audience, Indian music is closely associated
with the sitar, due to the popularity of Ravi Shankar
in the 1960s. After a few songs on harmonium, Veena opens
the peculiar case and begins tuning her instrument’s 19
strings. A small electronic box at her side produces a
steady drone to aid in tuning. This function was more
traditionally served by the tanpura, a four-string gourd-based
drone instrument similar to sitar that she will occasionally
play when a master sitar player tours through the area.
She first learned sitar from her guru Satish Chandra,
a disciple of Ravi Shankar, and later studied with the
master Ustad Vilayet Khan Saheb.
Unlike Western chordal string instruments, upon which
a musician can play a simultaneous combination of notes
to generate harmony, the sitar, and thereby the Indian
raga, is purely melodic. Seven of the instrument’s strings
are used for plucking linear notes, while 12 strings lie
below the instrument’s raised frets in order to drone.
In Sanskrit, raga means “color” and every raga is defined
by the scale (although, it may make more sense to a Western
musician to think of a raga as a “mode”) utilized to generate
that color or mood. It’s this prescribed set of notes
that constitutes the raga’s thaat, a melodic framework,
much like the “head” of a jazz chart, that functions as
the point of departure and return for the improvising
When Veena and Devesh begin to play, it is at first very
subdued. Veena states the theme on sitar, while Devesh
plays the basic rhythm cycle, or tala, on tablas,
two small hand-struck kettle drums, the larger of which
is resonant enough for the player to generate and manipulate
pitch. Similar to a Western time signature, the tala
can be incredibly complex, including over 100 beats in
a single cycle; however, common talas consist of
around 16 beats.
As the raga unfolds, the playing becomes more vigorous.
Veena moves up and down her fretboard developing impromptu
variations of the original theme, plucking rapid-fire
runs with her right hand and bending notes with a left-hand
technique called meend to access wailing, microtonal
frequencies. Devesh, meanwhile, parrots his mother’s melodic
passages on the lower tabla, while tapping complex polyrhythms
on the other. At times, with eyes closed, it seems as
if the two have strayed entirely from the constraints
of the basic arrangement. Sometimes it takes 10, other
times 20, minutes before the two find their way back to
the thaat, but when they do, the piece resolves
as gently as it began.
It’s in this blissful, post-raga silence that the peculiarity
of the event starts to set in: a mother-son duo of master
Indian classical musicians, performing in the basement
of a Capital Region suburb.
Veena first moved to Connect-icut in 1968 after she was
married. Her husband’s transfer to Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute brought the two to North Colonie, where they
lived in the community surrounding the Hindu Temple Society
of the Capital District. For years she worked as a social
worker at Memorial Hospital. All the while, she continued
performing, traveling around the northeast to universities
and international communities, as well as teaching lessons
from her home. A musicologist at Skidmore College heard
she was in the area and asked her to begin teaching at
the university. It’s an arrangement she still maintains,
offering sitar and tabla lessons as well as a course on
chant and general Indian classical music.
Over the years, all six of her children have studied some
instrument with her. Most recently, her 12-year-old granddaughter
has begun sitar lessons. Her youngest, Devesh, emerged
as a child prodigy. His first words were the tabla syllables
“Dha Dha titi” (similar to the solfege “do re mi”), and
he began accompanying his mother at the age of 6. His
first professional performance came at the age of 13.
He studied tablas with Ravi Shankar’s accompanist Ustad
Alla Rakha, and since 2002 has spent time with Zakir Hussain,
whom Western audiences may know for his collaborations
with John McLaughlin, Mickey Hart, and Bela Fleck. It’s
with his mother, and the Kathak dancer Shila Mehta, that
he most commonly performs.
In the winter of 2007-8, the duo traveled to India to
share their music with Veena’s father and to tour the
universities and auditoriums of Agra, Dehra Doon, New
Delhi, and Bombay. This winter, Veena returned for a similar
tour before her teaching obligations resumed in January.
It’s no small feat for American musicians to be well-received
in India, as technical mastery is only one half of what
makes for competent Hindustani musicianship. The improvisational
nature of the raga allows for personal expression, but
it also carries a mandate that the performer abide by
the mood of the piece.
can be playing the right rhythm cycle,” Devesh says, “but
not have the right feel. A devotional song has to have
that feel to it.” This is a challenge in performance,
but even harder to teach.
Of her students, Veena says, “Sometimes they will learn
the technical idea, but it will take time to learn the
other. We can only teach it to the ready. [The student]
has to be comfortable with themselves, which is hard.”
If all this sounds a bit mystical or esoteric, it is,
but due to the precise vibrational science of raga, the
“feel” of a raga is probably more concrete than, say,
the notion of “soul” in American R & B. Every raga—that
is, precise arrangement of intervals—corresponds to a
season and time of day. The 72 modes each generate 484
ragas, leading to a possible 34,848 distinct musical moods.
is celestial music,” Veena says. “They are vibrations
that our ancestors put together that are very close to
nature. In India, we use music as a spiritual tool, a
bridge to reach the super soul, the higher meaning. It
feels good to hear song, to vibrate. The power of the
sitar is to clean. It can reach your brain and clean up
your head from the garbage. You may have fatigue, but
afterward you are full of energy and vigor. It allows
that you compose your state of mind.”
After years of studying and performing together, Veena
and Devesh are nearly telepathic in their improvisations,
and their ability to inhabit and generate the mood of
a raga will be evident to even the unstudied listener.
Veena speaks of a “triangular relationship between the
artist, art and audience,” an arrangement that necessitates
the presence of a listener for the generation and communication
of this mood. Perhaps this is why the musician has decided
to perform on the occasion of her birthday. Hindustani
music, it seems, is not about the display of talent or
the entertainment of an audience, but rather about the
collective dwelling in a particularly resonant mood, something
equally enjoyable to all parties involved. A University
at Albany philosophy professor and his wife, who are present
this evening, confess they’ve grown downright addicted
to her almost monthly performances.
As if to justify this admission, Veena laughs, “No matter
how much you hide yourself, the vibrations get out.”