Indian classical musicians pull an all-nighter

September 13, 2013

Music presenter Brian Keigher can’t say for certain, but he’s pretty sure that he and a group of musicians will make Chicago history Friday night.

“This may indeed be the first all-night Indian classical concert in the Chicago area,” said Keigher, who’s executive director at the Kalapriya Center for Indian Performing Arts and the organizer of this historic event: Ragamala: A Celebration of Indian Classical Music.

The opening concert is at 6 p.m. at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.Then the musicians will head to the Chicago Cultural Center, where they’ll play through the night, until 8 a.m. Saturday.

The concert is a rare opportunity to hear famous musicians from India as well as players from New York, London, Toronto and Chicago.

It’s also a chance to fully experience an important Indian cultural form. As unusual as this all-night event might be here, it’s far more common in India, where some go on for days. 

Keigher told me “ragamala” means a “garland of ‘ragas’.” The garland part is easy to understand: More than 30 musicians will perform different compositions, one after the other.

But understanding the raga is a bit harder. It’s a form of Indian classical music – a collection of notes, a melodic structure and something else.

“Each raga has a characteristic, just like human beings do,” said musician and composer Soumik Datta. “We all look different, we talk different. And some ragas, they’re pretty close together. But that tiny little difference between them makes them distinctively what they are.”

Datta is one of the performers at tonight’s ragamala. He said the different characteristics of the ragas are expressed by how quickly or slowly they’re played, and by their mood. The technical term is “rasa,” but think of it an ordinary emotional state, like anger or love.

“It’s your job as the player to allow yourself to feel that,” Datta said. “So it comes through your hands, it comes through your body.”

At tonight’s concert the musicians will perform on sitars, flutes, tablas, or with their voice. Datta plays a stringed instrument, the “sarod.” It belonged to his grandmother, who also played.

Though he’ll play a traditional raga tonight, Datta also experiments. His own compositions reflect his tastes in popular music, like house music or Radiohead. And he’s collaborated with performers like Beyonce.

But whether he plays in an experimental or traditional style,  Datta insists it all must remain true to the emotional roots of ragas.

“It’s a magnet, it really sucks you in,” Datta said. “It allows you to lose yourself for a moment, and I think there’s something incredibly, deeply moving about it.”

You may enter this mystical state through the music, or simply through fatigue: Soumik Datta’s performance is at 1:40 a.m. Saturday.

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter and co-host of Changing Channels, a podcast about the future of television. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.