In 1987, Zakir Hussain released one of my favorites among his “nontraditional” albums, Making Music. It was a prophetic title for the world’s leading Indian classical tabla player, whose dedication to doing just that is never clearer than when experiencing him in a live setting. Ithacans had the fortune of doing exactly that last Friday night, when a crowd of over 1000 filled Bailey Hall for his two-and-a-half-hour performance with Niladri Kumar. In characteristic humility, Zakir introduced himself as little more than Niladri’s accompanist, on a mission as he is to promote the rising sitar virtuoso to new, global audiences. The duo began with a Rageshree, a Hindustani raga following a 16-beat rhythm cycle, before moving on to lighter material for the second, along with a few modern surprises. Such pedantic descriptions, however, evoke nothing of what it felt like to be in the presence of two living masters.
When, after an exchange of tuning (and attunement), Niladri opened with a 15-minute solo, he disclosed not only his dexterity on the instrument but also his ability to speak through its resonant chamber in a language that filled the auditorium, which trembled between solidity and vanishing at the likeminded harmony of intent and surrender pulsing through its molecules. Whereas raga settings often employ a drone via the open-tuned tanpura, Niladri provided his own undercurrent, fingers as effortless as reeds wavering in a river’s current. Whenever he departed from those lower flames to craft a melody from their smoke, he bent the higher strings like time itself, wrenching melodies from their dying breaths in ways that stretched our ears to their limits of perception. The sitarist built a freestanding structure from every variation, picking up speed with the majestic passivity of a mountain peak catching cloud. Whether strumming a single note beyond the embrace of its own vibrations or gracing the sympathetic strings beneath, he was the incarnation of patience as its own reward. His rhythms were an organic heartbeat, the raga its lifetime of circulating blood.
The effect of all this was such that Zakir’s first entrance felt more like implosion than explosion, a changing of the world through synchronicity. He needed barely touch the drum, and it sang with freedom. Like two birds, wandering yet returning at key points to touch wings, he and Niladri participated in equal exchange, bartering in a currency that was beyond the expressive capacity of anyone there to hear it yet inevitable as the tide. Through melodic call and response, especially in the folk motifs to which they later turned, these artists shed the kneejerk divinity of association by way of proving the multidimensionality of earthly art. With delicate yet no-less-enthralling skill, and appropriate touches of humor to make the audience feel included, they expanded their respective toolkits as the night unfolded, each an orchestra unto himself. When, for instance, Zakir ventured beyond his tabla onto the terrain of peripheral percussion, he completed a circuit of expectation we never knew was there. And when Niladri unveiled an electric instrument of his own invention called the “zitar,” he coaxed from his gracious accompanist a global, cinematic palette.
More electric, though, was the air shared between us as their students and them as our teachers, between the past and the future. Indeed, here was a glimpse of times yet lived, pulled from minds yet to be born into every absorbent soul. For while these players may have been in and of the moment, they were as much beyond the reach of history as they were makers of it.