Saarangi — Harsh Narayan
Concert Review by Allyn Miner
Harsh, grandson of the great Ram Narayan of Mumbai, was on his first U.S. tour. Those familiar with the music of Ram Narayan and that of Harsh’s father, sarod player Brij Narayan, were eager to hear a member of the family’s next generation. The sarangi, north India’s famous bowed instrument, is cherished for its soulful sound, but solo concerts are relatively rare so this concert was a special treat for various reasons.
The high arched ceilings of the church interior along with the ornate woodwork and soft lighting made for a unique atmosphere. A sizeable audience of Carnatic music fans, Penn students, and the west Philadelphia community sat in the wooden pews.
The young musicians came on and were seated on a low platform. The tabla accompanist was Mike Lukshis, a tabla performer and teacher from New Jersey. Harsh spoke briefly about the sarangi, which has a skin-covered wooden body, four melody strings and more than thirty sympathetic strings. The strings are stopped with the back of the fingernails instead of the tips of the fingers. As he drew the bow across the strings, we could hear the sarangi’s distinctive beautiful echoing ring.
He announced that he would begin with Rag Sri (also spelled Shree). It might have helped prepare the audience if he had mentioned that Sri is a serious rag suited to the sunset. Hindustani rag Sri has a very different scale from Carnatic Rag Sri :
Hindustani Rag Sri
S R1 M2 P N3 S, S N3 D1 P M2 G3 R1 S
Emphasis on the flat Ri (R1) and dramatic jumps from Ri to Ma and Pa (R1 — M3 P) are special features of the rag. Descending phrases often skip over Sa and Pa and give the rag an unsettled mood. Harsh played a slow alap with beautiful flow and expression. It was satisfying to hear a style and sensibility that reflected his family’s legacy. In the jor, the rhythmic section of the alap, comparable to Carnatic tanam, Harsh soon moved on to tans — fast runs up and down the raga scale. Here he showcased another aspect of his grandfather’s style. Ram Narayan awed audiences with his imaginative phrasings followed by dramatic, lightening-fast tans. His tans soared from low to high and high to low with an intensity that made a lasting impression on listeners. As Harsh played his fast tans he inserted a sort of demonstration, playing a phrase first in medium then in fast speed. He made it clear that every note was being produced with precise intonation, a skill that requires relentless practice. After the alap Harsh continued with a bandish (composition) in middle-speed jhaptal, a ten-beat tala cycle. Mike Lukshish came in with supportive and skilled tabla accompaniment. His solos were appropriate answers to Harsh’s improvisations. His phrasings were impressive without being showy. We all enjoyed a balance of rhythmic and melodic exchanges.
For the second piece Harsh chose Rag Yaman (also called Eman). This famous evening raga has a sweet, romantic mood. It is typical in a Hindustani concert to play the most serious raga first and at the greatest length, with lighter and shorter pieces following. Yaman is often given long treatment in Hindustani concerts, but in this case Harsh played a delicate short alap followed by a composition and tans in jhaptal, then a fast composition in 16-beat tintal. Some of my students who were in the audience later told me they appreciated the lighter mood of Yaman.
The final piece was a Ragamala in Mishra (‘mixed”) Pilu. In a ragamala the performer begins with the main raga then brings other ragas into the improvisations. Sometimes the choice of ragas is made on the spot and sometimes the performer has thought out a sequence beforehand. In this performance Harsh clearly drew on the Mishra Pilu of Ram Narayan, of which recordings are available. But Harsh also made the piece his own. In Hindustani music one’s style is formed on the model of the teacher, but a performance is never entirely memorized or duplicated. Harsh began by touching on ragas Malhar and Basant as his grandfather did. But he soon moved on to other ragas. I believe I heard Kirwani and Bhairavi among them. The changing scale intervals were catchy to the ear, and several audience members mentioned to me that they enjoyed this aspect of the piece.
The sound amplification was excellent, on which the organizers should be commended. I am sure Philadelphia listeners would agree with me that Harsh’s dedication, aesthetic touch, and appealing personality all make him an excellent representative of his family legacy. Readers who would like to explore this legacy might want to seek out recordings of Ram Narayan’s “Raag Shree” and “Mishra Pilu.”
Department of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
November 7, 2016
Allyn Miner is a concert performer on the North Indian sitar. She is a faculty member in the Department of South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania where she teaches South Asian music and performing arts. Her research and publications relate to the history of the sitar and sarod, Sanskrit, Hindi and Urdu musicological sources, and other Indological topics. She is also a teacher of hatha yoga in the style of Sri Pattabhi Jois.