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Learnquest 11th Annual Music Conference - A Memorable Musical Feast For Boston’s Music Lovers!!

Shuchita Rao

The 2016 LearnQuest music conference was a brilliant confluence of Indian classical music and dance. Three lecture-cum-demonstrations on the topics of “Wedding Songs of North India” by the students of Sharon based RASA music school, “The Ubiquitous role of tabla in Indian Music” by Shri Supreet Deshpande, (son of the renowned tabla exponent Pandit Kiran Deshpande and front ranking disciple of the illustrious tabla exponent Pandit Suresh Talwalkar),   and “The Music of the Sitar” by Smt. Manju Mehta (disciple of the virtuoso sitarist, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar) held at educational institutions such as Boston University, MIT and Berklee College of Music respectively, preceded the main conference.

On Friday evening, March 25, disciples of Boston’s renowned danseuse, Gretchen Hayden, founder of the “Chhandika” school of Kathak dance, opened the main conference with a short but spirited dance performance. Next, Vidwaan Sikkil Gurucharan, a Carnatic vocalist accompanied by Vidwaan Sanjeev Venkataraman on the violin and Vidwaan Patri Satishkumar on the Mridangam enthralled the audiences with their melodious, pitch perfect delivery of classical and devotional compositions. The evening concluded with a gharaanedaar Kathak performance by a highly accomplished family consisting of Guru Rohini Bhate’s prominent disciple Smt. Prerana Deshpande accompanied on the tabla by her husband, the well-known Pandit Supreet Deshpande and their talented daughter Ishwari Deshpande. A rich musical landscape was created as a backdrop for the dance performance by a wonderful team consisting of  vocalist Smt. Astha Shukla accompanied by Shri Kedar Naphade on the harmonium, Jay Gandhi on the flute and Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury on the sitar. Every dance item was preceded by a crsip recitation of the rhythmic composition created by living legends such as Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Birju Maharaj. Bright and beautiful traditional costumes, creative interaction between the musicians and dancers, powerful storytelling and impressive footwork held the audience spellbound till the late hours of the Friday evening.

The second day of the conference began with a sweet and soulful Carnatic flute recital by Chennai based artist Vidushi Shantala Subramanyam accompanied by Sri Vishal Sapuram on the Chitraveena, Smt. Sukkanya Ramgopal on the ghatam and Sri Mellakaveri K. Balaji on the Mridangam. There was great beauty in the sounds that came from pairing of the flute and the Chitraveena. One of the highlights of this performance was a vibrant and rhythmic dialogue between the percussionists (Mridangam player and Ghatam player) in the form of Kunnakol recitation.

Next, the doyen of Gwalior, Agra and Jaipur Gharanas, Padmashri Pandit Ulhas Kashalkar treated the audience to a soulful classical vocal recital of afternoon ragas. Accompanied by Shri Suryaksha Deshpande on the tabla, Shri Kedar Naphade on the harmonium and Shri Samarth Nagarkar providing vocal support, Pandit Kashalkar successfully created an immersive experience of pure and divine music for the audience.  His crystal clear unfolding of the ragas as well as fluid and dynamic singing transported the audience far from the mundane and routine existence of daily life. This vocal performance served as one of the finest examples of classical music presented at the conference.

Kalaimamani Rahjesh Vaidya on the Veena accompanied by Shri Mohanraman on the Mridangam and Shri Sai Hari on the ghatam was the next artist to take stage. The trio’s tightly knit performance marked by energy and vigor drew great applause from the audience. Rahjesh Vaidya’s command over his instrument was unbelievable and his musical delivery had great showmanship.

Vidushi Manju Mehta played her Guru Pandit Ravi Shankar’s raga creations, Charukauns and Tilak Shyam with great sincerity on the sitar. She was accompanied by New England’s much loved tabla artist Shri Nitin Mitta. The music was structured and meditative and the artists received several requests from the audience to continue the performance past the duration of time allotted to them.

Shri Saketharaman followed the sitar recital with a Carnatic vocal performance accompanied by Boston based Kumari Rasika Murali on the violin and Vidwaan Neyveli B. Venkatesh on the Mridangam. Rasika, daughter of the Boston based respected vocalist Smt. Geetha Murali and the award winning violinist and teacher, Guru Tara Anand made audiences beam with pride at her mighty accomplishments. The vocalist Sri Saketharaman’s rendition was superb and a unique composition with lyrics in five languages and spanning five different ragas proclaiming India to be the best nation in the world was received with tremendous enthusiasm by the audience.

Saturday’s musical offering concluded with a sonorous Sarod recital by the acclaimed maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. Accompanied by tabla player Shri Sandeep Das belonging to the renowned Pandit Kishan Maharaj’s Benaras gharana lineage, Khansaheb played short compositions in a variety of night  ragas such as Shyama Gauri, Darbari and Charukesi among others. “The lustrous resonance of the strings held me in a trance” said Professor Brita Heimarck of Boston University who was glad to have attended the performance.

On Sunday, the concluding day of the conference, leading Gwalior and Kirana Gharana vocalist Pandit Vinayak Torvi opened with Ragas Ramkali, Hindol and ended with a devotional composition by poetess Mirabai that touched upon a variety of ragas such as Bhairav, Nat Bhairav and Keeravani. Accompanied by Pandit Ashis Sengupta on tabla, Shri Vinay Mishra on the harmonium and Siddhartha Belamannu on the tanpura, Pandit Torvi successfully created a serene musical atmosphere suited to the morning hours and treated the audience to soaring alaaps in the upper octave and exciting rhythmic play (layakari) by deftly weaving together song lyrics, melody and rhythmic aspects of the compositions.

After Pandit Torvi’s performance, Vidushi Gayathri Venkataraghavan gave an engaging Carnatic vocal performance accompanied by Srikanth Venkataraman on the violin and Neyveli S. Skandasubramanian on the Mridangam. Her mellifluous voice and imagination touched the hearts of many a listener in the audience. 

A Hindustani-Carnatic Jugalbandi between Grammy award winner, Mohan Veena exponent Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and violin maestro Vidwaan H.N. Bhaskar accompanied by Shri Amit Kavthekar on the tabla, Shri Vijay Ganesh on the Mridangam and Shri Sowmiya Narayanan on the ghatam put the audience at the center of the live performance experience. Pandit Bhatt chatted frequently with the audience, sang and made the audience sing along with him towards the end of his performance. “An artist strives to create happiness in the hearts of the listeners” he told his listeners. The captivating sounds of the Mohan Veena and Vidwaan H.N Bhaskar’s brilliance in the art of spontaneous improvisation were well received by the audience.

A Carnatic vocal performance by Vidwaan Unnikrishnan accompanied by renowned violinist Sri Vittal Ramamurthy and Vidwaan Nyeveli Venkatesh on Mridangam was the last recital to be held at Regis College in Weston. Attractive stage décor and ambient lighting, confident emceeing and excellent sound engineering by Jawed Wahid over the course of three days stood out in this year’s music conference.

Conference attendees were treated to a colorful painting exhibition presented by several local artists of non-profit organization Kalakruti this year. Hot and delicious meals by local caterers, a wonderful magazine with interesting articles about music, opportunities to purchase saris, jewellery and music recordings at the Regis College premises made available by local vendors were additional offerings at the conference.

The Learnquest conference culminated in a grand manner with the final concert – a collaboration with the organization WorldCRASHArts in the enactment a 75 minute long, spectacular “Masters of Percussion” show led by the legendary tabla exponent Ustad Zakir Hussain. Japanese taiko drumming conversed with the music of the Indian percussion instruments. Subtle lighting and excellent sound melded with a fantastic display of Japanese drumming by a masked actor/drummer to create an extraordinary audiovisual display of visual and sonic textures. Saarangi accompaniment by the late Padmashri Ustad Sultan Khan’s son, Sabir Khan provided the canvas for innovative explorations by master artists of the five cylindrical drums (Ustad Zakir Hussain on tabla, Navin Sharma on dholak, Mannargudi Vasudevan on Thavil, Anantha Krishnan on Mridangam, Seiichi Tanaka on Taiko). The concert left the audience wanting for more.

The three days of immersive music and dance experience gave the audience an opportunity to lose themselves to wondrous journeys into the spiritual realm. Each artist had a distinctive personality. Some artists were flamboyant while others were understated.  Each one of them brought his/her own magic to the conference.  As a student of music, it was very useful to me to have an opportunity to do a comparative study of how a raga (example: Charukesi) is treated by a Hindustani musician such as Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and the Carnatic vocalist Smt. Gayathri Venkataraghavan or how the same sixteen beat cycle of teentaal is rendered in different styles by tabla exponents of Punjab, Farukkhabad and Benaras gharanas. To hear the traditional classical music of composers of the 16th and 17th centuries such as Thyagaraja, Syama Sastry, Swati Thirunal and Sadaarang performed by leading musicians was very inspiring. Devotional compositions authored by medieval saints such as Mirabai and Tulisdas allowed members of the audience to be swept away by the beauty of the lyrics. The sonority of the sound produced by master musicians stayed in their minds and hearts for hours after the performances ended.

For the past eleven years, the Learnquest conference has served an important purpose of preserving and propagating Indian classical music and dance. This year’s team - conference committee chaired by Shri Shashank Nene, the dedicated volunteers who managed the ticketing, decorated the stage and served in the cafeteria, the young children who ushered in guests and the families who generously opened up their homes to host visiting artists provided an unforgettable experience for local conference attendees as well as those who traveled from out of state. Kudos to Dr. Pradeep Shukla, Shri. Shashank Nene and the Learnquest 2016 conference committee for an outstanding 11th annual music conference. 

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