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"Professor plays soulful sitar music at faculty recital"

Professor plays soulful sitar music at faculty recital
Lilly Richardson
Issue date: 9/19/08 Section: Arts & Entertainment

Media Credit: Katlin Millar
[Click to enlarge]

On the evening of Sunday, September 14th, the Skidmore Music Department presented a classical Indian sitar recital in Filene Music Hall. Professor Veena Chandra of Skidmore College, who teaches Hindi language classes as well as sitar lessons, was the main performer.

A sitar has a long, hollow neck and a gourd resonating chamber. It is played by plucking the strings and has been used since the Middle Ages.

The other instrument featured in the recital was the tabla, a pair of tuned drums that is widely used in many types of North Indian music. Professor Chandra's son, Devesh Chandra, was the tabla player.

Both performers had impressive musical résumés and a lifelong love for Indian music. They sat cross-legged on a raised platform onstage, where they remained for the duration of the performance.

The first number, "Raag Saraswati," was meant to invoke the Hindu goddess of wisdom, learning, creativity and speech. Professor Chandra performed this soulful and solemn song alone on the sitar.

In the following numbers, her son accompanied her. Devesh Chandra played with focus and fervor, seeming unaware of anything but the music. The tabla, though just a pair of small drums, produced an incredible array of sounds. Their sound transcended that of mere percussion and blended well with the twang of the sitar.

There were several subsections and time cycles in each piece, known in Indian classical music as talas. Professor Chandra and her son took each transition in stride, exchanging glances at the points of change and adapting easily to the new rhythms and talas.

Just as the performers were perfectly attuned with each other, the instruments complemented each other very well. The variety and complexity of sounds produced made it seem that there were many more instruments playing.

The recital exposed members of the Skidmore community to a rich and different culture and style of music, illustrating the diversity among the college faculty and in its musical performance offerings.
- Skidmore News

"Music of the Spheres"

Music of the Spheres

Local mother-son duo are quietly creating world-class Indian classical music

By Josh Potter

When 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 good manners.

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 musician.

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.

“You 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.

“This 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.”
- Metroland

"World Party/World Music Festival May 2,1993"

In jarring clash of styles,the room next filled with hypnotic drone of the Sitar,as Veena Chandra and her ensemble uncorked a mellow,subcontinental stream of musical consciousness. - Meroland

"Sitar Teacher's Prescription:Good Food,Good vibrations"

Sitar teacher's prescription: good food, good vibrations

By STACEY MORRIS Contributing writer

The ginger-scented aroma of dal rose from a simmering stockpot on the stove as Veena Chandra peered in and gave the golden liquid a stir.

Soon she was rummaging through her refrigerator for a final ingredient - a shiny steel pot filled with homemade yogurt. Chandra scooped out a dollop and dropped it into the stockpot, stirring until it dissolved.

"Yogurt adds body," she explained, ladling the dal into a bowl for a guest seated at the kitchen table, which sits in front of a three-tiered Hindu shrine laden with deities.

The vegetarian lunch was more than just a hospitable gesture. It's part of the philosophy Chandra teaches at the Indian Music Institute.

"You have to eat good food, put out a good vibration, play good music and feel good about it," she said.

Upstairs her youngest son, Devesh, practiced on the tabla for their upcoming concert. The 22year-old has been accompanying her in concert for the past decade.

"He's been playing since he was 3," Chandra said with a smile. "All six of my children play instruments."

Chandra's musical start was also an early one.

Growing up in the Himalayan foothill town of Dehradoon ("where basmati rice is grown," she proudly noted), she learned sitar from her father as soon as she was big enough to hold the cumbersome instrument on her own.

With its elongated neck, the 19-stringed sitar

Dwarfs an acoustic guitar and can only be played by sitting cross-legged on the floor.

The extra effort is worth it for Chandra.

"There is no sound like a sitar," she said. "It can produce sound similar to a guitar, but a sitar has more depth and more vibration. The vibration of the music is everything; the music we play here is all good vibrations."

For nearly 20 years, Chandra has operated the Indian Music Institute at her home in Latham, N.Y., near Albany. She offers an all-encompassing curriculum that goes well beyond the sitar.

"What I really do is give my students exposure to Indian culture," she said. "Some students come for sitar lessons. Others want dance or meditation lessons. And some come for vegetarian cooking classes."

Chandra also offers chanting and meditation classes. And her concerts, held in the basement of her home, always conclude with a lavish vegetarian buffet. Chick pea curry, poori (fried bread), Basmati rice pilaf, cauliflower, eggplant and rice pudding are some of her favorites.

She also teaches sitar at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. Chandra recently began to feature students from both Skidmore and her institute at her monthly concerts.

"They play for 10 or 20 minutes," she said. "It's very motivating for them."

Technique, she said, is only a small part of the musical discipline.

"Students do ask me questions on spirituality," she said. "I think they feel more drawn to Indian culture and philosophy when they come here. I'm sure they see the difference between me and other teachers. I feel music is a spiritual.

- Country Hill Observer

"Teacher of Indian Music focuses on healing powers,meditation"

By BILL RICE Gazette Reporter

LATHAM - The music, pleasant and intoxicating, filled the room like fragrance from a scented candle.

Indian music does much more than please the ear, according to Veena Chandra, a native of India who was leading two of her students in a private session called a practice.

Chandra was seated on the floor in her living room. Beside her was a small altar that reflects her belief in the spiritual link between religion and music.

Pictures of the gods and goddesses of India were placed about the altar, which was decorated with colored rice, Chandra burns oil and incense, butter and cotton upon it.

Physical effect

The classical music of her native country elevates the soul, gives

energy, relieves tensions and can have a positive physical effect, Chandra said.

"When the mental strength is there, the physical ability also improves," she explained.

Chandra was playing the harmonium, a small, accordion-like keyboard instrument.

Her daughter, Anshu, 17, added a droning sound from a large string instrument called the tampura.

Chandra's sons Abhishek, 18, and Bhanu, 11, added a percussive accompaniment on Indian drums called tablas.

Her students, Castleton residents Ellen Sadowski and Tom Quimby, sat cross-legged on the floor and chanted along with their teacher.

Their eyes were closed. They rocked slightly, absorbed by the sounds of the music.

Sadowski, a yoga teacher and therapist, has been interested in

Music of India atuned to nature, time of day

Continued from Page (II

Indian music for some 15 years. She has known and studied with Chandra for about five.

"I like the devotional aspects of the music," she said. "The sounds really put me into meditation and that's the reason I like it.

"If you're lucky you can get to a certain point in a practice - it's peaceful, calm and blissful," Sadowski said. At various times during a session, she said, she will feel "centered" and "energized," even "ecstatic."

"It's not like any experience you have in your normal waking state," she added. "It's much deeper."

A native of Dehra Doon, a valley in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains, Chandra is the Capital Region's leading exponent of Indian music.

She is the founder/director of the Dance and Music School of India, which she operates in her Latham home.

Concerts, teaching

Chandra teaches at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, and performs concerts there and at area colleges, schools and festivals. She also gives monthly concerts in her home.

Since settling in the Captal Region in 1986, Chandra his given recitals and lecturedemonstrations at Rensslear Polytechnic Institute an.1 Emma Willard School in Troy. Union College in Schenectad', the University at Albany, Voorheesville High School, Guilderland High SoooI and Shaker High School

She has presentEd progms at the Festival of Ligits, Festival of Nations-and IndoAmeridan day, all held at the Empire State Plaza in Albany. She also appeared at the Half Moon Cafe in Albany, the Last Exit Cafe Troy and at Troy Savings Music Hall.

The classicd date and music of India both hav'relgoUs origins, Chayidra said.

"I regard mus as the means to spiritual develment and it's amazing how itich good sound can do."

The powerf the music is called Nad Brahma Chandra said it has he1p her cast off viruses, bad colds frid headaches.

QuimbldirectOr of the Cornell Universi School of Industrial and Lar Relations in Albany,

Quimby said this kind of thinking helps him with his work and in everyday life.

"If I'm doing a, seminar for a group of people and I'm on a roll, I'm more focused kn my thinking, not worrying if I'm going to mess up.,,

He also said if someone does something that annoys him, he is able to dismiss it from, his mind more rapidly.

"It's not like you become a patsy and let people walk over you," he said. "It's that you have move presence and can locus more clearly on what you are supposed to do."

Relation to nature

Indian music also is closely related to nature, said Chandra.

Its traditional melodies are built upon ascending and descending scale patterns called ragas. There are hundreds of ragas and they relate to moods, plus times of the day or season.

The Indian day is divided into eight three-hour periods and ragas have a positive and pleasing effect

when played during the correct period, Chandra said.

"If you sing or play certain ragas in the morning your mind is affected so no matter how hard the day is you will get through it," Chandra said.

Evening ragas are soothing and can relieve stress that may have built up during the day.

While this was a late afternoon session, Chandra said the best time to practice Indian music is at 4 am.

"At that time the night is past, the day is about to come, your mind is very clear, you are rested and there are no other disturbances."

Meditation is always an important aspect of her concerts, for herself and her audience, Chandra said.

"Meditation is concentrating and focusing on yourself," she explained. Sometimes when you are playing you can leave the

onnection with this world and reach anc)!. r consciousness.'

She explained there is a triangular relationship between the artist, the art and the audience. "The artist blends himself into the art and presents himself to the audience through the music."

Chandra feels some 90 percent of her audiences can experience the phenomenon of being "absorbed" into the music.

And, when there is a good flow of music during good times, Chandra said she can actually taste a secretion of some sweet nectar in the mind.

"It overflows, it is something you can taste...," she said.

Chandra plays and teaches a number of instruments. She also teaches Indian dance and singing.

Her main instrument is the sitar, a large-bodied instrument with a pumpkin gourd, a broad neck and 19 strings. Seven of the strings are melody producing, while the other 12 vibrate in tune to the notes of the raga. Frets on the instrument may be moved to produce any note of the 12-tone scale.

"Meend," a sliding from tone to tone characteristic in Indian music, is achieved by pulling the strings outward along the frets.

Chandra's six children learned the traditions of Indian music from her, just as she learned from her father, an amateur musician who played the sitar, flute and many other instruments.

He named his daughter Veena after an ancient Indian

My father played every night after work and I would sit and listen to him," Chandra said. Before she was 10 she played the tablas, the harmonium. and studied classical singing and dance.

She began taking sitar lessons from her father when she was 12.

Chandra has a bachelor's degree in education and a master's degree in sociology from Agra University in northern India.

She also has a master's degree in music from India's Prayag University.

She is currently doing research on the relationship between the ritual and classical music of India.

Community work

Chandra is employed as Super Pantry Coordinator by St. John's Lutheran Church in Albany. In the Super Pantry program she teaches low-income groups about life skills and nutrition. She also manages the Outreach Office Food Pantry for St. Patrick's, St. John's and Our Lady of Angels churches in Albany.

Chandra teaches Indian music and language at Skidmore. She will give a free concert at the college at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb.18.

Concerts at her Latham home are scheduled every month.

- The Sunday Gazette /Bill Rice Feb 4,96


Rag Hansdhwani: Veena Chandra: Sitar Devesh Chandra: Tabla
Rag Bhairavi: Veena Chandra: Sitar Devesh Chandra: Tabla
Rag Kirwani: Veena Chandra: Sitar Devesh Chandra: Tabla
Rag Jog: Veena Chandra: Sitar Devesh Chandra: Tabla
Rag Yaman & Rag Saraswati: Veena Chandra: Sitar Devesh Chandra: Tabla
Rag Shivranjani: Veena Chandra: Sitar Devesh Chandra: Tabla
Rag Jansammohini: Veena Chandra: Sitar Bikram Ghosh: Tabla
Rag Kaunsi Kanda: Veena Chandra Sitar Bikram Ghosh: Tabla
Live Radio Performances: WAMC/NPR, WRPI,WSPN
Live Television Performances: WRGB 6 CBS, SACC 16 PBS, Time Warner cable TV channel-9, Different Voices of Community MNN PBS



VEENA CHANDRA is an internationally renowned sitarist, composer, teacher and choreographer. She is the founder and director of the Dance and Music School of India in Latham,NY (celebrating 26 years) where she teaches Indian classical music. She has been a faculty member at Skidmore College since 1990, teaching sitar in the Music Department.

Born in Dehra Doon, Valley of the Himalaya Mountain Range, Veena was inspired to play music by her Father, her first Guru. He loved sitar so much that he named her Veena, after the precursor to the sitar, in hopes that she would learn music. He was 95 years old when he passed away in 2010 and his hopes have validated themselves many times over as evident by the international acclaim & respect given to Veena Chandra.

She continued learning sitar with Shri Satish Chandra, a disciple of Ravi Shankar. Being invited by Pt Ravi Shankar to his concerts she was inspired by his music. She earned master's degrees in music (stood third all over India in MMUS.) and sociology and a bachelor's degree in teaching. She has been in the international Who's Who since 1997. Mrs. Chandra has taught at Agra, Dayalbagh universities and colleges in India teaching sitar and sociology. She has been performing and teaching sitar for the last 55 years. She continued her advance training under the late Ustad Vilayat Khan Saheb. Ustad Vilayat Khan Saheb very much enjoyed listening to her Sitar and grew very close to Veena and her son Devesh.

She is a recent recipient of a New York State Folk Art Grant 2003, and Artists Decentralization Grant and several SOS & Meet the Composer grants. Currently she does lecture-demonstrations and performances at numerous performance halls, music festivals, colleges, universities, & schools in the U.S. and India. She has received artist award as a composer through the Albany League of Arts in 2002. She has received several years of Community Arts Grants (2000, 2001, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012) through The Arts Center, Troy and NYSCA. She has several CDs to her credit, including two very popular recordings with renowned Pandit Bikram Ghosh on tabla. Veena Chandra’s 2009-2010 India tour was in part sponsored by NYSCA and The Arts Center of the Capital Region.

Veena Chandra has a rare ability to communicate the beauty and complexity of North Indian Classical music to the western listener. She is noted for her skill and sensitivity in the meend (bending of wire) and her ability to produce vocal sounds on the sitar. She characterizes the music of the sitar and tabla as relaxing and reflective of instincts and emotions. She explains that there is a triangular relationship between the artist, the art and the audience. She blends herself into the art and presents herself to the audience through the music. The power in her music is vitalizing and healing to the body, clarifying to the mind, and food for the soul. Listening to her magnificent, heavenly music on the sitar will not leave you untouched.

DEVESH CHANDRA has been learning the Tabla since the age of 3. He has learned Northern Indian Classical Music by accompanying his mother, Veena Chandra. Devesh, the youngest of six children, grew up immersed in Indian music. His first spoken words were the syllables of tabla -Dha Dha Tita. Immersed in music at a young age, Devesh is fortunate to have grownup surrounded by iconic figures of Indian Music. Devesh accompanied his mother on her visits with the late Ustad Vilayat Khan. Ustad Vilayat Khan grew to be a grandfather to Devesh. He has been greatly affected by this close relationship.

Devesh's innovative and imaginative approach makes his performances enthralling to both Western listeners and Indian classical purists. His approach to the tabla is the confluence of all the unique influences of his upbringing. Devesh believes the tabla has the rare ability, as a percussion instrument, to very accurately convey a wide range of emotions.