Shubhendra Rao and Partha Sarothy, Ancient Weave (Source World Music Recordings, 2002)

Recorded in 2002 at the Saptak Music Festival in India, Ancient Weave brings together the considerable talents of two of Pandit Ravi Shankar's most acclaimed students, Shubhendra Rao on sitar and Partha Sarothy on sarod. The album is comprised of two ragas, the first a Shankar composition entitled "Raga Charukauns," the second the more traditional "Raga Manj Khamaj."

"Raga Charukauns" opens with a lengthy alap, where Rao explores the tones and melodies that comprise the piece. There is a depth of feeling and respect for the material that can strike the listener as either heartfelt or somewhat excessive, as patterns are measured out precisely, and tonal relationships examined in minute detail, the diligence of a student approaching the work of his master. If considered with an open mind, however, the alap proves fascinating in its intensity, and Rao is certainly a highly capable musician who wrings a fascinating multiplicity of tones, phrases and colours from his instrument. The alap progresses into its second phase as the chickari [drone] strings emerge to accentuate the slowly building tempo of Rao's playing. The tension builds through this contrast of melody and drone, and also through Rao's use of upper and lower register notes against each other, leading to the first tenuous glimpses of the raga's primary phrases. Finally, after seventeen minutes of build-up, a single repeated note signals the emergence of the jor or mid-tempo stage of the piece, and we hear the first intonations of Sarothy's sarod.

The tonal shift between the instruments is subtle and affecting, and the interplay of sarod and sitar serves to indicate the tremendous level of communication at work between the two musicians, an almost telepathic shared vision for the piece that combines an inside-out familiarity with its forms with an improvisational approach to its execution. Sarothy's playing dominates the jor, but still leaves spaces for Rao's interpretation, and collectively they reach a deeply contemplative state. Melodies appear and disappear, only to re-emerge in new permutations, as the two master musicians trade ideas back and forth, steadily increasing the tempo before unleashing the jhalla, the most dynamic, climactic part of the composition.

Rao leads the way into the jhalla with a rapidly intoned pattern that blurs the earlier distinction between melody and drone. Ably supported by Sarothy's subtle playing, Rao launches into some blistering scales that build in momentum to an explosive climax, before receding into contemplative silence.

The second piece on the album, "Raga Manj Khamaj," is a decidedly less intellectual exercise, with a relatively brief alap wherein Rao and Sarothy play off each other while examining the component threads of the piece. Joined in performance by accomplished tabla player Akram Khan, the overall mood is far less hermetic than the preceding raga, though no less musically accomplished.

Following the alap, Khan's tabla emerges to add a new layer of rhythmic complexity through some very impressive playing. The middle sequence of the raga, "Gat in vilambit teental," is characterized by Rao and Sarothy trading the roles of lead and drone over Khan's increasingly dazzling tabla playing. There is a pleasantly unhurried quality to the piece that allows the musicians to shift tempo according to the new ideas that emerge in the playing. Sarothy contributes some very mannered lead runs to this midsection, while Rao tends to intone a particular scale over and over before shifting to another scale and doing the same. Indeed, Khan runs away with the show at points, playing some stunning patterns that counterpoint the leisurely pace of the lead musicians, yet somehow always manage to land on the beat.

Though not a cohesive as "Raga Charukauns,""Raga Manj Khamaj" is nonetheless deserving of contemplation, and benefits from Rao's sharing lead duties with Sarothy, who contributes the majority of breathtaking moments, as well as Khan's superb tabla playing. The rapid-tempo finale, "Gat in drut teental," features more incredible sarod playing by Sarothy and moments of brilliance by Rao, building to a satisfying climax. All in all, Ancient Weave contains some of the best playing by the current generation of Indian classical music stars, proving this generation to be a capable successor to the one which gave us such geniuses as Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pandit Ravi Shankar.


[Inigo Jones]