When Pittsburgh was the center of American steel production, it was famous for the ethnic diversity of the many immigrants who came to work in the steel mills. The University of Pittsburgh celebrated this ethnic diversity by creating a series of international classrooms in the architectural styles of each country-for example, a German Room, a Chinese Room, A Rumanian Room, and Lithuanian Room. But throughout the twentieth century, there was no Indian Room. These rooms were financed by fundraising campaigns within each ethnic community, and there simply weren’t enough Indians in Pittsburgh to produce the money.
All that changed when the Pittsburgh economy shifted from heavy industry to information. When the steel mills closed down in the 80s a new wave of immigration came to the former Steel City: Not the tired, poor, and huddled masses from Europe described by the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty, but educated and affluent professionals from India’s best universities. And by the year 2000, they had raised $400,000 to create an Indian Room, which opened in January of that year with a ceremony featuring local performers of Indian music and dance. The room was designed in the style of a typical instructional courtyard from the eighth-century Nalanda University, which was the scholarly center of the golden age of Indian Buddhism. And its presence reflects a growing awareness of Indian culture in a town where the options for an evening out were once primarily Italian opera and sports.
The University of Pittsburgh now has a center for the Performing Arts of India, headed by Dr. B.N. Dixit, which brings in great musicians like Ali Akbar Khan, Mohan Bhatt, and Hariprasad Chaurasia. The Karnatik tradition is showcased by the Sri Venkateswara Temple, which hosts programs throughout the year. And vocalist Charu Collur maintains a personal crusade to both inspire and educate anyone who shows an interest in classical Hindustani music.
Her website www.ragawave.com contains a variety of instructive and aesthetic resources. There’s a calendar of Indian cultural events that Collur either recommends or performs in. These include a khayal concert, a production of the Ramayana that combines Indian vocals with Indonesian Gamelan, a multi-media presentation of music and dance presented by a Pittsburgh based bharata natyam troupe, and a fusion collaboration with Collur, a pianist and an African drummer. There’s also a bulletin board with an online discussion group about Indian music (unfortunately with several repeated messages due to a computer glitch.) The “Artist’s Corner” features biographies and samples of both Collur’s teacher Tripti Mukherjee and Mukherjee’s teacher the great Pandit Jasraj. “Music notes” has a featured “Raga of the Month” with both a detailed technical description and a sample of Collur performing the Raga. These samples strike a very nice balance between the educational and the aesthetic: they are simple enough to give a sense of the basic structure of the Raga, but Collur’s pure tone and artful ornaments also make them a pleasure to listen to. One hopes that this monthly feature continues far into the future.
There is also an opportunity to buy Collur’s new CD Upasana, although it is not featured amongst the music samples. Upasana means “prayer,” and the emphasis is on the spiritual aspect of music, rather than music for it’s own sake. This CD is an amalgam of Vedic shlokas, hymns and north Indian classical ragas, and once again Collur has found a way to use her musical technique in service of another goal. The shloka is a verse form; usually two lines each with sixteen syllables, which is used in almost all of the important Sanskrit scriptures. The Bhagavad Gita and most of the Vedas are written in shlokas, as are many of the chants sung in Hindu temples. They are often done in a call and response form by the priest and the devotees, and usually are sung with few ornaments.
Collur has selected a series of compositions to Shloka written by herself and her teachers Mukherjee and Jasraj. These incorporate her classical technique in a way that insures, as she puts it, that “Music and devotion to God go hand in hand.” Each Shloka is set to a specific Raga, and one can definitely hear Jasraj’s influence in the sruti and the phrasing. The standard khayal ensemble of tablas, harmonium, violin, and tanpura accompanies them. But the shlokas are arranged in a way that links them to three different deities: Brahma, Krishna, and Shakti. The spiritual ideals exemplified by each of these deities are explained by a narrator just before each of the three sections and the Sanskrit text is paraphrased.
One detail, which I especially liked, was a decision made by the engineers at Mr. Small’s Funhouse Studio, who recorded the album. When a Rock and Roll engineer records Indian music, he or she usually adds too much reverb, creating a concert hall sound for a form of music that is designed to be played in a small room. These engineers used a rich electronic reverb, but they put it only on the voice, leaving the rest of the instruments with a small room sound. This gives a subtle otherworldly sound, which most people probably won’t realize was electronically produced, without compromising the sense that this is music from an ancient tradition. One is tempted to assume that a studio with a name like Mr. Small’s Funhouse has probably never recorded Indian music before, which makes the sensitivity of this decision even more impressive. But old stereotypes about Pittsburgh are clearly changing rapidly. Even if this were the first Indian recording made in Pittsburgh, it certainly won’t be the last.
Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for fifteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.