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Another Reason To Skip Sleep: Indian Classical Music

Tabla player and concert organizer Samir Chatterjee plays alongside flutist Ronu Majumdar at Chhandayan's annual all-night concert in New York City in May.
Dibyarka Chatterjee
Tabla player and concert organizer Samir Chatterjee plays alongside flutist Ronu Majumdar at Chhandayan's annual all-night concert in New York City in May.

Here's a typical Saturday night for a music fan in Manhattan: You go grab some dinner, and then go to a show. You hang out there for an hour or two, enjoy the music and then leave, right? But what would happen if, instead, the musicians onstage took turns soloing for an hour or more apiece, and you wound up staying until dawn?

Samir Chatterjee is a tabla player, and every spring, he invites musicians from India and elsewhere to come to New York for marathon concerts that start in the early evening and last all night long.

"People in New York City stay up all night anyway on Saturday nights," Chatterjee says. "Why not give them a better reason to stay up?"

Chatterjee is originally from Kolkata, India. When he moved to New York City in 1994, he came with all the passion and energy of a newly minted New Yorker. He quickly figured out that Manhattan might be the right place to give new life to an ancient Indian practice.

"You know, Indian music is not entertainment," he says. "It's an offering."

The Taste Of The Music

In North Indian (Hindustani) classical music, there's a tradition that certain ragas, or melodic scales, are meant for certain times of year — like the monsoon season, or spring — and that other ragas should only be played at certain times of day or night. Musicians say that the way that ragas' scales move up and down evoke very specific moods called rasas. These rasas — literally, the "juice" or the "taste" of the music — can inspire feelings like peacefulness, romance, joy, courage and even fear or disgust.

At Chhandayan, the midtown Manhattan center for Indian classical music that Chatterjee founded, vocalist Samarth Nagarkar describes a raga he sings at dawn called Raga Bhatiyar.

"This has a lot of elements of the freshness that dawn brings with it," Nagarkar says. "There's a certain sleepiness. There's a certain freshness at the same time, and a combination of a lot of minor and major notes in the scale."

Vocalist Mitali Banerjee Bhawmik takes listeners into bright sunshine with Raga Alhaiya Bilawal. Then the mood turns romantic when Sanjoy Banerjee sings a love song in Raga Puriya Dhanashree, meant for the moment when afternoon gives way to dusk.

Finally, Eric Fraser, an American-born artist, plays the bamboo flute called the bansuri in a late-night raga called Nandkauns. He describes this raga as mysterious and adds that it "can be sometimes even maybe described as bewitching — the idea of that free spirit of the deep night, of maybe even time for a little mischief."

Over the course of Chatterjee's all-night concert in Manhattan, he and his colleagues perform ragas only at the times they are meant to be heard.

"What we have experienced growing up in India, staying up all night ... first of all, that commitment to stay up all night for such a noble purpose itself is a rewarding experience — it justifies a major part of your living," the tabla player says. "Then, second, the opportunity to experience the transition of the ragas from the evening through late evening, midnight and then morning, how these ragas, the changing frequencies, the texture, everything, you know, timbre of the instruments. How these things are affecting your physiology and the environment around you; how they are corresponding; and the people who are around you, how they also are responding."

Neglected Ragas

In India, that experience is getting lost, says Peter Manuel, an accomplished sitar player and a professor in the music department of the CUNY Graduate Center and the Department of Art and Music at John Jay College, both in New York. Just as here, modern life in India means that most concerts take place in the early evening.

"So those early- and mid-evening ragas get overworked," Manuel says, "and at least half the repertoire, which is the late-night ragas, the early-morning ragas, the midmorning ragas and the afternoon ragas, you really don't have much occasion to hear them. And it's too bad, because that's a lot of ragas — and some of the best ones."

That's why playing these neglected ragas in New York City is important, Chatterjee says. They help nurture some ancient knowledge — about not just music but also the workings of the universe.

"To our understanding," Chatterjee says, "this system was developed at a time when human beings had a better relationship with nature. You know, as we mature as an individual, we keep on losing many of our faculties. Human beings, as a species, are also, through the process of maturity, losing many of [their] faculties. One of them is a sensitivity of a connection with nature. And this system is rooted in that level of sensitivity, when human beings were capable of telling what time of the day it is without looking at the clock, or it will be raining in seven days."

Cultivating that awareness through music might even make missing sleep worthwhile.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.