Indian Classical Music and Dance
By Christine Beamer, Daily Arts Writer
The musicians sit cross-legged in a circle, keeping the beat on their legs as a singer recites foreign words to the tune of a drone and two small drums. If you close your eyes, it no longer feels like you are in Ann Arbor but instead in the heart of India thousands of years ago. In reality it is just another rehearsal of the University’s Indian Classical Music and Dance group.
According to Ashish Deshpande, an Engineering graduate student and leader of the group, ICMD branched out from the Indian Student Association in 2003. A few musicians had played popular Indian music for several years for the ISA, but as Deshpande said, “We found there was an interest in classical Indian music and dance as well.”
The music and dances were originally religious compositions designed to be performed at temples and tell the stories of religious figures or events. Now, as group member Arun Rajageopalan said, it is “a way to experience your roots again.” The atmosphere in the 25 to 30-person organization is informal; there is no sense of performance but rather a warm camaraderie that emanates from the group.
Performers of classical Indian music are formally trained, just as classical Western musicians are. That, however, is where the similarities end, for the music and instruments are vastly different from a New York Philharmonic concert. Indian music has “a lot more improvisation than Western music,” said group member Prashanth Gururaja, an Engineering junior. “It’s nothing like anything else.”
According to the ICMD website, any piece of classical Indian music is structured around a melody, called a raga, and a rhythm, called a taal. The ragas, which may be up to 3,000 years old, are usually only about a minute long, and the music truly begins when the artist begins to improvise on the raga, still keeping its structure but adding their own interpretations. “You have a small set of rules,” Deshpande explained, “and great artists can perform the same raga for 45 minutes.”
When Indian students are trained in classical music, their teachers have them memorize the minute-long ragas, which are not learned from sheet music. In fact, Deshpande said, “the teachers all teach them a little differently.” Musicians then get together and play from this common learned “list” of ragas.
To make it more complicated, there are two distinct types of classical Indian music, North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic). The two types are sung in different languages, and, in addition, the instruments, the structure and the mood of the styles are all different. According to Deshpande, most Hindustani groups use one vocalist, and four or five instrumentalists to play the tabla, sitar, tambura, harmonium and occasionally a bamboo flute. The tabla is a percussion instrument similar to the bongos, a sitar is similar to a lute, a tambura is an instrument that plays a drone and the harmonium looks like a box with keys and a bellow similar to an accordion. In contrast, Carnatic groups use a vocalist, a violinist, a mridangum (a double-sided drum) and a ghatum (a clay pot) for percussion.
The group also puts on dance shows with Hindustani and Carnatic dances. The different dance styles, like the different musical styles, create similar moods. And like the music, dances have a basic structure that has been passed down for thousands of years. According to Deshpande, though dancers can choreograph within that structure, “it is not their complete free will” that determines the dance structure. The emphasis in the dancing is on the facial expressions, which tell about the traditional Hindi stories that the dances depict. All the dancers wear bright colored costumes that follow traditional Indian dress. “Each style of dance has a particular costume of its own,” said Deshpande.
Classical Indian music and dance is not the most popular music in India right now according to Deshpande. “It is kind of like classical music here; there is a certain group who listen to it and watch it,” he said. However, most people in India are involved in some kind of classical music training. Hence, ICMD is not a training-based organization. All the instrumentalists and dancers have been trained either in India or in schools around the United States. However, ICMD works closely with Saadhanai, a group on campus that provides lessons for beginners in Indian Classical music.
Although the members of the group are dedicated, the main purpose of the ICMD is merely “to have meetings where people come together and just play,” Deshpande said. Moreover, the group is extremely diverse. “I think there is someone from every school except the School of Music,” Deshpande said with a laugh.
Though Deshpande is half a world away from his native India, he still plays the tabla, which he started in high school. “For me, (Indian music) is more melodious than other styles,” he said, adding that “there is a math behind it, and I like it.”
On the other hand, for Srilakshmi Bhagavathula, Rackham student, the opportunity to create this music results in an important spiritual and musical feeling. “Each song talks about a divine feeling. We understand more and more each time we sing it. This is essential for all humankind.”
The next concert for the instrumentalists is tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. in the U-Club of the Michigan Union. Admission is free. The next classical dance concert is March 26.
By Adam Rosen, Daily Arts Writer
If it weren’t for the all-too-familiar glow of fluorescent lights radiating off the bare linoleum floor, the exotic Latin music emanating from the room may have very well fooled any unsuspecting visitor into believing he or she was entering a dance hall thousands of miles south of Michigan.
However, this room is not in Buenos Aires; it isn’t even in Miami. It is, however, room G115, located in the basement of Angell Hall, and to Rackham student Ramu Pyreddy and the 100 or so loyal members of the Michigan Argentine Tango Club he founded over three years ago, it’s good enough.
With his exposure to the sultry dance limited to a viewing of the movie “Tango,” Pyreddy set off to South America in April 2000 with the sole intention of visiting a friend. However, after randomly trying out some tango dance moves, Pyreddy — growing more and more tired of ballroom dancing — was hooked.
“I was just doing tango during the day and during the night,” he said. “I was pretty pathetic — it takes many years before you can get good — but I still persisted.”
Pyreddy, originally from Kurnool, India, founded the club with seven of his friends in the fall of 2001, following a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, the site of the dance’s founding and worldwide recognition.
Since then, the club has grown exponentially, and not just among University students; Pyreddy estimates that around 40 percent of the club’s members are from the Ann Arbor community.
In addition to providing tango enthusiasts with a venue to practice their moves, the club offers lessons for every ability level.
Kurt Wheelock, a 76-year-old business owner from Stockbridge, says he drives 35 minutes each week just to practice the South American dance with his girlfriend.
Wheelock, who has been taking lessons since last November, assertively praises the dance for providing him a break. In a word, he characterizes the dance as “satisfying.”
The intensity and subtle passion that underlie the dance may be the main reason for the Michigan Argentine Tango Club’s popularity.
“It’s a beautiful dance, a nice way to connect to people,” Rackham student Olivier Poudou said.
And “connect” is exactly what members have done. Over the years, several romances have developed between members of the club, Pyreddy said.
This comes as little surprise, considering the intimacy and sexuality of the dance — in most cases, partners stand barely more than inches apart, arms wrapped around, facing eye to eye. However, it is not uncommon to observe pairs seeking an even closer connection by dancing the tango chest-to-chest.
Developed in Buenos Aires in the late 1800’s, tango, an extremely intimate and improvisational type of dance, was originally practiced almost exclusively by the lower-classes, particularly among prostitutes.
Although the dance eventually worked its way up through the mainstream and is now accepted by the upper class, Pyreddy said that the ambiguous attitude by Argentinians towards the dance over the years has contributed to a sort of “tango subculture” throughout Buenos Aires. “There is almost a seedy side to it,” he explained.
Club member Stacy Frigerio, an LSA freshman of Argentinean descent, enjoys her participation in the club so much that when she visited Buenos Aires over winter break, she had to see the dance performed live. In fact, she even purchased a pair of authentic tango shoes to wear on Wednesday nights.
Frigerio said that the dancing being practiced in Ann Arbor is not so different from the dancing that is practiced in Argentina, despite the distance.
“The tango (in Ann Arbor) is very similar to how it’s danced over there, but there’s a different feeling. It’s just the matter of getting to know the music,” she said.
In many ways, the descriptions often reserved to describe the dance by members could similarly be used to depict the Michigan Argentine Tango Club itself: exciting, spontaneous and varied. The heterogeneity of the group is one of its most conspicuous aspects — at any meeting, it is not at all surprising to see people of all ages and nationalities. All pretensions are cast aside in Angell Hall room G115, where young students wearing T-shirts share the dance floor with middle-aged men sporting ties.
The intensity with which the members express their passion for the dance and the club appears to be quite indicative of the Michigan Argentine Tango Club’s popularity. To Pyreddy, this comes as no surprise.
“Many times when you’re dancing — and it happens a lot — you’re free in the music, just living in the present. We call this the ‘tango trance,’ ” he says. “It’s almost bliss.”
The Michigan Argentine Tango Club meets at G115 in Angell Hall on Wednesdays from 8 to 9:30 p.m., and is open to anyone. The cost of membership is $10 for seven weeks of lessons. For more information, visit www.umich.edu/~umtango.