, Salem, MA

April 3, 2014

Transcending boundaries

Classical Indian music comes to Salem State

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — American jazz has at least one thing in common with classical music from India.

“There’s a lot of improvisation in Hindustani, or north Indian, classical music,” said Peter Kvetko, associate professor of music at Salem State. “The genre that’s most common is khyal. That word means, literally, imagination.”

Visitors can hear one of the leading vocalists in this classical tradition, Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, at Salem State University on Monday at 7:30 p.m.

Deshpande has recorded 30 albums since 1985 and is an important innovator in the tradition she practices, Kvetko said.

Khyals can last anywhere from half an hour to an hour, although their lyrics are usually only a few lines of poetry.

“Within that genre, the emphasis is on the improvisation and interpretation of the singer,” Kvetko said. “You don’t need a lot of lyrics for the singer to improvise and interpret within the boundaries of the melodic framework they call a raga.”

While singing khyals, vocalists sometimes make music using just fragments of language.

“There are long, melodic phrases on one vowel sound or syllable of a word,” Kvetko said. “Many of the improvisations are about artful ways of breaking up the small number of lyrics. It’s a tool an artist will use to create maximum impact from the minimum.”

A second genre Deshpande may sing, a thumri, is shorter but includes more lyrics.

As with jazz, it allows the vocalist to take more liberties with the raga, which Kvetko defines as a template for improvisation.

“In khyal, the vocalist strictly follows the rules of the raga,” he said. “Thumri is a light classical piece that allows you to sing outside the rules of the raga.”

Ragas describe the order in which notes must be sung, provide pieces of melody and must “have a certain phrasing that evokes the identity of that particular raga — a hierarchy of pitches, also. It’s more specific than a scale, but not as specific as a song.”

While khyals and thumris are secular, another type of classical Hindustani song — the bhajan — has religious overtones.

“Bhajan is a devotional song,” Kvetko said.

While the lineage Deshpande belongs to is mostly practiced by Muslims, the Hindustani classical tradition allows for rich interaction between Hindu and Muslim cultures, Kvetko said.

“The art transcends their religion and regional identities,” he said. “It’s a powerful identifying force in India because it can transcend boundaries.”

Muslim masters often sing bhajans about Krishna, a Hindu god, because they address themes of love and desire that are universal, Kvetko said.

Indian classical music is a few hundred years old, and Deshpande sings in a vocal style that was founded by Alladiya Khan, who died in 1946.

“He was kind of a modernizer; he blended 19th and 20th century styles,” Kvetko said. “His style has spread throughout western India.”

Indian classical music will also be showcased this Saturday and Sunday at Peabody Essex Museum, during Sensational India, a weekend-long festival of Indian culture.

At Salem State, Deshpande will perform with another vocalist, Saili Oak Kalyanpur, and they will be accompanied by musicians playing a tabla, or pair of hand drums, and a harmonium, a small, portable organ.

The two singers have a master-disciple relationship that Kvetko will discuss in a talk before the concert.

“We wanted to have a master and disciple on stage together to emphasize the continuity between generations,” he said. “This is an opportunity for people to learn about this incredible classical tradition, handed down from tradition.

“It was all done orally. You have to have the face-to-face relationship.”


What: Ashwini Bhide Despande, with Saili Oak Kalyanpur: Two Generations of North Indian Vocal Music

When: Monday, April 7, 7:30 p.m. Pre-concert talk by Prof. Peter Kvetko, “The Guru-Disciple Relationship in Indian Music,” at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Salem State University, Recital Hall, 71 Loring Ave.

Information: Tickets $15 general admission, $10 for non-Salem State students and senior citizens, at