On March 8, Indian musician Rita Sahai will be returning to perform at the Mondavi Center. Sahai performs Indian classical vocal music and will be accompanied by other musicians who specialize in traditional Indian instruments.
Sahai specializes in a form of music known as Hindustani which is traditional repertoire from Northern India. Classic Hindustani pieces tend to feature either an instrumental or vocal soloist, tabla (a two-drum instrument), a drone (an instrument that provides a perpetual tone to follow) and a melodic instrument (like a violin or harmonium). Sahai accompanies herself on the tanpura, a traditional drone string instrument.
Sahai was born in India and has performed music since she was a child. Since the age of 9, she studied Hindustani with renowned instructors and eventually came to the U.S. to expand her musical knowledge. She eventually trained under internationally-renowned sarod (traditional Indian string instrument) maestro Ali Akbar Khan, during which time she mastered Seni Allauddin Gharana style — a branch of Indian classic music known for its intricate ragas (a traditional Indian melodic pattern).
The musician has been widely praised by critics for her mastery of Hindustani music and was deemed “Gayan Alankar,” which means “The Jewel of Music.” She has recorded music with bluegrass Grammy award-winning artist Béla Fleck and tours throughout the world offering performances and music classes.
Chair of the UC Davis Department of Ethnomusicology, Henry Spiller, has seen Sahai perform before and expressed in an email interview his awe of the musician.
“Rita is a very natural, quiet, calm presence on stage, and she makes me (and the rest of the audience) feel at ease,” Spiller said. “Yet when she sings, she demands my attention, and I find myself intimately and actively involved in the minutest details of the music: the rich beauty of her voice, her subtle melodic ornamentation, her slow unfolding of the piece’s tonal material. It is exhilarating.”
Sahai will be accompanied by an array of talented musicians. The instruments featured will be harmonium, tabla, slide guitar and viola. Sahai’s performance will mainly showcase her vocal ability. The use of slide guitar with vocal pieces is considered rare. Instrumentalist Vikram Shrowty will be playing the instrument and said he is excited to see how the performance turns out.
“The slide guitar is not usually employed as an accompanying instrument in vocal recitals,” Shrowty said, “so this will be a fun, new combination.”
Kanwaljit Kalsi, a life-long friend of Sahai, will be accompanying her on the harmonium. Interestingly, the harmonium is the one instrument used in traditional Hindustani music that is not original to India. The instrument is German, but blends well with Indian classical vocal music.
“I play harmonium when accompanying Indian singing,” Kalsi said. “It is easy to carry; it sounds sweet and one can sing and play at the same time. You can use it for light music, folk music as well as for classical Indian music.”
Though Sahai is well-versed in many traditional Indian vocal classics, she writes a lot of her own music and will be performing original new pieces on March 8. Rita said she hopes her music will inspire people to learn more about music. She also said she hopes people will emotionally connect to her pieces.
“Indian music is based off emotion,” Sahai said. “I am looking forward to touching everyone’s heart — that’s my goal. Some musicians try to show off, but I just want to touch people’s hearts.”
The performance will take place in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre in the Mondavi Center. Doors open at 7 p.m. Ticket prices vary. For further ticket and show information, you can visit tickets.mondaviarts.org