Weekend in NYC. Attending the Amjad Ali Khan concert at Carnegie hall. Bad flashback to SPIC-MACAY concerts in my school auditorium when I was eight as random uncle-ji walks on to stage and invites random other uncle-ji to "come say a few words on this occassion". When Thomas Friedman said the world was flat (a startlingly bad metaphor, as Matt Taibbi points out here; link via a friend) he was obviously talking about this man's intonation. We're subjected to an assortment of meaningless platitudes strung together in an oratory style that the speaker learnt in his Vikas Puri primary school. I'm a stickler for getting to events on time, but I gaze with envy at people filing in late.
When the concert finally begins  (said speaker having finally succeeded in putting himself to sleep) the sense of deja vu worsens, as the sublime sound of Raga Kamod is punctuated by the cries of the four year olds in the audience. Is there some secret fine print in the H1B regulations that I don't know about, which forbids these people from hiring sitters? People who bring three year olds to concerts should be horsewhipped. Before they're shot.
Fortunately, the joy of being at my first Hindustani classical concert in months more than compensates for these annoyances. The Ustaad starts by riffing on Vaishnav Jan To and then launches into Raga Kamod. His aalaap is disappointingly brief, but the glistening power of the final moments of his performance marries inspiration to breathlessness, proving once again that the hand really is quicker than the ear, and that real genius involves an audacity of invention and a velocity of beauty that the rest of us can barely hope to keep up with.
From this point onward the concert goes downhill. Tweedledum and Tweedledee succeed their father on stage, and the music moves from the sublime to the mechanical. It's like listening to a pair of trained seals playing the sarod - the difference between these two and their father is the difference between a gymnast and a dancer. MR falls asleep. I sit there, reminding myself that eventually the Ustaad will return.
When he does, for a final rendition of Raga Mishra Kirwani  preceded by a sweet little diversion into ekla chalo re, his performance only underscores the important difference between a performer and a musician. The great Indian classical musicians aren't just formidable instrumentalists, they are also spectacular composers - musicians capable of incredible feats of improvisation that flow from their hair and fingertips. What makes a really good Hindustani performance is the artist's ability to surprise you, to go just that little bit further than you expected, to produce that infinitesimally perfect variation that you simply couldn't anticipate. Amjad Ali Khan, when he really gets going, can do that - Tweedledum and Tweedledee, competent performers though they may be, can't. Which is why a format where the Ustaad lays out the raga for them, and they repeat after him obediently, like children reciting poems in pirmary school, works well.
Saturday's concert also demonstrated how Amjad Ali Khan missed out on his true calling - to be the lead musician for a heavy metal rock band. There were moments in that performance that Pete Townshend would have been proud of. The raw energy of the music was overwhelming, the sheer immensity of having three sarods  and two sets of tablas on stage produced a sound that made you want to headbang. Not quite the sublime elegance one had hoped for, but good fun nonetheless.
 With a standing ovation for the Ustaad, BEFORE he'd played a single note. If virgin sacrifices had been allowed in Carnegie hall, no doubt we would have seen a few.
 A choice of raga that had T. smirking for the rest of the evening about the 'manifest' superiority of Carnatic music.
 Father and sons stroking their sarods in unison on stage. Phallic symbolism runs yelping about, then faints with excitement.