Veena Chandra and Reena Esmail are a musical match made in heaven and perform on earth. They came together at the Ithaca College Choir last week, where the notes of choral music rose and fell to the ragas from sitar strings and the drumbeat of the tabla. The irony of an Indian classical musician performing Western music may not be appreciated by conservatives at home, but Veena’s sitar performance, along with son Devesh Chandra on the tabla, had audiences almost singing along.
Choral music is performed by a group of singers with or without accompaniment, or even a complete orchestra. Reena was only 13 years old when she wrote her first piece for the choir at her Los Angeles school. Last week’s concert was a rendering of her ‘This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity’ and ‘Women in Song.’
The Indian-American Reena, the composer-in-residence at the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Seattle Symphony, is an Artistic Director of the NGO Shastra that promotes cross-cultural music collaboration between India and the West. The Dehradun-born Veena is the founder-director of the Dance and Music School of India in Latham, New York state, for the past 31 years.
When she performs or teaches, Veena shows no signs of her 78 years on earth.
She owes her name to her father who was also her guru. He was an eclectic genius who could play the sitar, flute, tabla, harmonium and the banjo with equal skill. He loved the sitar, a passion passed on to his daughter, whom he named after another instrument, the veena.
Veena’s performances are known for her skill in the meend (bending the strings) and producing vocal sounds on the sitar.
Her musical resume is impressive, having performed all over the world; she is both a composer and choreographer. After her father’s death, her guru and husband was sitar maestro Satish Chandra, a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar, who would invite her to his concerts.
Her next guru was Ustad Vilayat Khan Saheb. With such a pedigree, Veena has become one of the preeminent ambassadors of Indian classical music in the West.
Her lecture-demonstrations and concerts at numerous halls and festivals in the US and India—she taught sitar and sociology at Agra and Dayalbagh universities—are well-attended. She is a performing pioneer in promoting Indian classical music in the US—the first sitar player to be featured at national music and film festivals like the Great New York State Fair in Syracuse, Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival, Michigan, and conducted the first all-female Indian Classical Music recital with Anuradha Pal on the tabla in 2007. A popular course for American students at her academy is Indian classical dance.
Veena has collaborated with dancers such as Odissi guru Sanchita Bhattacharya and Kathak doyen Pandit Kishan Mohan Maharaj.
“It is like going to a garden and picking out flowers. You know you want to pick flowers and as you go there you just pick and decide how many and of what kind. It ends up taking its own shape and form,” she reveals about not preparing beforehand about what she is going to play before a concert. Veena says music is so powerful that even her dog goes into a trance when she plays. Only goes to prove that music is man’s best friend.