Arts & Entertainment: Best way to feel the filmi

The Sacramento Indian music scene, from Rajasthan to Bollywood

Indian music. What kind of mental picture does the term evoke? Does it conjure the image of Ravi Shankar jamming furiously in front of the blitzed masses of Monterey Pop? Or does the sound of sitar strings evoke the lavish dance spectacles of Bollywood productions? Both, of course, are accurate in their way, despite the fact that the two are about as closely related as the music of Joseph Haydn and Jigga. But flower-powered crossover artists—no offense to Mr. Shankar and his Beatle buds—and mass-produced Hindi or Tamil-language musicals are just a small part of this intense artistic heritage.

The music of India, and of the millions of ethnic Indians around world, is a tradition that dates back at least 2,000 years. It began in the religious songs of the ancient Vedic temples and always has been closely tied to worship. When the Indian subcontinent was invaded by Mughals from Persia in the 13th century, the traditional music underwent a major shift. The Hindustani music style of North India developed when the cultures derived from Persia and elsewhere merged with local traditions, while the indigenous music of India continued uninterrupted and has become the Carnatic or South Indian style, dominant in the areas never conquered by the Mughals.

With a large population of East Indians in the greater Sacramento area, it’s hardly surprising that finding live Indian music isn’t difficult, and both the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions are represented.

Historically, Indian music has been an oral tradition, passed down directly from teacher to student without the aid of sheet music. It’s an active art, not a theoretical one, with an intricate system of ragas (melodic scales) and talas (rhythms) that are memorized through long hours of practice. Perhaps because of this strong teacher-student tradition, local colleges are an important outlet for promoting Indian music events.

Guitarist Matthew Grasso teaches a course in Indian Classical Fusion at Sac City College—one that was covered in these pages just a year ago, and Grasso, along with percussionist Alex Jenkins on tabla, perform locally as the Nada Brahma Ensemble. CSUS’ annual World Music Festival typically features at least one performance of traditional Indian music; this year’s performers include South Indian violinist T.N. Krishnan and santoor player Satish Vyas, who represents the north Indian Hindustani tradition.

Of course, the area has other organizations that highlight Indian culture, including Thyagaraja Nilayam, a Sacramento nonprofit organization that promotes Carnatic music performance and education. Named for one of the three “patron saints” of the Carnatic tradition, Thyagaraja Nilayam will host a full day of music performance at their upcoming Dhikshitar Day, this October 27. More information about this and other events and programs is available at

The Gujarati Samaj of Sacramento—the West Indian state of Gujarat is the nation’s industrial heart—will celebrate their New Year with a festival November 10, featuring live classical Indian music and filmi (Bollywood showtunes), along with traditional dance. Find out more at

Proximity to the Bay Area is also boon: Tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain teaches privately in San Francisco, and the venerable Aashish Khan teaches down the coast at UC Santa Cruz. San Rafael’s Ali Akbar College of Music draws virtuosic performers and teachers from around the world, and some of that talent makes its way into the valley.

Probably the best way to find local Indian music and other cultural events—other than checking the trusted SN&R calendar—is to go to the Web. The greater-Sacramento area has a number of online resources for tracking down Indian cultural events, including,, and don’t forget the events calendars at CSUS, UC Davis or Sacramento City College. Or, tune into 1430 AM on Saturdays from 1:30-4 p.m. to check out Sangeet Khazana with host Usha Ahuja, whose been broadcasting his music and community events shows in Sacramento since 1975.