School of dhrupad

Visiting Hindustani musician Binay Pathak teaches the sounds of India in Sacramento

Binay Pathak is the Jack Black of Hindustani classical music. He’ll perform and teach this weekend in Grass Valley.

Binay Pathak is the Jack Black of Hindustani classical music. He’ll perform and teach this weekend in Grass Valley.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In the beginning, there was the word.

And the word, to some, was om—pure vibration— that which is found at the core of all things.Cut to the present: inside a living room in a house in Swanston Estates, a tidy postwar subdivision just north of Arden Fair Mall. There, Binay Pathak, a youthful but 50-something Indian man, sits on the floor before a harmonium, the pump organ that anchors a lot of South Asian music. Nearby, a small cube labeled “Ragaan digital” rests; it has been providing a steady undercurrent of the signature fixed-sitar drone that, in the West, evokes beaded curtains, patchouli oil, incense smoke and Dragnet reruns. That drone colors the atmosphere, and once Pathak begins performing, it imbues the music with characteristic flavor.

Pathak begins pumping the accordionlike harmonium and then sings a raga melody over it. His voice rises in strange chromatic runs, arriving at the top, then ululating acrobatically before plunging and rising again, the syllables a mystery in Sanskrit. Midway through the song, he flips a switch on another cube, and the sound of tabla percussion begins—seven beats per measure at first, then 16, the song building in intensity before fading.

Pathak is a master musician and composer who’s done some contemporary work for the Bollywood films of his native Mumbai. He specializes in dhrupad, an ancient vocal tradition in the Hindustani classical-music canon. He comes from a long gharana, or lineage of musicians, which dates back to Pandit Gopal Nayak in the 16th century, under the Mogul emperor Akbar the Great. And he comes to Sacramento each autumn, as the visiting professor and resident instructor of the Sohini Sangeet Academy, the two-year-old institution that seeks to educate Hindustani classical music in the region. The academy currently is located in this house off Ethan Way.

Pathak’s musical tradition stretches back into antiquity, or at least the time of the Vedas, the scriptures at the heart of the Hindu faith. Unlike Western classical music, Hindustani classical is not harmonic or symphonic; it consists of melodic lines that develop and flower over a droning sound bed. It originated as a tool for meditation. Raga, perhaps its best-known form, comes from the Sanskrit word for “color” or “mood.” It is a structural language of fixed modes, with different ragas prescribed for different hours of the day or night, along with different seasons of the year.

“Some of the ragas will cure your health, will cure your mind, which is like a medicine,” Pathak says. Their vibrational qualities, according to Pathak, can affect the chakras, or the body’s seven energy centers along the spine. “Music is such a thing that brings you near to the god,” he adds. “Indian classical music is very powerful.”

While ragas themselves may be rigidly set, Indian music transformed under the Moguls, who ruled the subcontinent from the 16th to the 19th century. Dhrupad morphed into khyal, as the court musicians who served under their Muslim conquerors adapted their music to suit the new overlords, and new Persian influences mixed with old Indian ones. Among the associated subgenres is ghazal, a sung poetic form.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Pathak is a fountain of musical history, and it’s easy to get distracted, especially when he goes off on a long and entertaining story line about how music owes a supreme debt to Lord Krishna, or a supernatural yarn regaling how a lingam, or phallic icon, representing the Hindu deity Shiva, moved all by itself across a temple floor in Varanasi, India.

But he also teaches how to play it in the present day—the vocal techniques of dhrupad, along with such instruments as the harmonium, sitar and others. As with Indian meditation teachers, music instructors there are commonplace, so many of these gurus found a receptive new audience in America, with the Bay Area attracting a considerable amount. “It is very common, and very easy or available, to get a guru [in India],” Pathak says. “But in this country, it is very hard to get a right person, with knowledge to teach Hindustani classical music. That’s why I make here the Sohini Sangeet Academy.”

How the academy landed in Sacramento was that Maya Schweizer, a grandmotherly retired art teacher at a local private school, was in Berkeley a few years ago and heard Pathak perform. She invited him to come teach in Sacramento. She says she immediately recognized something in Pathak’s music and mien that set him apart from other Bay Area teachers.

“You can take piano and learn songs and some theory,” she explains. “But it’s not like taking it from Bach or Handel, who would take you in a totally different direction. Or if Beethoven was your music teacher, you would learn so much, because he would have all that knowledge.”

If true, quite a compelling statement.

“What he’s offering is a lineage,” she adds. “And not just the lineage, but the heart and understanding that goes with that.” She pauses, then whispers: “He knows so much.

Now, whether Binay Pathak is the Hindustani Handel or merely a supremely emotive singer, he seems to be quite in tune with a deep and wonderful vibration.