Asian Music and Dance

Mita Nag – Seduced by the Sitar

The sitarist Mita Nag is, as we say, her father’s daughter. It was Ira Landgarten’s New York-based label Raga Records that first planted her father Manilal Nag’s music in my head in the 1990s. His touch on the sitar was bewitching. He was no sound-alike and, so it seemed, neither was his daughter Mita, born in 1969, who before her evening performance at Darbar I only knew from one CD, Twilight, released by the Kolkata-based Bihaan label in 2004. The subcontinent is teeming with musicians still awaiting their first chance to play in Britain. While Mita Nag had previously played in Britain in 2004 – in duet with her father – her evening Seduced by the Sitar… was her UK solo debut.

Her unspeakably vital playing of one of the most mellifluous of all ragas, Miyan-ki-Malhar (‘Miyan [Tansen]’s Malhar’) with compositions and variations, was nothing less than, if you get my sensory drift, an aural feast. Adopting the, in yogic terms, half-padmasama (‘lotus position’) posture for playing, on the Purcell Room stage she played a sitar that looked much loved. Interpret that as you will. After the recital she clarified that Hiren Roy (1920–92) was the instrument-maker. This was some thirty years ago, back before the Rashbehari Avenue – where his shop was once located – and the Gariahat district in south Kolkata swanked up and became a place of concrete, flyover and tower block. This was the same Hiren Roy of renown who made sitars for Nikhil Banerjee, Annapurna Devi, Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan. “My dad had this instrument made for me when I was only 13 years old,” she told me. “[Ever] since then I’ve played the same instrument.” To bring such a work of art of an instrument – “my one and only” (unless she is teaching) – on tour amounted to an act of rare devotion. “It’s become a part of me.”

Mita Nag has a mastery of the gesture, in the sense that sometimes she paints the air with invisible notes and strokes after delivering them on the sitar. Her Miyan-ki-Malhar went through the standard movements: alap, jod (or jor) and jhalla. Over the first twenty minutes, she introduced listeners to her instrument’s tonalities beginning with its low register – the sustained grumblings of life, as it were – through its mid-range before revealing its upper range. The gats – a term for a fixed composition in instrumental music (and, say, kathak dance) – began slow (vilambit) in the masidkhani or, just a consonant away, masitkhani style of sitar-playing before ending razakhani – in other words in another sitar style, one employing the fast (drut) tempo. Satyajit Talwalkar played tabla. Mita Nag lived up to every hope for her performance, and then some. She transcended expectations. Sheer brain food.

With apologies to Jayateerth Mevundi, whose …& Khayal UK debut performance concluded the evening. The previous day’s inoculation kicked in, necessitating a dash for Waterloo Station and beyond.



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