Master sitarist brings Indian music to UCSD concert series

Kartik Seshadri with the sitar he designed and made himself. Maurice Hewitt
Kartik Seshadri with the sitar he designed and made himself. Maurice Hewitt

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

Contributor

His playing has been called breathtaking, ethereal and mesmerizing. He has been performing since he was six years old and now heads one of the largest programs of Indian classical music in the U.S., which happens to be at UCSD. When master sitarist Kartik Seshadri isn’t teaching, he’s usually touring worldwide, but he’ll be appearing March 9 as part of Wed@7, a concert series featuring experimental and international music.

A protégé of Ravi Shankar, Seshadri didn’t come from a family of musicians but grew up in a home full of music. He never thought of music as a career. It was a way of life.

Though he has lived in the U.S since 1981, his ties to his native country remain strong and constant. “I come and go a lot, and I’ve been doing it for 46 years,” he said. “Jet lag is part of my life.”

In 1996, when he was invited to start an Indian music program at UCSD, 20 students enrolled; now there are about 120 each quarter. “We’re actually turning people away, because we don’t have enough instruments,” he said.

The Beatles may have popularized Indian music in the 1960s, but Seshadri stresses that it’s an ancient musical tradition that goes back over 2,000 years and continues to thrive and grow.

“My mission is to demystify Indian classical music, to take it away from that ‘60s aura of incense and yoga, where people think there’s going to be a flying carpet every time the music is played,” he said.

Probably the best-known Indian instrument is the sitar, which has seven main strings and 13 “sympathetic” strings that respond when the main strings are played. Unlike Western stringed instruments, the sitar’s frets are movable, and can be micro-tuned to make sharps sharper and flats flatter.

At the heart of sitar music is the raga, a precise melodic form that is completely improvised within a very tight structure — a complex tonal system, with 22 divisions in an octave.

There are between 15,000 and 20,000 ragas, each one relating to a specific time or season. Because every performance is improvised, no raga ever sounds the same twice. Ragas also include a rhythmic component called tala, which can range from a simple 3-beat cycle to a 108-beat cycle.

“You learn to find your freedom within boundaries,” Seshadri said. “The years you spend studying with a master, the hours of practice and self-knowledge all help cultivate your ability to do this on the spur of the moment. I live by the word ‘rigor.’ That’s where the spiritual aspect of Indian music lies.”

How do his UCSD students respond to that rigor?

“They get tremendous gratification from awakening their dormant capacities,” he said. “I’m teaching them what it takes to become an improvisational musician.”

Seshadri is always exploring the places where Western and Indian music meet and contrast. He enjoys collaborating with people like performer-composer Philip Glass, with whom he has toured several times, most recently last summer.

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