From the first enchanting scale that echoed through the space, the Wednesday audience at Williamsburg’s art-laden, intimate, behind-a-record-store venue Shift were in for a rare treat. Mumbai-based sitarist Megha Rawoot offered a 45-minute set of rhapsodic solo music that served as testament to the versatile capabilities of her chosen instrument and to her own world-class abilities.
Rawoot’s introduction to the music was brief; inviting the audience to a “meditative” space, and noting her obvious lack of collaborator on stage (her last Brooklyn appearance was with tabla player Vikas Yendluri), she was assisted by Shift’s able speakers connected to her phone for a drone on the note D, which elicited a few laughs at first. Yet within a few moments the lack of live accompaniment was forgotten (save some transitions where Rawoot would seamlessly program 16-count talas into her phone) as she began to tune and play. Desh, a monsoon-season raga (an Indian classical music term somewhat similar to the Western musical concept of a mode or scale) with associations of romance and play, was what Rawoot worked with for thirty minutes, and work she did.
Sitars typically range from 18 to 21 strings, and her clarity of touch was especially evident in how she accompanied middle-register melodies with chords across the bounds of the instrument. Yet she was not limited to stereotypical sounds; at times Rawoot struck and bent her lower strings with such force that they seemed to growl like an animal. A rhythmic idea began to emerge, peppered with sudden turns of added or subtracted beats and bursts of virtuosity that seemed to indicate a growing tension in the soundscape, when she returned for a brief moment to the descending scale that had begun her performance, pivoted to her phone, and began the first of several sections with electronic tabla accompaniment.
Rawoot proved to be both deft with technology and in judging the feel of the music; she would bump up the speed of the rhythms bit by bit to match the growing intensity of her improvisation. Flurries of notes filled the room, nearly burying the drone except in places where she took moments seemingly just to listen, to ponder before responding back to her previous phrases. After pushing herself to a seemingly impossible speed, Rawoot returned to her phone for a final time, cutting the tabla and giving us a moment to breathe with her in the sound world of the opening. And then, almost too soon, it was over: the audience stunned into silence at the end, only applauding (and cheering) after a smile from the performer. There was laughter, after – she was worried for a surely-terrifying moment that her listeners “didn’t like” the music. Then, an encore was called.
“Barsan Laagi Badariya” (“It is raining, and I am alone without you”) a classic thumri in the raga pilu, formed much of the basis of Rawoot’s second, shorter performance. What it lacked in pyrotechnics compared to the earlier work was more than made up for in her explorations of the darker, more melancholy tones present in pilu, and also with her own voice joining the proceedings halfway through. Despite claiming not to be much of a singer, Rawoot accompanied herself expertly as she rendered the thumri, not needing a microphone to project her resonant, pitch-perfect voice through the space. This, too, left the audience wanting more when it finished; judging from the enthusiastic reaction, Brooklyn looks forward to this deeply talented artist’s next return to its stages.
*Correction: This article previously stated that Megha Rawoot made her NYC debut at Shift, however her NYC debut was September 25 at a Soup & Sound performance presented by Continuum Culture & Arts at Jalopy in Brooklyn.