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From Computers to Surbahar - 2004-07-16

Shubha Sankaran, a small, dark-haired woman, sits on a low stool before a rapt audience, cradling a very large stringed instrument. She is one of only a handful of concert artists in the world –- and the only woman -- specializing exclusively in the surbahar, a super-sized version of the more familiar sitar.

“The overall construction is very much like the sitar in terms of having a very long neck and a gourd on which you place your hand and play. The whole instrument is about five feet long. It has a set of seven strings, and then you have about 12 sympathetic strings below that basically vibrate to the melody and the notes that you play on the main strings. The surbahar has a low voice, very much like the cello, very introspective, meditative, with more depth.”

Shubha Sankaran says she fell in love with the sound of the surbahar the first time she heard it played by her sitar teacher in Calcutta. She asked to learn to play it, but her teacher wouldn’t hear of it.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Girls can’t play the surbahar’. Because it is a large instrument, you’ve got to be big enough to be able to handle the instrument physically, and his feeling was women were not equipped to do that. So I studied with him for 13 years on the sitar, then when I immigrated to this country I ordered a surbahar and came with the surbahar, with the idea that I would start working on the instrument and playing on it.”

Her primary reason for coming to the United States was not to play the surbahar, however, but to find a job. Ms. Sankaran had wanted to devote herself to music, but her mother convinced her that first she needed to become financially independent. So she studied mathematics, and after getting her degree, worked for several years as a computer programmer in India.

“I was looking for another job, and I had difficulty in changing jobs. I came to America to visit my sister, and I went to this exhibition in Boston called 'Computermania'. When I came back, my sister said I had a whole bunch of job offers. And I couldn’t believe it, in India I was trying to change jobs and couldn’t find one, and here… So I decided to apply for an immigration visa since my sister could sponsor me. I thought I would come here, and save up as much as I could, enough for me to go back to India and be financially independent to do my music.”

While she came to the United States to make money, the reason she stayed was much more romantic. She fell in love.

“Around the time when I had made enough money to go back I met my husband, I met Brian. He’s also a musician. It was perfect, because he was very supportive of my musical needs, so I decided I could probably fulfill my dreams in this country better. And in fact it was much better, because I felt more empowered to work on the surbahar on my own and develop my own techniques, whereas if I had done it in India I might have felt bound by tradition to follow certain steps. Here I felt creative enough to develop on my own.”

Ms. Sankaran devotes 5 to 6 hours each day to practicing the surbahar. She also teaches and composes. In the last ten years she has performed widely in India, Pakistan, Latin America, Europe and, of course, in the United States, often in tandem with her husband, Brian Q. Silver, a sitarist (and chief of Voice of America’s Urdu Service). She says the classical music of India appeals to American audiences.

“It’s interesting, because I find that the audience in this country seems to be more receptive to the sound of surbahar than in India. In India they’re going in the reverse direction, where they want everything to be very fast, very flashy, etcetera, whereas in this country people are going the other way, I think because they’ve already done all that, and now they want to be more introspective and slow down, and meditation is in. It has a lot to do with, you know, the surge of yoga, all that. People are really looking into it, because everybody’s stressed out by the kind of lives we lead.”

Shubha Sankaran has lived in the United States since 1979, and visits India almost every year. She feels that for her, this is the perfect arrangement.

“Actually, when I came to this country I felt like I had come home. And the reason for it is, I always felt that I was going against the grain in India. Anything that I wanted to do, it was always… People are very critical of anything you want to do which is individualistic or a little different from anybody else. Everybody follows a certain pattern, and I certainly didn’t follow that, and so I always found myself, you know, feeling a sense of friction. Whereas coming to this country I felt, well, I can be whoever I want to be. So I felt extremely comfortable here.”

While the petite musician usually dresses in delicate shalwar kameezes or - for performances - in caftans of her own design, in her free time she changes to sweat pants and works out by lifting weights. Shubha Sankaran says she does that to maintain her physical strength, and to continue to belie her teacher’s statement of long ago, that women don’t have what it takes to play the surbahar.

(The sound of Hindustani music played on the surbahar)