Reimagining encounters along the Silk Road: Tracing the musical traditions of India and Afghanistan

This spring, for the first time since 2016, musician and composer Sandeep Das is co-teaching "Music and Dance of North India" with Professor Theodore Levin in Dartmouth's Music Department. During his residency, Das will be joined by the HUM ensemble to perform the world premiere of Delhi to Kabul at Rollins Chapel on April 20th. Delhi to Kabul is a multimedia work of song, dance and narration that celebrates Indian Classical music and its shared heritage with Afghan Klasik and poetry. It is part of the ensemble's larger project, "Transcending Borders One Note at a Time," which is a collection of music Das is composing to promote cultural empathy.

"Contemporary music creates a tent for developing an appreciation of someone else's tradition because it's eclectic," Levin said. "It allows us to embrace [someone else's tradition] as one's own. Geographical proximity doesn't mean what it once did. We are linked to someone else's world, you can click on your computer and be anywhere. I think [Das' work] gets to the root of what cultural pluralism is."

Levin and Das connected 23 years ago during their involvement with Silkroad, an ensemble founded in 2000 by cellist Yo-Yo Ma; Levin was the executive director, and Das was one of the first musicians the project engaged. 

"The idea was to, in some sense, reimagine the cultural meetings and encounters that engaged along the ancient Silk Road, what [Yo-Yo Ma] believed was a catalyst for cultural creation," Levin said. "[He had] the idea that being in touch through trade and cultural exchange is a catalyst for creativity."

The world premiere of Silkroad took place at the Hopkins Center in 2001. Levin and Das have worked together ever since. For several years they traveled and performed together, before Levin returned to Dartmouth to resume his professorship. Das went on to form the HUM ensemble, which he modeled after Silkroad.
"This is an effort of mine that started a few years back when the world was facing the ISIS crisis," Das said. "People were being stopped at the [US] border, and I thought, what can I do to show the world we are not different? Can I create volumes of work that exist long after I'm gone? That people can see, hear, experience in various ways and remember that we are the same? I started 'Transcending Borders One Note at a Time,' and the first project I did was called Delhi to Damascus. Wherever we went people saw the sharing and caring that went on right on stage."

Delhi to Kabul is the HUM ensemble's fourth work, and was inspired by Afghani novelist Homeira Qaderi; after hearing her story, Das knew he wanted to include her writing in his work. Levin and Das worked together to bring that idea to fruition, inviting the HUM ensemble and Qaderi to Dartmouth to rehearse and create new music. During the show, in addition to song and dance, Qaderi will be narrating a story she wrote specifically for this project.

"[India and Afghanistan] are kind of related already, we are cousins. Who influenced whom, we don't know exactly," Das said. "Our cultures have always influenced one another. I'm expecting the [audience at Delhi to Kabul] to hear what happens when cousins meet. No matter how many years we haven't seen one another, you immediately connect, there is so much joy and love."

This spring is the first time in seven years Das' schedule has allowed him to return to Dartmouth to perform and teach. In Levin and Das' class, students study traditional Indian music and learn to play the tabla, a traditional North Indian classical instrument. The college purchased 22 instruments for the class—one for each student.
"[Das] is one of the world's greatest virtuosos on the tabla," Levin said. "[Class] is very active, students come with their tablas and we take a lesson. We're trying to recreate oral transmissions from guru to disciple. Sandeep is the guru, the teacher. Watching him do this is like a miracle. We're learning orally, so the main thing [students] have to do is come to class and pay close attention."

In the same way, Levin encourages his students to be present in the classroom to receive Das' knowledge, he hopes the audience at Delhi to Kabul will quiet their minds and listen intently to the music.

"I hope the music can lead [audience members] to an inner state of contemplation," Levin said. "If I'm paying attention, that's what the music does for me. The music is grounded in a sacred tradition that is meant to focus the mind and lead you in a specific emotional direction. We have this in Western music, but the options available in Western music are crude. We're taught culturally to associate minor keys with sadness and major keys with happiness. In Indian music, there are dozens of keys between happy and sad. If you listen carefully it will touch you and bring you to a place in yourself of silence and openness."

Indian music, according to Levin, evokes complex emotions. There are keys and scales in Indian music that are associated with the time of day—songs that are only played early in the day and evoke something about the feeling of morning. Das' work highlights a whole spectrum of emotions, and Levin encourages attendees to listen for it.
"Everything is there, the whole world is present, from prayer to dance," Levin said. "Rollins Chapel is a beautiful space for this kind of concert, the acoustics are wonderful. Come and try to be in that sacred space, a consecrated space, a space that invites inner silence. If you can be in that state of inner silence, focus not letting your mind wander, listening very intently to the sound, you will hear these subtleties and respond."