UT sitarists bring culturally diverse music to Butler School

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Photo Credit: Madi Beavers | Daily Texan Staff

Gleaming brass cymbals, drums and other Indian instruments fill a dimly-lit room in the Butler School of Music. Two musicians sit cross-legged in an adjacent room, their eyes focused on tuning the many strings of their sitars.

The Svaranjali Ensemble aims to expose UT students to the rich cultural heritage of classical Indian music. But for the mastermind behind the project, ethnomusicology professor Stephen Slawek, playing is more than a reflection of ancient cultural tradition — it’s an incredibly personal experience.

“It’s like a meditation in the sense that I’m concentrating entirely on the music and not allowing myself to be distracted by other things,” Slawek said.

Asian studies professor Rupert Snell said this concentration inextricably links the act of playing music to Hinduism.

“Certainly the pursuit of music is seen as being akin to a religious pursuit,” Snell said. “The act of practicing and playing the basics of the music is almost a metaphor for a spiritual endeavor.”

Sitarists often work countless hours perfecting each and every note in complex musical structures called ragas. Slawek said the musicians’ intent focus becomes a meditative action closely associated with the ascetic traditions of Hindu devotionalism. 

“Within Hinduism there’s a belief that sound is one form of the absolute divine,” Slawek said. “The saying is ‘nada brahman,’ which means ‘sound is god.’”

The inherent spirituality of playing, Snell said, comes from the self-awareness a musician must have when collecting their thoughts on composition as they’re preparing to play.  

“Classical Indian music starts with a long, slow, very meditative section deeply imbued with spirituality,” Snell said. “The player who creates that music is looking deeply inside themselves for that inspirations.”

Slawek, a veteran of classical Indian music, has had years of experience doing just that. He was first exposed to classical Indian music as a college student in the 70s, when he, like many of his peers, heard The Beatles collaborate with world-famous sitarist Ravi Shankar. Upon graduation, Slawek packed up his things to study in India, where he was first introduced to Shankar, who would eventually become his teacher.

After learning from some of the greatest in the world, Slawek has brought his expertise to UT, where he’s been teaching for over 30 years. One of Slawek’s students, Asian cultures and languages senior Aruna Kharod, has been under his instruction for two years. Though Kharod said she didn’t have any prior experience with the sitar, upon playing for the first time she felt an instant connection with the instrument that is closely tied to her own cultural heritage.

Growing up, Kharod was first exposed to the culture behind the music through her family’s West Indian heritage and participation in Indian dance. Though her status as a beginner prevents her from doing the more personal improvisation of more advanced students, she says the simple act of practicing sitar brings her closer to the identity she’s formed for herself as a second-generation Indian-American.

“It’s helped me to create a new identity based on aspects of the art and culture that I can relate to,” Kharod said. “The first time I picked it up, I felt that if I could learn this instrument, that’s what I would do my whole life.”

Though the deeper connection to her heritage is something Kharod enjoys about playing the sitar, she said the most fulfilling thing about playing is losing herself in the music. 

“When you’re so engaged in doing something that you forget yourself for a moment, I think that’s the experience that you’re trying to have over and over again,” Kharod said. “That’s what I love about it.”