Review: Niladri Kumar at Milton Court

Niladri Kumar. Credit: Darbar Festival

Rating: 5/5

The sitar is an instrument steeped in tradition. Developed as early as the 7th century, its form and playing style has hardly changed since then: 18 to 21 strings, each played in combination to create microtonal variations and a uniquely emotive musical language.

Changing this centuries-old formulation is no easy feat. Yet, for fifth generation sitarist Niladri Kumar, his lineage and extensive training has enabled him to deviate from the norm, electrifying the acoustic instrument and designing his own version: the zitar.

Over the past decade Kumar has been touring the world relentlessly with his zitar, incorporating western classical motifs, jazz phrasing and even rock dynamics into his Indian traditional compositions. On Tuesday evening, Kumar performed this new selection of works to a sold-out crowd at the Guildhall School’s Milton Court.

Accompanied by percussionist Sukhvinder Singh, Kumar opened the two-hour performance with a plaintive solo, incorporating the tuning of his instrument into the quiet dynamics of a 14-beat cycle, entitled a ‘tala raga’. As Singh entered the fray, volume markedly increased with the dexterity of his performance on the jori. A two-drum instrument normally used for Sikh religious performances, the jori’s resonant bass underpinned Kumar’s rhythmic variations and flurries of improvisation.

The performance owed as much to jazz improvisation as it did to the cyclical formulations of Indian classical music. Dynamics and tempo increased and decreased seemingly at will with polyrhythms trading between both players without momentum ever ceasing. Singh switched to the smaller tabla drums for the second half of the performance, heralding a more subdued set of compositions before both players ended on the continual ascension of a final number.

Kumar and Singh certainly earned their standing ovation, proving that one of the longest-standing traditions of Indian music need not be traditionalist. Instead, it can captivate modern and diverse audiences without losing any of its power.