For one lively and exciting weekend, Secaucus became a suburb of India. A celebration of Holi, the Indian “festival of colors” that welcomes spring, took place in two locations during the first weekend of April.
First came a musical performance from accomplished sitar and tabla players at the Secaucus Public Library on Friday, April 4. This was followed by an outdoor event at Mill Creek Point, at which participants colored themselves in all the hues of the rainbow for an afternoon of pure fun.
Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury is a maestro at the sitar, a multi-stringed instrument with a rich and unique sound. The sound of the sitar captivated the Beatles and Rolling Stones and many others in the 1960s, turning up on songs by countless “psychedelic” bands.
For his standing-room-only performance at the library, Roy-Chowdhury was joined by skilled tabla player Suryaksha Deshpande in a series of spectacular ragas, or ancient traditional melodic patterns allowing for the players’ personal interpretation.
“In the Hindustani system we have ragas for almost all occasions,” said Roy-Chowdhury. “For different times of the day, also different seasons, festivals. There are many compositions that have become associated with Holi.”
A renowned artist who has released CDs and performed throughout the world, Roy-Chowdhury teaches Indian music in Secaucus. He has been playing the sitar for 22 years.
“Life is beautiful colors.” – Bhavani Gopalreddy.
Suryaksha Deshpande sat beside him for the performance, playing two small hand drums called tablas, generating an astonishing variety of rhythms and percussive sounds.
“This is kind of the only percussion in the world which has that black part at the center,” he explained. “So with the pressure of the wrist and with the different positions of the fingers, we produce so many sounds on that instrument. The left drum I played was the treble drum and the right one was a bass drum.”
For this performance Deshpande utilized drums tuned in D. Tuning is done by minute adjustments to small wooden blocks that tighten or loosen the drum head.
The two musicians played in perfect sync, stopping and starting simultaneously with exacting precision, as if performing scripted material.
“Actually it was completely improvised,” said Deshpande. “We practice sometimes but it’s never fixed what we play on the stage. As a percussionist I just listen to the designs created by the sitarist and I try to replicate them in my own language.”
“It was beautiful,” said Anuradha Nakhwa, who attended the concert with her six-year-old daughter Rishika. “It was amazing. And it was relevant because the ragas that there were playing are regarding the spring coming in, and that is what the Holi festival is about.”
“It was incredible,” agreed attendee Russ Shahani. “It sounded like six musicians. I was trying to see how they got a certain sound. I see the hands going and I don’t know how he’s getting the sound coming out. Because it’s like a background sound as well as the string sound.”
Roy-Chowdhury plays an 18-string sitar. Some sitars have more. “Most guitars are six so this is like three times as much,” marveled Shahani. “It’s amazing how much sound can come out of one instrument.”
Asked if he had seen Indian ragas performed before, Shahani said, “Yes, many times over. I’ve seen them in big concert halls but that’s more amplified. This is a very intimate setting. You get to see the techniques.”
The library concert was cosponsored by Kulture Kool as part of their One World Performance Series. Also performing were six students of the main performers: three sitarists and three young kids playing tablas.
“One of our goals as Indian musicians living here is to spread the music as far as we can in the community,” said Roy-Chowdhury.
He will be performing at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan on Aug. 15.
Day of color
Two days after the library concert, Mill Creek Point was bathed in vibrant hues as kids and adults covered themselves and each other in red and green and blue powder. It’s all part of the traditional “festival of color” that is Holi.
“We’ve been waiting and waiting,” said Secaucus resident Shama Patel, one of the attendees painted in bright tones. “It’s been two weeks since the Holi is over. We were waiting for the good weather.”
And they got it. Initially scheduled for March 30, the event was postponed due to rain. The new date was gorgeous, warm and clear.
Asked to define what Holi is, Rakhee Vedi from Secaucus answered, “You can say welcome of spring. After this, summer starts in India. Usually it’s in March but it’s not a fixed date. It changes depending on the calendar.”
“So we play with the color,” added her friend Neena Jasty.
“Life is beautiful colors,” explained Bhavani Gopalreddy.
Children reveled in the event, painting each other from head to toe. The adults were no slouches either, including festival organizer Raj Nagpal and Secaucus Town Council Members Susan Pirro and Gary Jeffas, all of whom spent time handing out the “gulal,” or brightly colored powder smeared on participants as part of a Hindu tradition dating back thousands of years.
“I love this whole movement, the Holi movement,” said former Secaucus resident Daniel Marino, now living in North Bergen. “We have Easter, they have Holi. It’s very similar.”
Attending with his wife Hayuxia, 12-year-old daughter Gabriela, and family friends, Marino said he makes a habit of celebrating Holi. “New York City, down the shore, wherever there’s Holi, I’m going to be. It’s a wonderful event. The meaning of it is nice. Happiness. Togetherness. This is how life should be.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.