Khayal Trio and Sayak Bhattacharya

Django Bar, February 26


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Bobby Singh. Photo supplied.

All improvisation involves letting some air breathe through holes in the music’s fabric and cross-stitching over others. In Hindustani music there are not just holes between beats in the rhythm, but between pitches in the scale or raga. So it’s no wonder the modern strain of Hindustani classical singing is called Khayal, which translates as “imagination” – a quality that Sayak Bhattacharya had in abundance.

The singer performed the ragas Bihag and Kirwani with Bobby Singh (tabla) and Sukhi Singh (harmonium). Bihag began over a 12-beat rhythm so slow that it was as if time were standing still, and Bhattacharya set about a commensurately slow-burn development of his improvisation. Initially this was so profoundly beautiful that it was moving without being especially charged with emotion. Then some 20 minutes in he began to increase those emotional stakes and make his microtonal embroideries ever more ornate.

Rhythmic changes arrived seamlessly, and as the music gained velocity it also became more playful and interactive, until voice and tabla were engaged in a dialogue of dizzying virtuosity, as happened again on the shorter Kirwani. Both ragas also showed off Bhattacharya’s astounding timbral control, from a crystalline, almost angelic purity to a more nasal sound like a double-reed instrument.

Singh is not only Australia’s foremost tabla player but also one of our most open-minded and wide-ranging musicians. In the first half he performed with Khayal Trio, completed by flamenco guitarist Damien Wright and singer Sarah Hyland. A highlight was a guitar/tabla duet on the slow flamenco Solea form, one of several times during the evening when the tabla’s melodicism was so striking it was as though the little drums were singing.

Wright provided a solo introduction of exquisite delicacy and increasing drama to Ordinary Magic, a piece that also showed Hyland to best effect, her work being at its most restrained. Although accomplished and accurate, Hyland needs to unlock deeper truths in her singing (and lyrics) to be truly an equal third in this project.