The opening section of an Indian raga, known as the alap, is usually slow and contemplative. But such serenity didn't long hold the interest of Irshad Khan, the Toronto-based Indian sitar virtuoso who performed Saturday at the National Museum of American History's Carmichael Auditorium. During the lengthy alap of the first of two 45-minute ragas, Khan played with unusual aggressiveness, flailing as if playing a banjo or hammering with a percussiveness that suggested rock guitar.
That was not altogether inappropriate. Although much of the stylistic dialogue between rock and Indian classical music has been superficial, the sitar and the electric guitar do have a kinship. They can produce both staccato and sustained tones, and can be either purely melodic or highly rhythmic. Indeed, since the tabla--the Indian drum played elegantly at this performance by Shabazz Hussein--dances both on and around the beat, Khan's sitar was responsible for rhythm as well as melody.
That the sitarist could also summon more lyrical timbres was demonstrated by the second raga. For much of the piece, Khan delivered distracting instructions to the sound man, but once he finally had the tone he wanted, he played with exceptional delicacy.
The evening's short final piece resembled the second, but ended before it could really develop its themes: Indian music's expansive sense of time was curtailed by the Smithsonian's more definite curfew.