Shanta Nurullah, The Sister with the Sitar: A Musician’s Journey
By Satya Gummuluri
Published: Feb 14, 2013
In the late 1960s, a 19 year-old student from the South Side of Chicago found her instrument in Pune, India. She had come to India on a split second decision to get away from a turbulent time in her life wrought by the ongoing political and racial strife in America.
Shanta Nurullah (born Velma Patrice Neal) was in her junior year of college at Carleton College in Minnesota when she decided to go to India. She had been recruited by Carleton in 1967 after graduating as valedictorian of her class at Hirsch High School. “This was a time when big foundations were giving money to colleges to diversify their student bodies,” Shanta explains. “My freshman class brought the total enrollment of black students in the whole school up to twenty four. It was hard being there. Freshman year was when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. A lot of turmoil.”
College in those early years of racial integration was a restless experience at many levels — from racial tensions felt on campus and in the community to a demoralizing experience with formal music education. Shanta involved herself in theater, taking part in plays that dealt directly with racism and raising awareness in the community, as well as copiously reading the literature formed out of the movement for civil rights and Black self-determination.
Shanta explains, “I was trying to find a way to get out of there. I was at lunch one day; we had these communal tables. There was a news bulletin. I picked it up and it said the deadline for the India program is tomorrow. So I was like, OK! I applied for the program. A few months later, [I was] in Pune.” She went with a group of thirteen students. Her intent was to begin a research project on Dalits (once known as “Untouchables”) from a political science perspective, for which she had done preliminary work in college.
“I was there for about a week when I heard the sitar and absolutely fell in love. I heard the sitar and that’s what I had to do. So I had to fight with the director of the program to let me change my topic to music. I won! (Laughs).”
She found a teacher in Pune, Pt. Bhaskar Chandavarkar, well known in the Indian classical music world and a celebrated music composer in the film industry, known for his innovative creations for parallel cinema. He had been a disciple of Pt. Ravi Shankar, and was head of the music department at the Film and Television Institute of India at that time. Shanta, who had studied piano through childhood, immersed herself into this new music, taking sitar lessons and attending the abundant music concerts in Pune, a city with a traditionally deep regard for the arts. This was the year Pt. Chandavarkar was featured in Pune’s unique Sawai Gandharva Music Festival. She studied technique, ragas, taals and other aspects of Hindustani music from him on an intensive schedule for six months. One of the things she really delighted in was learning the Rupak taal, a rhythmic cycle in 7/4 time commonly used in Indian classical music, and as she foud later, in jazz.