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Ohio Heritage Fellow Hasu Patel Proves There’s Power in Perseverance

Hasu Patel received the 2018 Ohio Heritage Fellowship Award for Performing Arts. Photo courtesy of Hasu PatelHasu Patel has never been one to shy away from a challenge.

Whether composing an entire concerto or writing a book on sitar compositions and the history of Indian music, Patel has learned that taking on monumental projects herself is often the best—and sometimes the only—option.

It was an approach she used when asked by the Michigan Philharmonic to play classical Indian music on the sitar with the orchestra, an offer Patel said was a childhood dream.

“Believe me, it was a tough but unfathomably beautiful music journey in my life,” Patel said, recalling that the Philharmonic’s music director and conductor Nan Washburn wanted to find someone who could write the music for her. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. I can write my own music. I don’t want to play someone else’s.’ I’m not a feisty woman, but I have a vision.”

She ended up composing the whole piece for sitar and approximately 70 Western instruments.

The same sense of self-motivation helped her through a difficult recovery following knee surgery. Through the pain, she composed 100 compositions in 50 different Indian ragas as a part of her upcoming book.

“I was in a lot of pain. Instead of crying, I composed 100 compositions,” Patel said. “It’s a one-woman job, you know?”

Patel started studying music at the age of 3, when her father hired a teacher, or guru, to teach her vocal exercises. When she was 6, Patel started learning the sitar, practicing six to eight hours a day. Music was something she and her seven siblings all pursued at the urging of her father, who wanted his children to learn humility through playing an instrument.

Hasu Patel performing at age 14. Photo courtesy of Hasu Patel“My father was a physician, but intellectually, he had a different idea—for his children to learn classical music so they can be humble,” Patel said. “He said that there are many physicians in the world, but not many musicians in the world.”

For more than 15 years, Patel continued to rigorously practice music under the tutelage of her guruji, Professor N.B. Kikani. Later, she went on to study with the late Ustad Vilayat Khan Sahib, who taught her the gayaki ang style of playing. Patel is one of few world-class female classical sitarists, and she is a master of gayaki ang, which replicates the human voice in its fluidity and nuanced tone.

By the time Patel was 20 years old, she had earned a master’s degree in music and a second master’s in accounting. She was the first woman to receive a music degree with a gold medal from the Faculty of Performing Arts, M.S. University in Baroda, India. Shortly after graduating, she moved to the United States and settled in Beaver, Pennsylvania.

Now residing in Westlake, Ohio, Patel has performed internationally over the past three decades. Recently, her teaching and performance schedule has brought her to concerts and conferences in Taiwan, India, and Canada. In 1999, Patel performed at the 30th anniversary of Woodstock Music Festival, and she is set to return for the 50th anniversary celebration in 2019.

Last August, Patel was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Extraordinary Service to Humanity by the International Institute of Integral Human Sciences, "a non-governmental organization that promotes global inter-religious and intercultural understanding (through) the convergence of science, spirituality, and universal human values," according to its website.

Patel was also recently awarded the Ohio Arts Council’s (OAC) Ohio Heritage Fellowship Award for Performing Arts. The OAC annually awards $5,000 Ohio Heritage Fellowships in recognition of the significant impact an individual or group has had on the people and communities of the state through their work in the folk or traditional arts.

Hasu Patel teaching elementary students about Indian music. Photo courtesy of Hasu PatelThrough her work as a teacher, Patel said she takes on the important duty of passing the tradition of playing sitar to her students.

“My whole idea is to teach discipline and humbleness to the children,” she said.

Roderic Knight, emeritus professor of ethnomusicology at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, said Patel’s approach to teaching reinforces this goal. He recalls watching many of Patel’s sitar classes at Oberlin, where she taught for several decades as a visiting teacher through the Experimental College (ExCo) program, a student-run initiative that invites instructors to teach for-credit courses in a variety of subjects each semester.

“I observed her in class on a few occasions … One thing that was immediately clear was that she was very firm. She wouldn’t put up with any nonsense,” Knight said. “She said, ‘You are here to study sitar with me. You have to sit in a certain position to play this instrument, or if you’re just singing, this is how we sit in India.’ She was very strict and demanding, and yet very loving.”

Students in Patel’s classes quickly learned to embrace her directives even when they seemed eccentric in the Western sense. To Patel, abiding by these rules is as essential to mastering the instrument as learning how to fret and pluck the strings. Her class rules for dress codes and manners parallel the respect for music which many students carry into their lives.

Patel’s stringent devotion to respecting the long-held methods of studying classical sitar makes her a perfect choice to receive the Ohio Heritage Fellowship, Knight said.

“It’s so great that Hasu-ji is working to preserve a tradition that is being eclipsed by whatever else is happening the world of music today,” he said. “It’s her clear devotion to perpetuating Indian music and her obvious vision of how to do it and teach it. That’s what does it for me.”

Hasu Patel performing at Reinberger Chamber Hall. Photo courtesy of Hasu Patel

Elisa Rega, a former student of Patel’s who is now a professional musician and music teacher residing in Oregon, echoed Knight’s praise. A classically trained violist, Rega enrolled in Patel’s ExCo sitar class while at Oberlin and came to see her guruji as a mentor and inspiration.

“She taught me Indian music, but there were a lot of other benefits. I feel that she really has influenced my abilities overall as a musician. Through the sitar, I was able to learn to improvise, and that has been really big for me. Now, I play jazz and I sing and I do all these other musical forms that are unrelated to the classical viola,” Rega said. “My guruji has had a lot of practical roadblocks. I think she feels that, as a woman, she received a lot of criticism or just sort of backlash with regard to her ability.”

By the time  Hasu Patel was 20 years old, she had earned a master’s degree in music and a second master’s in accounting. She was the first woman to receive a music degree with a gold medal from the Faculty of Performing Arts, M.S. University in Baroda, India. Photo courtesy of Hasu PatelReflecting on her life’s work, Patel agreed that at times, pursuing her passion for sitar has been a lonely journey. But she added that she thinks young artists, especially women, can learn from her story and experiences.

“The female musicians should know that if they are born for the music, then they should continue their musical journey. I hear so much negativity sometimes, but I just focus. I block out all my feelings and just focus on the music. Nothing bothers me,” she said. “I went through every negativity. I just kept going.”

Now, Rega said she is doing her part to ensure that the music Patel loves so much can be passed on to a new generation. As a teacher in the El Sistema program, Rega has performed concerts on the sitar and introduced her students to new instruments and musical styles.

“I do try to pass on her traditions to my students,” she said. “I feel that my guruji has inspired me to get out there and just be a good person and do these things. You just see how hard someone has worked and their passion, and it does sort of rub off on you in a way … I feel that guruji is one of the greatest teachers I have ever had. Among the world’s best.”

To learn more about Ohio Heritage Fellowships, visit oac.ohio.gov/heritagefellowships.

More information about Patel can be found on her website, hasupatel.com.

Hear more from Hasu Patel:


ABOUT THE OHIO ARTS COUNCIL
The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at oac.ohio.gov.

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Article by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist
Featured image courtesy of Hasu Patel.  Video by ThinkTV.



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