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Westerners know Ravi Shankar as India’s most famous modern musician.

If you consider how far rock ‘n’ roll has come since its inception in the 1950s, then you have some frame of reference to understand the exquisite refinement of the classical music of India, which traces its roots back more than 4,000 years.

On Friday night, visitors to the Theosophical Library Center in Altadena can learn more about this ancient art, as well as the spiritual, cultural and religious context in which it developed.

Musician Harihar Rao, who traces his roots back to southern India but now lives in Pasadena, has toured with Ravi Shankar--perhaps India’s most famous modern musician, to Western ears--and is known as a virtuoso on the tabla and sitar.

On Friday, he will demonstrate the complex Indian rhythms of

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these instruments and talk about their musical history.

The tabla is a pair of small, hand-played kettledrums, treble and bass, found in northern and central India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The sitar is a large, long-necked fretted lute whose name comes from Persian and means “three-stringed.”

Rao studied for 12 years with Shankar at a Bombay institute for classical Indian music and dance. He has also toured with George Harrison in his post-Beatles days. Rao is co-founder of Music Circle, which puts on classical Indian music performances throughout Los Angeles.

The free program at the center, 2416 N. Lake Ave., begins at 7:45 p.m.

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