Ravi Shankar – a living legend in Wellington


(with Anoushka Shankar – sitar)

Accompanying Musicians:

Tanmoy Bose (tabla)

Ravichandra Kulur (flute and tanpura)

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 12th March 2010

To convey something of the atmosphere and flavour of a remarkable concert at the Michael Fowler Centre, one of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts series of concerts,  I can do no better than quote the words of the musician around whom this same concert was centred:

” Music can be a spiritual discipline on the path to self realisation, for we follow the traditional teaching that sound is GOD – Nada Brahma. By this process individual consciousness can be elevated to a realm of awareness where the revelation of the true meaning of the universe – its eternal and unchanging essence – can be joyfully experienced. Our ragas are the vehicles by which this essence can be perceived”.

The words are, of course, those of Ravi Shankar, 90 years young this year (2010) and performing in New Zealand for the first time, with his daughter Anoushka, with tabla-player Tanmoy Bose and flute-player Ravichandra Kulur. This was more than a concert occasion – it was an act of homage on the part of a receptive Western audience towards one of the acknowledged “great ones” of World Music. Even if he played for only half of the concert, Ravi Shankar made his presence felt through the wonderful playing of his daughter Anoushka,who gave us two ragas in the concert’s first half. Since the age of nine she had studied the sitar with her father, making her debut in public in 1994, at the age of thirteen. She’s obviously also become a powerful force in the world of Indian music, and in World music in general. Her playing made, to these untutored ears, an interesting contrast with that of her father’s, when he made his appearance after the interval – obviously she had inherited his focus and directness of expression, and had the physical means to apply that energy to her music-making more consistently and strongly than he was now able to do. Her tones were fuller, her rhythmic detailings more direct, and her passagework more even – manifestations of youthful strength and stamina which the elder Shankar could command no longer.

But in Ravi’s playing one constantly sensed the imagination going beyond the boundaries of the technique – there was nothing “contained” about what his very physical way with the sitar suggested. Rather like passages in the late Beethoven Quartets, whose ideas transcend their means of execution, the Indian master’s explorations of fancy took us right through and above the means of making the sounds, into realms whose relative frailty of physical manifestation seemed to further “charge” the experience. A player able to resound his or her instrument with far less apparent physical effort may produce a more beautiful, more even and well-rounded sound, but might be satisfied with what is produced and no more. What I sensed we took from Ravi’s playing was a feeling that there was always something beyond, something that his gestures often suggested even when there was little sound – his movements choreographed the act of reaching out towards those regions where sound is indeed God,  beyond reason and understanding, and into the realms of awareness and revelation.

So, it was very much a concert of two halves, each with its own specific kind of raison d’etre, as well as reflecting in the lustrous glow cast by the other. At the beginning, Anoushka Shankar introduced her fellow-musicians and told us that her father would appear for the concert’s second half. The group then played two ragas, the music in each case arising out of the ambient colour of the concert’s general atmosphere, the familiar “drone” sound and downward flourish of plucked strings introducing each of the works. In the first raga, the flute joined in with the opening recitative-like explorations, the cannily-placed microphones “catching” the sounds and their resonances and overtones, and bringing them out without seeming to interfere with the antiphonal relationships of the instruments. The entry of the tabla opens up the vistas, especially by means of the instrument’s deep bass notes, the rhythms at this stage teasing, going in surges and pulling back, but maintaining a mesmeric pulse. Heretical though this might sound, I actually found the flute a distraction whenever it entered, so mesmerised was I by the interaction of sitar and tabla, and the spectacularly complex rhythmic patternings made by the drummer. The second raga presented was written by Ravi Shankar for his daughter, the sounds at the outset giving the impression of being made upon impulse, as if something spiritual is using player and instrument as a conduit through which to pass whatever message. Whether or not I had penetrated several layers into a different kind of time-frame by this stage, I coudn’t be sure – but this work seemed to move more quickly towards the tabla’s entry, the music more forthright than in the previous raga, the drumming very lively and volatile-sounding, with scalp-prickling szforzandi matched by the sitar, indicating something of the framework of the piece beneath the surface configuration’s spontaneity.

After the interval Ravi Shankar’s arrival onstage was a great moment. Smiling, gracious, both frail-seeming and with bird-like resilience, he acknowledged the tribute before settling to the ritual of tuning. He then welcomed his audience “to Wellington” to great applause and some amusement, and told us about what he would be playing. The first piece he began dreamily and unhurriedly, as if reflecting on a great deal of experience. More so than his daughter Anoushka, he moved his instrument about, choreographing the shakes and swoops and crests of tone, occasionally shaking the sitar almost tonelessly, as if the notes were suggested rather than played. Anoushka joined in with the recitative, taking up the argument – her joining in underlined the very ‘tactile” feeling communicated by Ravi in his playing, perhaps partly due to age, and partly to the physical effort of realising those sounds. Together the sitars built up the mood’s momentum and amplitude almost imperceptibly, each exchange adding a kind of different level of energy, the result magnetic and compelling. No tabla was in this part of the piece – the sitars carried it all before them. It was unclear whether the tabla-accompanied episode which followed the audience’s applause was part of the same work or a different stand-alone work, but it involved exhilarating exchanges between the sitars, with remarkable agility displayed by both musicians.

The final work was a raga in classical form but with modern improvised interpolations – my Indian friend who accompanied me to the concert called it a “crowd-pleaser”! Again, one could experience and enjoy the contrast in styles between father’s and daughter’s playing, Ravi’s meditative, almost other-world fancies set alongside Anoushka’s more direct and cleanly-focused phrasings. The themes and accompaniments seemed quite Westernised in places, with a very quasi-Oriental theme brought out at one point (rather “cheesy” in effect), which was then blown away by a terrific accelerando, featuring some remarkable thematic invention expressed with a lot of energy from the sitars plus the tabla. The player of the last-named instrument, Tanmoy Bose, was able to show his mettle in a cadenza-like sequence whose volatile physicality was almost transcendental in effect, music-making visibly acknowledged by both Shankars, before they joined in with bringing the Sawal jabab, the exciting final section of the raga, to a close.

Not unexpectedly, the applause was rapturous at the end, especially so when Ravi himself came out to take the final bow – the acclaim was for many things at once, but set the seal on a rich and truly memorable occasion.

One thought on “Ravi Shankar – a living legend in Wellington

  1. Rupert says:

    Thanks for the review. I wish I could remember more of what Anoushka said as she was introducing the programme. Was it all North Indian classical music?

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