An Evening of Ragas, Barbican, London, 4 June 2008

16. 6. 2008 | Rubriky: Articles,Live reviews

[by Ken Hunt, London] The literature in the Barbican’s foyer called it “An evening of Ragas with legendary sitar player Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka.” But it was far more than that. It also said, “Ravi Shankar – Farewell to Europe tour.” The sadness lay in the leave-taking. It meant that a good number of people attending in the audience were there to be able to say – at some stage later – that they had seen him in concert. It happens. It happened with Frank Sinatra and it happens with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

Philosophically as in stoically speaking, that stuff doesn’t bother me too much. We all have to board the figurative musical train at some station or other on its journey. As somebody who has been on the Ravi Shankar train for many decades, I truly count myself a fortunate son to have got to board the ride as long ago as I did. And to have been privileged to know him on levels denied most people. Mind you, I readily admit to that nostalgia for something never experienced in the jugalbandis (duets) that he and his brother-in-law, the sarodist Ali Akbar Khan gave in India in the 1950s. See, it’s also down to when the train pulls into your station as well. Ditching the philosophical, few concerts have affected me quite the way Ravi Shankar’s ‘Farewell to Europe tour’ concert did musically, emotionally and spiritually. His concert on 29 May was cancelled owing to his poor health. This one had had a will-he-won’t-he? air about it and while it turned out not to be five-star musically speaking it was truly historic.

Anoushka Shankar opened this Evening of Ragas with one of her father’s long-serving tabla players Tanmoy Bose and Ravichandra Kulir on both long and stubby bansuri – transverse bamboo flutes – accompanying her. Her first piece in rāg Puriya Dhanashri (also spelled Dhanashree) had a fruitful beginning with her exploring the sitar’s bass register – one of her father’s old tricks. But it never quite gelled. To these ears, one of the problems was that Kulir’s role only clicked intermittently and the performance certainly never developed into a full-blown jugalbandi (duet). Perhaps, more fundamentally the gāt compositions in Puriya Dhanashri didn’t engage the imagination of this listener. That was why the second performance in Kaushakdhwani – a request of her mother Sukanya – worked better. For the first time you could sense risk in the air. Ultimately this was her father’s show but what will linger in the memory was none of that tiresome and shallow stuff about her looks and recording babe image but her music and her bravery.

Anoushka Shankar took the stage to accompany her father for the second half of the concert, as expected. In supporting him, she upped her ante considerably, even if, paradoxically, she went from soloist to supporting musician. To be accompanied by Tanmoy Bose on tabla and by two tanpuras, he was, as etiquette demands, the last of the musicians to mount the stage. Which he did to rapturous applause and a standing ovation before he had even touched his sitar. Physically he looked bird-like but born to it and joked of hoping it might be a “semi-final” rather than a “final” performance. Rather than sitting with crossed legs, as is the Indian custom, he ‘dangled’ his legs using the podium as a backless chair. Instead of one of his sitars of yore he played a lighter, less physically demanding model with a cunning rest to offset part of its weight. Its voice complemented, in a role reversal kind of way, his daughter’s deeper-voiced sitar register. His instrument even had a danbau – a Vietnamese instrument – sound to it at times. The two sitars’ tonal ranges and voices worked well and complemented each other. The first repertoire item was announced as Bihag which would go into a 10½ tāl (rhythm cycle) when that time came. There was a patent frailty to his playing, as he would acknowledge, if set beside his past performances, and there was no getting away from that. But he was not competing with himself or his past achievements here. This was a different sort of recital. That said, there was nothing reverential about the performance. Bose played far better than in the first half and Anoushka was on her mettle, not so much steering the performance as keeping it on course with supporting touches, the echo of a run, a consolidating note. In the second repertoire item – the romantic Mishra Piloo – her support was plainer and greater still. This was not because her father’s energy levels were flagging but because she enabled him to pace himself and keep the creative juices flowing. Mishra means ‘mixed’ and it let him dip out of stricter Hindustani rāg performance conventions and touch on lighter or folk themes. He used it to explore changes of tāl (rhythm cycle) and tempo. He went on to have his second standing ovation of the night.

After the recital I spoke to Panditji. By then he had been receiving a steady flow of well-wishers and friends for nearly an hour and was weary. He leapt to his feet and insisted on standing while we talked and reminisced. I shall recall his spark and animation until my grey cells run dry. It was an evening of great emotionality. Leave-takings affect people that way.

With thanks to Ayub Auliamy old pal and Alla Rakha’s son-in-law.

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