Improvised genius

The Indian sitar master delivers a mesmerising farewell concert

<strong>Ravi Shankar</strong>


The sense of anticipation at the Barbican was restrained but palpable. The hall was full; the queue for returns stretched long. There were extra chairs on the stage to accommodate even more people: the master was performing for the last time in London. Ravi Shankar has called this his farewell tour to Europe, the continent he first visited in 1930, at the age of just ten.

As he came onstage (4 June), the whole hall rose as one, in sustained applause. It must have been like this at the Oval in 1948, I thought, when Don Bradman came out to bat one last time. Shankar is now 88 and his voice was feeble as he greeted London, still hoping this was his "semi-final" performance. He no longer sits cross-legged; and he shares the stage with his daughter, whom he introduced as "my love, my Anoushka".

She performed first, looking far more confident than when I last saw her in London. She had a firmer grasp over her sitar as she quickened the tempo of "Raga Puriya Dhanashree", smiling mischievously at Tanmoy Bose on the tabla, speaking with her eyes as she improvised transitions in a playful tribute to her father's style, including those pauses and that infectious smile. She ended with a raga less often performed with sitar, "Kaushik Dhvani", because her mother wanted to hear it.

Ravi Shankar's first sitar performance in Europe as an adult was in 1956, a pivotal year for Indian culture. That year Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali won the Best Human Document award at Cannes; the lilting, melodious music of that film was Shankar's. Within a decade, George Harrison had met him and their encounter sparked a taste for Indian music in the west. Soon, Shankar was everywhere - at Woodstock, with the Beatles, fusing east and west with André Previn at the London Symphony Orchestra, playing intricate melodies with Yehudi Menuhin, composing scores for Gandhi, inventing ragas and staging religious hymns in the communist-era Kremlin.

Traditionalists in India began to complain. They asserted that fusion diluted the purity of Indian music. But they were wrong: Shankar did not wish to remain imprisoned in a cage; he did not want his music to be fossilised. He wanted to soar like the ragas and to dip into other forms, blending with some to create a completely new kind of music. Traditionalists compared him - unfairly and unnecessarily - to the late Vilayat Khan, his great contemporary, known for his speed and gayaki ang, or vocal style. When I first interviewed Shankar, in 1985 in New York, he insisted that such comparisons were meaningless. "Speed is not everything in music. This is not Borg v McEnroe," he said, his ear tuned to the contemporary metaphor, sharp as ever.

Unlike Bradman on his last day out, Shankar performed with gusto, reminding us of his gift as he caressed the sitar with his light fingers, guiding its strings to sing what his heart sought and the mind visualised, becoming one with the sitar. Contemplative and muffled in tone at the beginning, the sitar sprang to life with "Raga Bihaag".

Shankar seemed to become energised by the instrument, and the fog lifted, the stagelights creating a large orange halo around him. He plucked the strings calmly; the melody emerged. At times he hesitated, and Anoushka stepped in, raising the tempo, like a lively conversation between a father and daughter.

The master's "Bihaag" was reflective, its languid pace underscoring the beauty that the silences between notes emphasised. He came into his element in the final raga, "Rangeela Piloo", or "Mishra Piloo", with its medley of melodies. Shankar winked at the tabla player, smiled at his daughter, playing old games. His tantalising pauses were meant to catch the tabla player unawares. The accompanist knew the master would play some trick; he did not know when. Shankar often dropped the tempo to defeat the pace, changing pitch and tone while keeping the improvisation faithful to the music's 2,000-year-old grammar.

Shankar's playing sounded like tropical rain as he reached the climax. You could picture dancing peacocks and swaying trees. The ragas might sound the same each time, but the interpretation always varies.

"Tomorrow, it won't be the same," as he has often said. In every sense. And as he rose at the concert's end, he said: "Hope to see you again." We all do.

Pick of the week

Massive Attack
22 June, Festival Hall, London SE1
Curators of this year’s Meltdown round off the week’s events with a greatest hits set.

21 June, Barbican Hall, London EC2
Algeria’s superstar of rai performs hits from his 20-year career.

Bach in India
Mansion House, London EC4
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra takes a leaf out of Shankar’s book.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically