Perhaps the most common epithet applied in print to sitar virtuoso, composer and musical dynasty head Ravi Shankar (b. 1920) is “legendary.” Glancing at the outline of his extraordinary 70-plus-year career, it would be hard to quibble with that summing up.
I admit that I've been among those who have occasionally followed the latter part of Ravi Shankar’s pioneering work reaching out to Western audiences. His legacy could be observed two ways in the Oct. 18 concert given by Ravi Shankar and his younger daughter Anoushka at the spanking new and welcoming-sounding Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music. The first was in the make-up of the audience. It appeared overwhelmingly non-South Asian. Perhaps most significantly that indicates the overall success in Toronto of Ravi Shankar’s half-century of outreach. It has ultimately paid off in creating a broadly based audience for his and Anoushka Shankar’s music projects – certainly a much larger following than the core audience for orthodox "classical" Hindustani music.
The reception and understanding of this music wasn’t always thus. As a dancer with his brother’s Paris-based Uday Shankar and his Hindu Ballet, the young Ravi toured Europe and North America extensively in the 1930s, incidentally appearing at Toronto’s Massey Hall during that time. The comments of American journalists of the day, mostly neophytes of Hindustani music and dance, make for eye-opening reading today. On January 09, 1933, a columnist for Time magazine wrote:
“…Uday Shankar was in Manhattan with his Hindu troupe for the first time last week… [occasioning a] great deal of weird-sounding thrumming and drum-spanking. The curtain went up on Shankar's eight brightly-turbaned musicians, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the stage, 56 different instruments within reach. Drums shaped like picturesque vases, stringed instruments with necks almost as fat as their queer little bodies, gongs as bright as gold-pieces and serpentine horns made the music for Shankar to dance to. It was delicate, highly refined music for the most part which, with its single thread of melody, might have sounded monotonous to Occidental ears but for the drummers tapping and slapping a swift, intricate counterpoint, and for Shankar.
Ravi Shankar gave up the itinerant life of a touring dancer in 1938 to study sitar back in India with one of the giants of 20th-century Hindustani classical music, Allauddin Khan. Soon after completing his studies, Shankar began a remarkably busy and successful career as an international touring sitar virtuoso and composer, one he has avidly pursued right up to the present day.
This brings us back to the Koerner Hall concert’s opening act: Anoushka Shankar (b. 1981), an unabashed "world" or "fusion" musician, both the daughter and disciple of the godfather of the style. The young Shankar chose two ragas for her opening set: raga Puriya Dhanasri and raga Charukeshi. The latter is a raga of South Indian origin which the senior Shankar has long played. She was deftly accompanied on stage by colleagues Tanmoy Bose on tabla and Ravichandra Kulur on bansuri (transverse bamboo flute). As we heard that night, Anoushka is undoubtedly a sitarist of talent, possessing an appealing if somewhat aloof stage presence in contrast to her talkative, generous and amusing father. But then he’s had the better part of the 20th century to hone his stage persona and stage banter!
In the second half, Ravi Shankar joined his daughter on stage, seeming in good humour and health. His appearance occasioned a standing ovation from the sold-out audience who was obviously keenly aware of the 89-year-old legend entering the house. The party was also enjoined by a mrdangam (South Indian classical drum) player whose name I did not get, as there wasn’t a printed programme. He nevertheless added a welcome Southern Karnatak accent to the drum duet passages with the tabla.
The maestro chose to perform the popular raga Bageshri and ended with the raga Manj Khamaj, here used as a vehicle for what he referred to as “lighter” musical fare. Ravi Shankar‘s initially short-breathed sitar sound took a few minutes to bloom as he warmed up, and Anoushka’s contribution as she extended and developed his musical ideas was invaluable in this section of the concert. In the last raga in particular, his good humour shone, giving the audience glimpses now and then of his former instrumental athleticism, passion and un-faded mastery of overall musical structure, the latter which is a key but difficult to master skill in this largely improvised music.
The master sitarist ended the entire evening with an insouciant "ri" ("re" in Western solfege) – accompanied by a smile – after the piece had already ended on the orthodox tonic. Perhaps this lightly tossed-off, devil-may-care farewell gesture will be the one I’ll remember best from this concert. It may well be the last memory I’ll carry of the great Ravi-ji.