It’s not often you get to see a 91 year old maestro in concert. In fact it’s not ever.
I’ve waited years for this moment because, despite loving Ravi Shankar’s music for a long time, I’ve always missed him when he has played through town.
He is the world’s best known Indian musician, the man who taught George Harrison to play the sitar and was a key influence on sixties pop music; putting the raga into rock and playing several of the key festivals of the decade.
Born in the unrelentingly, amazing Indian holy city of Varanasi, Shankar was originally a dancer travelling the world with his brother’s dance troupe before switching to sitar relatively late in his life.
He caught up quick and stamped his name on this most complex of instruments.
When George Harrison got hooked onto Indian culture Ravi was his guide and the benefit was mutual. Harrison went to Mumbai to learn sitar from Ravi in 1965 and the pair of them became firm friends. It was Ravi Shankar who alerted George to the situation in Bangladesh in 1970 and was the spark in the first great rock charity gig that became the template for every other fund raising concert since then.
And all the time Ravi Shankar was making and recording great music. In a mass of releases he was playing traditional Indian style or playing with Western orchestras, sometimes it would be led by the flute or the tabla, sometimes live, sometimes studio. The ragas could be from the dawn or the dusk, they could be melancholic or uplifting- some would sound like the ancient continent, some would be deeply spiritual and some would be playful. He was always rearranging his music and pushing the boundaries that made him the Indian equivalent of a Miles Davis – a powerful musician who broke out of his genre.
Tonight the first raga is played by the rest of the musicians before Ravi makes his grand entrance. Tanmoy Bose, Ravichandra Kulur and Parmal Sadaphal play a raga built around the bansuri or the India flute and it is an atmospheric, haunting piece that builds up with the tablas to a climax – setting the stage for the grand entrance of Ravi Shankar.
He enters to a standing ovation. He has earned it over the past decades and he is about to earn it again tonight. He is bearded and apologises to the audience for wearing too much make up, later on he references his youthful dancing days and threatens to dance for us with a twinkle in his eye.
He sits down and there’s lots of shuffling about. One of the great things about a sitar concert is the patience. If gear needs tuning or tablas need oiling; then lets spend ten minutes doing it. The creaking and groaning of the instruments to an untrained ear sounds great though! Was it at Woodstock that they spent ages tuning up and still got standing ovation from the audience who loved what they heard.
I’m in no better position now! Despite listening to this stuff endlessly and also loads of great Indian music from harmonium Kirtan to Karnatikan folk music, I can’t claim to be an expert. It just sounds great. To a western ear the sitars sound is superficially exotic and transcendental and also quite beautiful. There is a lilting sadness but there are moments when it lifts off like the greatest rock music. And it’s at those moments when Ravi lets fly that you are glimpsing a direct parallel musical moment of a Jimi Hendrix or someone else who shared the bill with him in the sixties. Ravi may have had a profound influence on western rock music but it was a two way process.
Tonight he plays three ragas with the rest of the band- the first is a cover and is a moving piece, the second is one of his own and the final piece is a near one-hour jam lead by constant sitar playing from the man himself. It’s a quite astonishing feat even for someone a third of his age.
The raga rises and falls, hits crescendos or lets fly. It’s spiritual, profound, moving and full of elation. It almost sounds like Ravi writing his life story in front of us and it flys past. The ancient drones underpinning it from the Surbahar or bass sitar played by local lad Nick Jones hook you in whilst the tablas toy with the rhythms and all the time Ravi is conducting with his hands and his eyes, pulling the band in and out- it’s remarkable stuff.
At the end there is another standing ovation- what else could there be and Ravi Shankar is joined by his dog. He bows at the crowd and shuffles off the stage.
The man behind me turns to his friend and says ”Ëremarkable’ and he’s right.