Ravi Shankar did not allow his cross-cultural collaborations to influence the Indianness of his own creations, even in those projects

It has been a day of remembrance and eulogy. Great masters, musicians young and old, politicians and artistes have offered paeans to Pandit Ravi Shankar, and invariably talked of his contribution to both Indian music and what they call world music, referring possibly to his cross-cultural collaborations with musicians from different cultures. And yet, the maestro himself declared unequivocally that “I have never tried to do anything like fusion.”

Willing to accept that his collaborative projects with non-Indian music and musicians were in the nature of experiments to explore aural textures and sounds, Ravi Shankar rejected the idea of fusion altogether. He insisted that all his work, collaborative or traditional, is anchored firmly in Indian classical music, or at best, folk melodies and rhythms. In a sense then, this insistence on the “Indian-ness” of his musical involvement could possibly be considered an underlying motif in his collaborative works. At first glance, it seemed to convey Shankar’s willingness to collaborate and an innate desire to familiarise himself with musical systems other than Indian classical music, which he had mastered. But could it also suggest an unwillingness on Shankar’s part to experiment with other forms and systems of music; a generosity of spirit when it came to giving what he had mastered, but a reluctance when it came to borrowing from another form of music?

An approach always Indian

In an interview conducted by Peter Lavezzoli, author of The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, Pandit Ravi Shankar states of his collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin, Jean-Pierre Louis Rampal, Philip Glass and others, that “you will find that my approach has always been Indian from the beginning.” He elaborates by saying that though he had not been formally trained in western classical music, he enjoyed and appreciated it greatly. His exposure to western music made him keen to use non-Indian instruments, played by non-Indian performers if required, in his collaborative projects. But for himself, he rejected outright the idea of blending influences from other musical systems in his work. How does this impact the music of these collaborations?

With Zubin Mehta

For his sitar concerto for the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by André Previn, and later for Raga Mala with Zubin Mehta as conductor, the melodic line remains unabashedly loyal to Hindustani classical music. Raga Mala features as many as 30 ragas, while Concerto for Sitar & Orchestra featured one raga for each of the four movements of the concerto. For the opening movement of Raga Mala, Panditji chose Lalit where he plays an alaap-like section with the orchestra responding to phrases and passages played by him in a call and response format. Zubin Mehta explained that although Shankar scored each of the alaap passages he played, he would often stray away from the score, “go off on a tangent, then come back, and give me a sign so we could continue,” and consequently he “would have to wait for him to arrive at a certain note before we could continue.” Clearly, the orchestra, led by Mehta is extending itself to accommodate the element of flexible, spontaneous elaboration so integral to Hindustani classical music. Shankar, on the other hand, remains within his familiar parameters of raag music and spontaneous but well-rehearsed elaboration. The concertos retain their Indian character against the backdrop of the philharmonic orchestra.

And Philip Glass

In “Passages,” however, the recording project in which Shankar collaborated with Philip Glass, the collaborators exchanged compositions, themes and melodies they had written. A brief examination of two of the tracks from the album will lend the listener an idea of the processes involved in the making of the album. The opening “Offering,” written by Shankar, is treated by Glass in a manner that steers it away from any immediately audible raag roots. In some ways it seems more like a Philip Glass piece, touched by his minimalist approach. However, “Sadhanipa,” the four note theme written by Glass, loses it minimalism in the arrangement scored for it by Shankar. Within a minute of the statement of the theme at the beginning of the track, the arrangement moves towards Panditji’s trademark lush linear orchestration, marked by a virtual absence of harmony and counterpoint, but replete with sitar, sarod, tabla, mridangam and a host of other instruments, often in the call and response format. The use of paltaas or melodic patterns used in Hindustani classical music are recognisable, as are tabla and mridangam patterns (e.g. from 4.21 to approximately 6.20 in the track) over which corresponding melodic parts are placed. The music of the album is undoubtedly born of a commitment to collaboration, through all of which Shankar does not relinquish for a moment the self-stated “Indian” anchor to which he tethers his collaborations.

Handling of rhythm

In much of his work for orchestra, film, theatre, dance and vocal compositions, or for the AIR Vadya Vrinda, there are some stylistic preferences that recur frequently. For example, the use of humming in many of his vocal compositions, including “Swagatam Suswagatam” written for the Asian Games in 1982. “Shanti-Mantra” from the album “In Celebration” (1996) features similar humming passages over which chants are layered.

The handling of rhythm is a significant element in Pandit Ravi Shankar’s compositions. And a frequent motif in his rhythm scoring is a movement from tabla and mridangam segments to sections that use folk instruments arranged in tight, packed and even crowded sequences. A large rhythm section with a busy arrangement, playing complex patterns, with tablas responding to mridangams and vice versa, rhythm patterns echoed on the kanjira, folk instruments, bells and cymbals can be heard in many of Shankar’s compositions. However, a body of work as large and diverse as is the musical legacy of the maestro, would merit an in-depth analysis, and these are only a very few points that a single student of music is able to gather from the periphery.

(Shubha Mudgal is a classical singer.)

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