REMEMBRANCE It was a great moment for all those who had gathered to witness the last concert of legendary sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar, in Bangalore earlier this year. The frail 92-year-old’s performance was a triumph of soul over body DEEPA GANESH
The flamboyance of the star of sitar stood transformed. It was now the serene grace of a man who had seen it all. The 92-year-old phenomenon Pandit Ravi Shankar, who in the heady Sixties made it to the West, now stands at the threshold of an exuberantly experimental age of music. In Bangalore for his last concert, the saintly-looking maestro referring to his co-performers of Farewell to Bangalore, said: “They are full of youth and speed. I cannot run with them, but I’ll try...”
Pandit Ravi Shankar has shrunk, and even his sitar is smaller, but his desire for music remains undimmed. In an emotional moment, the thousand-odd people who had gathered gave him a thunderous standing ovation, and the maestro was a picture of calm. In one of his interviews, he had said, “I know that I could have been better, I could have been greater. I’m always hungry, always unhappy because I know I haven’t reached. I’m still trying, and the more I try the more I find that there is nothing to be proud of.” In a similar dismissal of the legendary status the musical world bestowed on him, the eternal student in him wished he could measure up that evening.
He opened his recital with his favourite raga, Yaman Kalyan. His nimble fingers looked frail, but they took on the instrument, his companion of the longest time, with passion and determination.
The maestro shut his eyes and seemed to invoke his guru and god, as Tanmoy Bose, his tabliya, chanted the “Hari Om” prayer, familiar to listeners from his Moscow ensemble days. The traditional alap, jod and jhala unfurled. Using elongated notes and meends, Panditji revealed the contemplative contours of the raga. The overall structure was of the stately Dhrupad, slow and austere. The second piece in Tilak Shyam was Panditji’s own composition – a wistful rendition. It also had exuberant shades in places, and was even reminiscent of the lovely, lilting song from the film “Anuradha”, “Jaane Kaise Sapanon Mein”, Panditji’s own composition. Battling with a weak body, Panditji’s imagination was complex as it came through his tankaari.
The last piece was also his own composition, titled “Swara Raga Chand Taal”, a ragamalika that opened with Khamaj. Glimpses of Bhoop, Shivaranjani and Kaaphi breezed in, heightening the experience of a composition that switched between various rhythm cycles. The interaction between tabla and mridangam (by Pirashanna Tevarajan) was electrifying.
At the peak of his career, Panditji came under severe criticism for his novel ideas and the ways in which his presentation, an easily digestible capsule for the West, diluted the standards of Indian classical music. This recital, however, had not one flashy moment and for the over two hours that he played, he was in a deep dialogue with his art and the masters who had shaped it.
His daughter Anoushka, who accompanied him, is a talented and skilled performer. As Panditji himself remarked, the younger musicians had “speed”, but the “soul” was certainly with him. Anoushka, who rendered a hurried Pooriya Dhanashree during the first half of the concert, knew this all the while. “It’s a privilege to be sharing the stage with the legendary Panditji,” she said, right at the beginning.
The audience was truly gratified – the maestro who has made America his home came back to re-connect with his roots before he bid goodbye.
As we stood there, touched by this extraordinary gesture, one had to remember the sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, his guru bandhu, who didn’t come back for the last visit.
(This piece was published on February 9, 2012. We recollect the maestro’s final visit.)