The world on a sitar string

Will the mantle fit?

Will the mantle fit?  

WOULD BRINDAVAN'S Krishna be as popular if he had not played the flute? Would the flute-playing Venugopala be as loved if it were not for his colourful personality? Which brings us to the question: who is greater, the art or the artist? There are no straight answers, and that is the mystique of art.

But when it comes to sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, one thing is clear: you can't separate the man and his music. The diminutive man, who charms people with his disarming smile, humour, and graciousness, is also the man who makes magic with the strings of the sitar. Whether we know him as a Bharat Ratna, MP, sitar maestro, or the man who dared to flaunt his unconventional lifestyle, he has undoubtedly been one of the musical ambassadors of India. Whatever his foibles, love him for moving us with the tunes for "Saare jahan se acchaa" and "Miley sur mera tumhaara". Bangaloreans got to enjoy his music when SPIC-MACAY Foundation hosted a concert by him and his daughter-shishya, Anoushka, at the Chowdaiah Friday.

"I'm coming to Bangalore after 10 years," said the Pandit, at a press conference earlier at the gracious Taj West End. "I'm going to miss many of my old listeners who won't be able to come to the concert for various reasons. But I hope the younger generation of Bangalore will come to the concert. I can still remember the beauty of playing to a small, intimate gathering at places like the Gayana Samaj. It was excellent. But now, we are on tour most of the time, with concerts in big halls, and I miss performing for select audiences consisting of 200-300 music lovers."

Well, the City's young and old did enjoy the maestro's music, Anoushka's sitar strains in Raag Madhuvanthi set the mood for the evening.

"I'm thrilled to be both teacher and father to Anoushka," said the proud father, who married her mother Sukanya Rajan, seven years after she was born. Which parent wouldn't be thrilled to see a daughter receiving rave reviews from the world press, though many critics would carp that she is bereft of true talent? But then, that she has been the youngest and first recipient of the British Parliament's House of Commons Shield is indeed something to strum about. So is the fact that she has been the first woman to perform at the Ramakrishna Centre, Kolkata.

"Awards are great for the ego!" exclaimed the ebullient Anoushka. So is she a talented instrumentalist, or actress, or Carnatic singer, or classical dancer, or the lucky kid of a famous father? At the press conference, she came across as a media-savvy, warm, professional musician, and concerned daughter repeating the mediapersons' queries into her father's ears, and smiling at her mother sitting across her. On stage, she was a confident artiste.

The world on a sitar string

"A famous artiste once commented that if he closed his eyes and heard me playing the sitar, he would not be able to tell that the player was a woman!" revealed Anoushka, who was brought up in London and Delhi, and graduated with merit from Encinitas, California. "As Ravi Shankar's daughter and as a sitar player who is young and female, I've got quite a bit of attention. Though I enjoyed it at first, I started feeling frustrated with these little things. It's music that matters most to me."

Anoushka's resum� looks great. At age 13, she made her performing debut in New Delhi. The same year, she entered the recording studio for the first time to play on her father's recording, In Celebration. Two years later, she helped as conductor with her father and George Harrison, former Beatle and Ravi Shankar's friend and frequent colleague, on the 1997 Angel release, Chants of India. In 1998, her first solo recording, Anoushka, was released followed by Anourag in August 2000, and Live at Carnegie Hall in October 2001. She assisted her father on his Grammy Award-winning album, Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000. "I'm going to take more time over my next album," said the girl, who was in a lovely salwar kameez. "Indian clothes make me feel so nice and feminine," she said in an aside.

"As artistes, we're always happy to perform for good causes. I performed for a fundraising concert organised by Trudie Styler for the Tibet Foundation Peace Garden in London along with Madonna, Vanessa Redgrave, Lulu, Bryan Adams, and Alan Rickman," said Anoushka.

She also performed at the World Economic Forum, organised by Quincy Jones and Phil Ramone along with Bono of U2, Lauryn Hill, and Peter Gabriel. At the performance she premiered a new piece composed by her father titled "Mood Circle". She took part in the star-studded Rainforest Foundation Benefit Concert in Carnegie Hall, organised by Sting and Trudie Styler. Also performing there were Elton John, Patti La Belle, Nina Simone, and James Taylor. That evening was dedicated in part to the late George Harrison, and Anoushka performed a short piece composed by her father in his memory.

"It's wonderful to be in Bangalore," gushed both father and daughter. Anoushka was here earlier to act in Pamela Rooks' film Dance Like a Man. The Shankars are now busy with the upcoming world music centre in New Delhi, and their hectic concert tours.

Anoushka is also championing her father's Concerto No. 1 for Sitar and Orchestra, which she first performed with conductor Zubin Mehta. In July 1999, she premiered a new work for the sitar and cello, written by her father, with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich at the Evian Festival. In January 2001, she made her conducting debut at Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi. She conducted a 22-member orchestra performing a new and intricate composition of her father's titled "Kalyan".

At Chowdaiah, Anoushka surprised the audience with a deftly rendered Carnatic piece, "Raghuvamsa sudha". "I started learning Carnatic vocal from my mother much before I started learning sitar from my father," she said.

During the three-hour concert, Panditji played his favourite Bihaag and the duo brought the house down with a medley of ragas and folk music. "The rapport that we share on stage is inexplicable," Panditji once said. "There definitely seems to be something telepathic when we play together." "Spirits... some drink it, some channelise it towards God. I feel it when I play the sitar. Music is spiritual. It is so personal and yet it is something I can share with so many hundreds of people," said the octogenarian in his soft voice.

Though Anoushka is his most famous student, the maestro did not forget to remember his old Bangalore student N.R. Rama Rao and others. At no stage was there a mention of Nora Jones, Anoushka's half-sister who walked away with five Grammies. Anoushka, though she was in the running, had come a cropper.

The representatives of 25-year-old SPIC-MACAY (Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth) had requested the press to keep off the artistes' personal lives. Strictly no personal questions, was the diktat. But surely they must know that youthful exuberance, however protected by PRs and spin-doctors, cannot be suppressed.

Off the dais, Anoushka happily pushed aside her kameez to show us her pretty navel jewellery and the tattoo on her back.

"I love red!" she exclaimed, flashing her red-painted fingernails. That the same fingers, burdened with such a formidable legacy, have worked ceaselessly and lovingly on a sitar is what makes the vivacious 21-year-old loveable too.

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