Let’s begin with a confession. Let’s lay some cards on the table. Attending every Ravi Shankar concert had no longer been a must. The reasons for that were complex and varied. For one, the audience had changed. The new audiences were no longer the community of faces at a Bhimsen Joshi, Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan or Alla Rakha recital. People were increasingly clapping to congratulate themselves on recognising a taal (rhythm cycle) finishing. Snobbish, moi? You bet. The subtitles were plain. The rasikas – the audiences that knew their onions from their garlic – were a dying breed.
Worse were the rubberneckers. To be blunt, it was as if people were attending in order to store up saying they’d seen Frank Sinatra or Glen Campbell before they shuffled off Shakespeare’s mortal coil – nothing like witnessing, say, Jimi Hendrix before he was cut down in his prime. Another distressing Ravi Shankar recital experience was overhearing a prominent world music writer ‘do raga’. With complete authority, said ‘expert’ pronounced to the woman sitting next to him that alap was the boring bit before the fireworks. I’d had it wrong so very long… The world had gone to pot.
When it came to the Ravi Shankar Experience, most of all I craved the spark, the moment, the unexpected. This Barbican concert eventually put the grin back on my face. But first it painted rictus and grimace. The opening segment was a percussion interlude involving Tanmoy Bose on tabla, Ravichandra Kulur on kanjira (frame drum) and Pirashanna Thevarajah on South Indian barrel drum of the mridangam kind. The second sitarist Parimal Sadaphal, one of Shankar’s senior students, looked mostly unengaged. Why wasn’t he playing lehara, which inverts the usual order with melodic accompaniment to rhythm?
Their half-hour of percussion roundelays was unnecessary music of the necessary kind. Without straying into Alan Bennett boiled-egg territory, for a headliner aged 91, we recalibrate expectations. It was thirty minutes well wasted. “Good evening, my London friends,” announced the white beard. After some stage banter, he went into a perfectly fine, if overall an undistinguished ‘Yaman Kalyan’. Then he played his own rāg composition ‘Tilak Shyam’ and the feathers were ruffled and started to fly. Phrase by taal by taan (fast, vowel-driven articulations), he got stronger and I swear inch by inch grew on the dais. Ravichandra Kulur added interjections and points on bansuri (transverse bamboo flute) to the ‘Tilak Shyam’ conversation.
And then the 91-year-old went loco. Already chatty, anecdotal, looking gorgeous, and flirting with the Barbican, he announced the next piece before sidetracking himself by reminiscing how, going on 14, he had met Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore told him, “Babar mouto haw, dadar mauto ho” – he translated “Become like your father, become like your brother” – before launching into ‘Shedin Dujone’, Tagore’s entreaty to never forget. To hear him sing the song with Tanmoy Bose made me tear over. Probably any song on the concert stage would’ve.
In summer solstice mood he then capped that surprise. Previously he had spoken about “Laya chhandha bhava anga” but that had made no real sense, something about ragamala (garland of ragas), light classical forms and folk tunes. Part-way in, a niggling something made sense. Early on, he had rested a yellow cloth over the body of his instrument. Now he slipped it beneath the strings and, don’t quote me, behind the chota ghoraj – the bridge for the sympathetic strings. It was hardly prepared piano interventions but you get the gist. It created a tonal dampening effect, changing the notes’ colours and brightness and adding a percussive quality, consciously evoking kathak dance and other resonances. In six decades I have never seen or heard him do anything like it. Sly Dog Runs With New Tricks is clearly his new Indian name. By the way, I forgot to mention: Ravi Shankar plays the sitar. What a star.