Sunday, October 23, 2005


Ravi Shankar's concert at the Meyerhoff was delayed 45 minutes because of the enormous crowd and the fact that there were only two staffers working the Will Call booth, and hundreds of people were trying to pick up last-minute tickets. The first set was announced as Anoushka and her band sans the old man--I was initially apprehensive when they took the stage because I thought we were in for some New Age jam as opposed to Indian classical/folk music, but they did traditional stuff I'd heard before with remarkable skill and verve, only going New Age for one tune--an extended 20-minute bit featuring solos on sitar and tabula and violin and flute and shanhai and vocals--which was sufficiently intricate and which had enough surprising time-signature changes to keep me entertained.

Then, Ravi came out and played two ragas with the tabula player and Anoushka accompanying. This is an adored 85-year-old musician of unparalleled international fame, and when he walked onto the stage he received an instant standing ovation and was obviously touched. He looks so fragile with his wispy hair and Yoda shuffle, but he sat down, took his sitar from a student who'd tuned it, picked up a mike and said with his typically humble didacticism: "Friends. Now we will play an evening raga, the first movement featuring only the sitars, then during the jyot the tabula will accompany us. This part will be played in a time signature with seven beats divided 3, 2, 2." (Cha and I had wondered before he came out if he'd do a little World Music Teacher intro, because we have a few discs of concerts where he did so. Her favorite is "And now we will play the most beautiful raga of the late afternoon, the Bhimpalasi...") He put down his mike, draped a towel over the body of his sitar, and we were off on one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.

Our seats were excellent Grand Tier box seats, just to stage left. I had a clear view of Ravi's every move and each smile and grimace. The raga began slowly, with deep resonant strikes that he bent and warbled to full effect, swaying his body and spreading the throaty metallic groans of that fabulous sitar. This music is to many Westerners deeply disturbing and wholly unlistenable; I first heard it more than 20 years ago and was immediately drawn to the exoticism, the subtle complexities, and the fact I could truly shut down my inner dialogue and find some deep inner source while listening. The raga swelled and our tier box became a lounge chair somewhere above the Crab Nebula. My pituitary thrummed gleefully, kundalini rising. Anoushka added quiet accents, that deep mysterious questioning twang, that spiraling insistent call like wind and wave and sifting sand, that cyclic return.

Everyone applauded the first movement, which is annoying because it interrupted not only my mind trip but the building emotion of the raga, but this is understandable (I've been at the Meyerhoff when the audience applauded the first movement of a symphony). The tabula accompanied the rest of the show which was extraordinarily vigorous--Ravi is incredibly fast and precise even in his dotage, and in the final free-form jam I could see Anoushka struggling to follow him at times, but admirably working out the themes he threw at her--she's improved a lot since her first album, and still is a bit heavy-handed but is certainly no slouch, playing some extremely rapid scales in unison with the old man, the tabula player's fat spider hands going to town.

I consider it a deep privilege to have seen one of my heros during what may well be his final tour, and to have seen such a grand performance. There were people weeping during the final ovation, and the many Indians in attendence were uniform in their praise of Ravi (tho some condemned Anoushka's first set without the old man--I heard one young woman in a sari saying Anoushka had a makeover to compete with her sister Nora Jones, and she should stick to the piano like Nora). None of them condemned her accompaniment of her Bapi however, because Ravi was so obviously overjoyed when she'd understand what he was doing, what melody he was inserting, and she'd tentatively respond, then catch up, and the tabula player would laugh and shake his head and play along as Ravi rocked back with a huge smile on his face, eyes closed in rapture.

Shankar received a long enthusiastic ovation and bowed and blessed the audience again and again, kissing his daughter on the head--saying goodbye perhaps, for the final time?