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Shankar Thrills Carnegie

Captures Essence of Indian Classical Music

By Shankar Mukherji

Staff writer

Called by many the “doyen of Indian classical music,” Pandit Ravi Shankar performed to critical acclaim last October in New York City’s Carnegie Hall. The concert, recorded and released by Angel Records, featured both newly composed pieces by Shankar as well as his family’s next generation of artistic talents as daughter Anoushka Shankar accompanied on the sitar. For Shankar the concert marked a return to Carnegie, where he first performed as a dancer and instrumentalist in 1938.

Although ostensibly composed in a very traditional form, Shankar does not blindly follow the style of his musical forebears. In the Alap, or opening, section of the Raga Kaushi Kanhara, a night raga, the sitarist clearly is attuned to the harmonic blends of his notes with those of the tanpura, a stringed instrument used for its drone effects, in a manner reminiscient of the Western musical tradition. At the same time, however, the composition remains grounded in its Indian classical roots as Shankar repeatedly intersperses expressive, slurred phrases with highly rhythmic, nearly staccato notes thus driving the beat even in the absence of the tabla.

The next section, the Gat, is performed in the 14 beat cycle dhamar taal. The entrance of the tabla allows Shankar to dance around the rhythm, interleaving short trill sections within the main melodic line of the raga. Furthermore the sitarists make exquisite use the 5-5-4 division of the beat cycle in their rapid runs, especially in conjunction with the creative mixture of on and off beat notes. The end effect is one that keeps the music, based on an ancient melodic line, fresh and exciting.

This idea of grounding the melodic line in a particular rhythm while keeping the music from being predictable is best witnessed at the end of the section. The extremely effective crescendo and accelerando up until the raga’s conclusion is met with enthusiastic applause.

The second raga presented, Raga Mishra Gara, according to Shankar himself, “is played in the contemporary Khyal and Thumri forms.” As he further explains, he changes from the raga’s tonic note, Sa, to the fourth, Ma. Described as a light, romantic raga, Ravi Shankar and daughter play the piece in a technically precise manner, again exemplifying the Indian classical emphasis on rhythm and melody.

In this raga the tabla enters soon after the opening which again allows the main voices to develop the melody from one of simple to complex lines. The melody of the slow section of the Gat, in fact, can be described as almost song-like in its simple beauty at onetime and highly ornamented nature the next, clearly the result of the highly improvisatory nature of the art form.

The slow section features the bass tanpura prominently, played by Ajay Sharma, adding a highly effective contrast to the melody of the sitar; the elder statesman of Indian classical music then effectively closes the slow section with a highly intricate melodic run, showing that even at age 80 his fingers are still nimble enough to race up and down the instrument.

The transition to the fast section of the Gat is extremely smooth as the tabla is able to seamlessly translate the rhythm to the new, accelerated beat. The new section is built around a simple refrain which is repeated throughout the remainder of the raga. Flirting about the refrain, Ravi Shankar is allowed to display his full brilliance as a master of improvisation, using the full tonal range of his instrument as well as the full scale of his extraordinary sense of rhythm.

The final, frenetic moments of the raga bring to culmination all the emotion evoked in the melodic lines. It leads to a moment of catharsis in which the audience can lose itself in the musical storm. Despite the furious pace of the conclusion there is remarkable unity between the various instrumentalists, held together by an impressive display by tabla players Bikram Ghosh and Tanmoy Bose.

The concert clearly marks a triumphal 19th performance at Carnegie for Indian classical music’s greatest ambassador. Shankar will be appearing at Carnegie again on the November 18 and will be coming to Boston on May 5, 2002.