Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Ravishankar & Anoushka's first foray at the Proms

Pundit Ravishankar and Anoushka play at the prestigious BBC Proms

Text by Ashanti OMkar
Photos by Ashanti OMkar

Sir Henry Wood’s dream over two decades ago was to give a platform for classical music and today, The Royal Albert Hall is home to what is classed by many as the greatest classical music festival in the world. Held in South Kensington, 8 weeks during the summer months, often with totally sold out seats, the main idea is that like other music festivals, which have developed for popular/world music (like Womad or Glastonbury, which are relatively new in comparison), one could walk around (on the PROMenade) while the music played - nowadays, there is a standing area which is traditional to the proms, onlookers, who consist of many tourists clenching a piece of British history - stand quietly watching the performances before them. The venue, prestigious and majestic, seats in a perfect circle and on looking up, there are futuristic space saucer style smooth cream stones, hanging, giving a truly magnificent aura, the décor with a lot of Victorian colours, like maroons and purples.

Indian music came as a late addition, in 1971, considering that 2005 marks the second decade of the second century and for the Proms since their conception in 1895. At the time, 2 Raags (Scales), Bhopali and Shree, were performed, by Tabla ace, Latif Ahmed Khan and Sitar great, Imrat Khan. Similar to Glastonbury’s British Asian music stage, which has enjoyed the all nighter in the last few years, the Proms also featured a few all night concerts of Indian Classical Music. After 1996, 2005 saw the next Indian based Prom, a full house with an eclectic audience and may I add how unusual it is, to see so many Asians at the Proms in the modern day and indeed, how refreshing it was that they all made so much effort, the ladies dressed in their finery and the whole of this historic venue buzzing. Till this day, they keep it pure and the aim is to bring the epitome of orchestral music, to a diverse audience, in a relaxed setting.

It is the dream of the many classical musicians, who sometimes have to wait a lifetime to get the opportunity to perform at the Proms - one of these was Sitar Maestro, Pundit Ravishankar, who has had his first opportunity at ‘Prom Number 27’ in 2005, the year of his 85th Birthday - accompanied by his illustrious daughter, Anoushka, who is not only a talented sitar player in her own right, but also the one who often opens for her frail father. Accompanying them on the Tabla was celebrated Tabla player, the renowned, loyal, nimble fingered Tanmoy Bose, with the Tambura drones (the base notes in music are kept to pitch perfection with these mini sitar like instruments which have to be plucked in co-ordination), the treble by Nick Able and Bass by Peter Macdonald. Contemporary composer, Param Vir got lucky, getting his first foray with the Proms, as the opening ‘act’ to the illustrious Ravishankar Ji, accompanied by the flawless BBC Symphony orchestra in a somewhat baroque piece depicting a Tibetan paining - ‘Horse Tooth White Rock’.

Shrouded in controversy, the great musician, the living legend who has taken Indian music around the world, multiple Grammy winner, Beatles influencing, Sitar mastermind, Pundit Ravishankar has an extremely artistically distinguished family tree, with his next generation also inheriting his palpable musical talents. His daughters; multiple Grammy winner, half Texan (born to a dancer and now New York concert producer Sue Jones, who lived with Ravi Ji for 9 years), Norah Jones (Geetali is her Indian name), who he has recently started to re-build ties with, and his favourite, the daughter who spent the most time with him and his ‘Sishya’ (pupil), his protégée, a spitting likeness to her father, Anoushka (born to Ravi Ji’s second wife, Carnatic vocalist and Bharatnatyam dancer Sukanya Shankar, the love of his life, the lady who fought for Ravi Ji’s affections amongst his many women, had Anoushka despite Ravu Ji’s trepidation and after marrying when Anoushka was 7, they remain deeply in love, to this day), not to mention his late son, Subhendra (Subho) Shankar, who was also a sitar virtuoso. Subhendra, who died aged 51, lived in the USA with his American wife and children and was primed by his mother, Ravishankar’s first wife, the lady known by many as a living saint, the enigmatic Annapoorna Devi, who not only is the daughter of legendary musician Ustad Baba Allaudin Khan (Ravi Ji’s only Guru) and sister of famous musician Ali Akbar Khan, the social recluse who is known for her eccentricity and bad temper, but also the revered teacher whose musical genius lives through recognized students like Hariprasad Chaurasia - a lady who was devastated by Ravishankar Sir’s divorce to her, but known to the few who saw her perform as a greater Sitar player than even Ravishankar Ji himself - the great man himself has acknowledged her brilliance on various occasions.

Possessing all these ties, his beginnings were as a privileged Bengali Brahmin, fondly known as Robu, born in Beneres (Varanasi), West Bengal, educated in Paris, exposed to musicians, famous personalities and beautiful women galore and his talents starting off on the dance and choreography side, as part of his eminent brother, Uday’s troupe and his giving it all up to go to a remote village and take Gurukul (learn under one Guru in traditional fashion), becoming a sitar exponent and thus making history. His complex life also includes the fact that his father Shyam left his mother and the family behind surviving on a small pension fund, in Beneres, to pursue life in London with his English wife and his beloved Mother passed away when he was 16, but he had already moved to Europe by the age of 12, hence his childhood was marred by many difficulties. Overcoming all this was no doubt tough, but something he has done with flair and agility, music has made him this magnificent persona.

Improvisation, the key to Indian Classical music and obviously a rare sight at the Proms, as Western Classical music is notated to precision. The ‘Ravishankar’ part of the Proms programme started with the amazing Sitar Concerto No 1, which was commissioned in 1970 by the London Symphony Orchestra and premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in 1971. With the addition of the xylophone and bongos, to the lead of Anoushka’s impeccable sitar playing, the orchestra did the concerto true justice. After the break came the much anticipated Sandhya (evening) Ragas part, which Pundit Ravishankar himself introduced. With stellar accompaniment from Tanmoy Bose on Tabla, the father and daughter team obviously knew each others movements like hand in glove and played in total conjunction with each other. With glorious aalaps (scale exploration) and the rhythm kept in perfect synch by the light movement of the foot by both parent and child, Ravi Ji, at his age showed total dexterity in his playing and also an astute sense of humour, as he introduced the music and also his musicians. As the long end piece changed Raag and Taal, it built up to a crescendo, which drew great applause, there was a feeling of enlightenment in the crowd.

Using only his love and devotion to music as his ultimate pursuit, his performance is indubitably sublime, his constant quest for improvement and innovation, seeing the 85 year old tour incessantly (the Proms being the last in the leg of the intense tour which started in March 2005), improvise with Raags and blend between the scales seamlessly, add touches of jazz to his Sitar playing, composing an orchestral piece to ‘note by note’ perfection and last but not least, getting a standing ovation at the Proms somehow beckoned me to realise that I was watching history in the making.