Ravi Shankar’s centenary celebrated with family, with sitars and great music

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Even 10 years after his death, sitarist Ravi Shankar remains India’s greatest cultural ambassador. The centenary of his birth – which fell in 2020 – is now marked by the delayed pandemic Shankar 100two months of events that kicked off at the Southbank Center in London in late February, in which his daughter, sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar, plays a starring role.

On Saturday, she was at the heart of the memorial concert at the Royal Festival Hall which included her father’s alumni, collaborators and fans from across India and the world, such as composer and musician Nitin Sawhney, jazz-fusion pioneer John McLaughlin and Dhani Harrison. , son of George Harrison, the Beatle Ravi Shankar taught and befriended.

Joy and reverence pervaded the concert which began with musical invocations to Ganesha and Saraswati – deities associated with beauty, knowledge and the arts – emphasizing the spiritual underpinnings of the culture from which Shankar and his music emerged. “It’s always been central to him,” says Anoushka Shankar, “the idea that music can lift people to a slightly more spiritual connection that brings peace, because people come from a place of more awareness. “

Anoushka Shankar, centre, at the Royal Festival Hall Centenary Concert © Pete Woodhead

Learning the sitar for several years in the home of the great Hindustani instrumentalist and pedagogue Allaudin Khan, Ravi Shankar was steeped in tradition. As Khan’s portrait adorned the walls of Shankar’s music rooms, so too during the concert, Shankar smiled from the wall as his friends, mentees and his widow, Sukanya Shankar, performed to the masterful orchestrations of Anoushka Shankar. They brought to life the ravishing ensemble compositions for which his father was famous, a radical departure from Indian soloist classicism, and there was a sublime intimacy from sitarists Shubhendra Rao and Gaurav Mazumdar, paying rich tributes to their late guru.

Anoushka Shankar kept the beat amidst ecstatic call-and-response between drummers Bikram Ghosh and Tanmoy Bose on tablas and BC Manjunath on mridangam. “He was the first to put down an instrument and give a drummer a soloist,” she says of her father’s revolutionary attitude. “They didn’t have that position before and would be looked down upon if they overdid it.”

The use of instruments from across India and its folk cultures, including the clay pot ghatam and the morsing (an Indian jew’s harp), both skillfully employed by Pirashanna Thevarajah, paid homage to the role of his father as a champion of all Indian traditions. “He was so inspired by all the various folk traditions,” says Anoushka Shankar, “and brought them up within these classical contexts. He introduced Carnatic music from South India to the North and vice versa. He really changed the representation of music in India.

A young woman, Anoushka Shankar, sitting with her father, Ravi, both smiling

Ravi and Anoushka Shankar © Camera Press/Denis Dailleux/Agence VU

His fusion of Indian music was continued by Sawhney, whose compositions integrate classical Indian music with such modern forms as hip-hop, R&B and reggae. “He knew how to make an unusual art form accessible to people who wouldn’t otherwise encounter it,” says Sawhney. “He could also break things down in a way that he explained ideas to people. He was an excellent communicator. »

Sawhney’s rendition of Anoushka Shankar’s “River Pulse” on acoustic guitar alongside Shankar and her ensemble – “I really wrote it as a tribute to her father” – was a seemingly unrelenting feat of cultural synergy. effort, reminiscent of Andalusian flamenco and Irish ceilidh like India. .

At the center of it all was Anoushka Shankar, as poised at the metronome on her sitar amid 20 explosive performers as she was performing her own solo pieces and bravado duets. Like her father, she was comfortable with John McLaughlin’s electric guitar and instruments from her own classical tradition.

A man plays acoustic guitar with an ensemble of musicians on stage
Nitin Sawhney at the Centennial Concert © Pete Woodhead

Nominated for seven Grammys, she, like her father, has a genius for building bridges. The concert ended with a performance by 100 dancers from London’s Sujata Banerjee Dance Company to “Shanti Mantra” (“Peace Mantra”), composed by his father for a concert he gave in the Kremlin in the 1980s. , merging the cultures of both countries.

“It’s a prayer for peace,” she said. “My father wanted to go there and perform with a 100-member Russian choir and 100 Indian musicians. . . I think again and again about what my father did. He always came back to this idea that it’s about peace. This music can be a way to achieve peace.

‘Shankar 100’ runs until April 23, southbankcentre.co.uk

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