World music owes a huge debt to Ravi Shankar’s concerto for sitar and orchestra


“The melodic character of Indian music and the harmonic character of Western music are like oil and water. They won’t mix… Nor should one be afraid that one will harm the other.

– Sitar Maestro Ravi Shankar, 1967, The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, Oliver Craske

Four years after this declaration, Ravi Shankar continued to mix oil and water. He composed, performed and later recorded Concerto No. 1 for sitar and orchestracommissioned and conducted by André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The 40-minute concerto landed like a creative bombshell, featuring a sitar recital of four ragas in four movements and in the grand sweep of a full Western orchestra. Bongos and timpani replaced the tabla and two harps, and strings served as tanpura.

The work often echoes his compositions for the vadya vrinda and All India Radio films. And it makes you vomit stubborn earworms: Raga Khamaj’s sweet accumulation, lively bongo, swollen strings and velvety horns and oboes.

Concerto for sitar and orchestra No. 1: I. Raga Khamaj.

“I was eight years old when I first heard the work and remember being flabbergasted by its magnitude – it was Indian music and beyond,” said Shubhendra Rao, a shishya, who performed the sitar concerto for the first time in 2016 with the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra. . “It had the raga and tala structures of a traditional performance – alap-jod-jhaala, sawal jawabs, tihais – but colored with different tonalities. It was as if he visualized the whole landscape of this music before he sat down to write it.

The concerto was not to be his most evolved or sophisticated East-West experience. Musicians and connoisseurs presented his second concerto which followed 10 years later as a work of greater complexity and confidence. In 2009, he wrote a third concerto. And two years before his death he performed a symphony and started working on an opera. But Concerto No. 1 occupies a unique place in the history of music, and not just because it was charming.

The concerto made the unthinkable a fait accompli. Its scale and ambition paved the way for what we now call world music. If you had to compile a list of contemporary Indian instrumentalists who today avoid collaborations with Western musicians, you would probably write a blank.

“I myself prefer the challenge of his second concerto, but the first was really a snapshot of a moment in history,” said his daughter Anoushka Shankar. “It was the first time we saw raga music in an orchestral arrangement, creating a composite soundscape.” Anoushka Shankar first performed the concerto with her then frail father in 1997 and has since played it more than a dozen times.

Ravi Shankar performs with his daughter Anoushka Shankar in Kolkata in February 2009. Credit: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters.

Today, during East-West, cultural and political events, the concerto is often staged as a musical foreground, played most often by sitarists from the gharana Maihar but also those from outside. Last weekend alone, there were three performances of the music of the Connecticut-based Hartford Symphony Orchestra with sitar player Anupama Bhagwat.

“It was an ingeniously put together work, a traditional sitar performance with a full Western orchestra,” said ethnomusicologist Stephen Slawek, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and senior disciple of Ravi Shankar. “And it was beautiful, engaging music if you could forget the academic ideas of what the orchestra or the sitar should sound like.”

The work shocked purists, but Capitol Records claimed it “sold like a pop record”, reaching No. 6 on Billboard’s Classic LP charts in 1972.

Stephen Slawek learned from Ravi Shankar in 1989. Courtesy of Stephen Slawek.

For all its great ambition, the concerto was not the fortuitous work of a solitary genius. It was the culmination of decades of experimentation with Indian music, and not just by Shankar. The attempts were sometimes interesting, sometimes clumsy, but always courageous in pushing back the barriers of tradition.

What Concerto No. 1 did was upset many fundamental conventions of both musical systems, making it a challenge for both Western and Indian musicians. Slawek remembers taking over the complex bongo parts when Shankar played the concerto in Kansas in 1985 because the assigned percussionist just couldn’t conjure up the tabla effects.

For the sitar soloists too, it was a difficult task. Between the four movements, the music required three pitch changes, a common practice in Western but not Indian musical structures. It was especially difficult in a fretted instrument like the sitar. “It took time, logistically and mentally, to manage the transposition of the pitch which, in our music, is not just fixed for a concert but often for a lifetime,” recalls Rao, who took six weeks to prepare for Bilbao. performance.

Shubhendra Rao, Ravi Shankar’s shishya, performed the sitar concerto with the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra in 2016.

The concerto transformed an essentially solo art into an ensemble work, limiting the place to improvisation, which is at the heart of Indian classical music. Even more difficult, few Indian musicians are trained to read notated scores, a problem that many classically trained Hindi film composers face when dealing with orchestral works. “When you play an orchestral work, you have to do exactly what is expected of you,” Bhagwat said. “I had to memorize the lot while listening and playing because we don’t read music except to mark cues or take notes.”

Western classical music circles have also been vexed at the “misuse” of its traditions, balking at the lack of emphasis on the use of harmony and counterpoint. Some of the brickbats were brutal, emphasizing the nature between and between work. According to Craske, Andre Previn described it as “absolute, utter, total shit…I knew it was nonsense”.

But for all that, the concerto had come at a time when the music scene was ripe for a multicultural experience, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Conversations between different forms had already begun with Shankar’s 1967 collaboration with Yehudi Menuhin. And Indian music had long since lost its exotic status in the 1930s and 1940s. East meets West albums with Yehudi Menuhin and, later, Jean-Pierre Rampal, until his 1971 Concerto No. I for sitar and orchestraon Ali Akbar Khan’s recording Supreme Karuna with jazz saxophonist John Handy, to the experimentations of Ali Akbar’s eldest son fusing rock with Hindustani music in his band Shanti, to the emergence of Shakti, blending jazz-rock with music from the north and south of India, the notion of cultural mixing through music was very present on the scene in the early 1970s.

“West Meets East” by Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin.

Just a year before the concerto, Ananda Shankar, son of Uday Shankar, had managed to infuriate his uncle and then guru Ravi Shankar by fusing the sitar with rock and electronic music, Slawek recounts in his essay. It was clear that Indian musicians of the decade struggled to draw the line between what was acceptable and what was sacrilege.

Going through these experiences was a guideline that could be traced to older raga-related instrumental ensembles in India. According to leading tabla player and music scholar Aneesh Pradhan, as early as the 1870s, the Parsi Gayak Uttejak Mandali, a club to promote music among Parsi families, had begun hosting instrumental ensembles. He also highlights the orchestral dance music accompanying Uday Shankar and his dance troupe in their performances in India and the West in the 1930s. Composed by musical director Vishnudas Shirali, these pieces on ragas featured several Indian instruments, including a teenager Ravi Shankar on sitar.

Another influence that may have contributed to the concerto was Shankar’s guru, Allaudin Khan, a genius who could play many instruments and led the famous Maihar Band. Then there was his time at All India Radio and of course his mind-blowing work for films such as Anuradha and Godan. They all bear the mark of his distinct musicality, just like the concerto. “There are particular patterns in everything he does, and there are certainly influences from his earlier exposure to dance music, the works of Shirali,” Slawek said.

By the time the concerto arrived, Ravi Shankar had already played pop music venues like Monterey and Woodstock, and had begun his highly visible association with the Beatles.

Concerto for sitar and orchestra No. 1: II. Raga Sindhi Bhairavi.

Slawek thinks the concerto could also have been a considered career move to refute the criticism of having “sold out”. He kept the raga music center stage, and although the composition worked to the limit, it was never transgressive, he asserts in his essay.

India’s classical circles had been unhappy with Ravi Shankar’s experiments anyway, worried about their potential to undermine a tradition they sought to cocoon. “…I really didn’t like that duet with Mr. Yehudi Menuhin, ‘East Meets West’,” sitarist Nikhil Banerjee remarked of his guru brother’s experiences in a lengthy 1985 interview with music consultant Ira Landgarten. “No, I heard Yehudi Menuhin several times; in Western music he’s a different giant, but when he plays Indian music he’s like a child. For a stunt it’s OK, but I really disagree, I don’t like this idea. You can’t mix everything! It is not possible.”

Anoushka Shankar thinks these responses were typical of those who feared changes to what they believed to be fragile traditions. “But what was radical then is now the norm,” she said.

None of this affected audience responses. Slawek remembers that every time he performed for the concerto, listeners were captivated. It was in 1977 that he first heard Ravi Shankar play the concerto in Honolulu and then in Austin in 1983.

Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra No. 1: III. Raga Adana.

“He had used my sitar to perform with the Austin Symphony Orchestra and showed me how to tune it for the concerto in the Green Room. It was a moving experience that showed me the depth of his musicality,” recalls Slawek, who treasures a “certificate” from Shankar stating that he could play his orchestral pieces on the sitar.

For someone outside the Maihar school, like Bhagwat, a disciple of Bimalendu Mukherjee of the Imdadkhani gharana, the challenges are far greater. “It was a personal challenge for me to perform for this concerto,” she said. “The Maihar musicians’ instrument is distinct, as is their playing style. But what the concerto shows us is how to work with other musical systems without sounding superficial, as many merge work.

Malini Nair is a New Delhi-based writer and editor. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.


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