Ravi Shankar, the master sitarist largely responsible for spreading the word about Indian music outside of India – and a patriarch of immense influence in many genres – walked slowly with a cane, but under his own power, to the platform on the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage Thursday night. The applause was thunderous. At last, the faithful were rewarded for their patience and perseverance, for the road to this concert was long and torturous.
The originally scheduled Oct. 20, 2010 date was to have been part of a Shankar 90th birthday celebration, accompanied by retrospective CD boxes from Deutsche Grammophon and Rhino, and an economical EMI two-fer, “The Very Best Of Ravi Shankar.” The albums came out, but the concert did not, for Shankar was forced to cancel at the last minute due to illness. It was re-scheduled for Apr. 19 of this year, but Shankar pulled out again, as one of his musicians had visa problems.
The third attempt succeeded, and by now, the concert had become a 91st birthday celebration – minus Shankar’s sitarist daughter and heir Anoushka, who just had a baby, but with a consort of skilled Indian musicians surrounding him.
Shankar now has a full white beard (“I hope you recognize me because I’ve gained some weight – here!” he quipped, pointing to his face), and he sat at the edge of the platform instead of in the traditional, physically-taxing cross-legged position on the rug.
Inevitably, age has become a significant factor in his playing – far more so than even at his appearance in Disney Hall only five years ago.
He seems to stick to the middle register of the sitar, avoiding the bass and the treble extremes. There is now only a minimum amount of the expressive string-bending and use of microtones that give Indian music its emotional tug – and only briefly fleeting bursts of the speed with which he once peeled off the notes.
And yet, the man can still make some beautiful music within constricted physical boundaries and shorter time spans.
As in 2006, Shankar played for nearly an hour-and-a-half, getting audibly stronger as he went, pointing the way. In one number, he muted some of the strings on his instrument, hammering on them percussively with his right hand while plucking other strings in a different rhythm with his left – an ambidextrous feat.
For much of the concert, the sound mix was uneven; one could not hear the flute of Ravichandra Kulur and Parimal Sadaphal’s second sitar was strictly relegated to the background. But in the last ten minutes of the final, half-hour-long spring season raga comprised of folk tunes from around India, everything started to come together: the balances, the rhythmic momentum, the call-and-response chemistry between Shankar, Sadaphal and the two tabla players Tanmoy Bose and Samir Chatterjee.
The great performers almost always find a way.