Bigger than both of us
November 23rd, 2013
Last night I saw Anoushka Shankar at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington. My mother took me to see her father, the great Ravi Shankar, when I was a teenager. My recollection is that he performed in a junior high school auditorium, and that may indeed have been the case. Back in those days, I don’t think Ravi Shankar would have been filling concert halls in places like Buffalo, New York. I might be wrong, though. Maybe I saw him at Kleinhans. Be that as it may, it was the beginning of a lifelong love of Indian classical music for me. Now Anoushka is selling out the Flynn, and she is very much her father’s daughter, and very much her own person.
So-called “world” and “fusion” music generally doesn’t do much for me. The Mahavishnu Orchestra and its like bore me to tears. All their virtuosity produces nothing more than spectacular noodling; they seem to be masters of nothing but their instruments. Paul Winter et al. are pretty ornaments for the holiday season, but not much more. In short, I find most of it empty and/or shallow.
Not so with Anoushka Shankar. A master of the northern Indian classical tradition, she also has thoroughly assimilated our culture’s music. She is not striving to create a fusion, she is the fusion. Consequently, when she joins her sitar with a piano, and cellos, and a trap drum set in addition to a tabla and shenai and mridangam, and even throws in what sounded to me very much like chords on the sitar (is that possible?), and weaves harmonic structures in together with straight-ahead Indian raga-based voice-and-rhythm, it all sounds seamless, deep, and authentic. (And there are layers upon layers of “fusion” here. Mridangam and shenai are based in the south Indian musical tradition, whereas the sitar and tabla are north Indian. Maybe we should call this “laminated” music.) What “authentic” means in this context I can’t really say, except I knows it when I hears it. It has something to do with integrity and directness of expression.
I was transported, in that lovely way the best Indian classical music can do. The sounds took me over and washed me clean. But this had something extra. Very often, in a classical Indian concert, I do not have a clear understanding of what I am responding to, because I did not grow up with the tradition and I don’t really “get” the meanings of its inflections and vocabulary. The program notes, for example, will tell me “this is an evening raga which inspires a sense of peacefulness and devotion.” Well, alright, but what makes it different from a morning raga or a late-midafternoon snacktime raga? Got me. And what is so peaceful and devoted about this last section where the sitar is going like the blazes and the tabla player’s hands are a blur? By contrast, Anoushka’s music, which is steeped in my language, speaks to me. She manages to combine the personal expressiveness of western music with the impersonal spirituality of her native tradition. It’s a powerful combination. The example from the concert that comes to mind is “In Jyoti’s Name,” inspired by the woman who was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi last year. Beware: on the CD, which seems to be tailored for western ears, this piece is considerably watered down. Heard live last night, it was a meditation on grief and rage that managed to comprehend both the personal and the collective aspects of these emotions, and also presented them as forces in their own right.
I sometimes think I must be a tiresome person to sit next to at an Indian music concert, if I am enjoying it, because my head bobs and waves ceaselessly and I tap my feet and bounce in my chair. Can’t help it, I’m afraid. This is bigger than both of us.