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To the Heavens

Festival of India, presented by Ravi and Anoushka Shankar

At Arlington Theatre, Sunday, April 30.

Reviewed by Charles Donelan

The phenomenal musical presence of Ravi Shankar appeared
undimmed last Sunday evening, even as the master approaches 86
years of age and an incredible 67 years of continuous activity as a
performer. Accompanied by his daughter Anoushka (also a sitarist)
and an ensemble featuring the marvelous tabla player Tanmoy Bose,
among many others, Ravi delivered graceful, sweeping versions of
two classic ragas on Sunday evening to an appreciative crowd at the
Arlington. The diverse and enthusiastic audience included many who
had seen him as early as 1970, and the general feeling was one of
intense focus and spiritual uplift.

“Raga” means “emotion,” and individual pieces thus stand for
much more than the identifiable scales within which the performers
improvise their music. Each raga also has an association with a
specific time of day and situation. “Raga Jog,” the piece with
which Ravi began his set, is a nighttime raga — one of Shankar’s
most familiar and often-heard. Typically a raga begins with the
alap, a rhythm-less improvisation between the two sitarists that
sets the parameters of the ensuing performance and outlines the
feeling or mood of the evening’s presentation. Anoushka Shankar
joined her father in the alap to “Raga Jog” for a beautiful and
introspective 20-minute opening: threads of understanding, peace,
and compassion were woven as single note lines of rare and
exquisite beauty. Anoushka, Shankar’s daughter from his second
marriage, has her own distinctive sound, somewhat darker and more
keening than her dad’s glistening tone. Together they make an
intricate web that has no apparent beginning or end.

Between the first and second number, the ensemble took its time
tuning. At the end of this interval, Ravi addressed the audience,
confiding that he was very glad that we had known not to applaud
the tune-up. The second raga and the encore were both transcendent,
reminding all present not only of the great beauty and sense of
yearning that traditional Indian music seems created to inspire,
but also of Ravi Shankar’s truly pervasive influence on Western
popular music, particularly the rock guitar. It is now almost
impossible to imagine the shimmering time shifts and delicate rests
and reversals in such classic rock epics as the Allman Brothers’
“Mountain Jam” without reference to the sitar, and its never-ending
improvisational stream of vocally inflected single notes.

The evening began with a set billed as a Festival of India and
led by Anoushka, who proved to be a very effective conductor as
well as a sitar virtuosa in her own right. Anoushka’s 2005 album
Rise contains some stunning crossover tracks that may eventually
put this 24-year-old on par with her more famous half-sister, Norah
Jones.

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