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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