Monday, September 24, 2007

Maestro

I’ve never been big on Indian Classical music. More specifically I don’t really understand classical vocal music or follow it avidly. [Gasps of horror emanating from the crowd that will now quietly disown me]. I enjoy classical instrumental music far more although that is more because the melodies are soothing to the ear and the instruments utterly interesting. But I’ve never studied it or pursued it in any meaningful way. I have had the good fortune of having seen a lot of live classical performances usually by fluke, occasionally by design. Read about the illustrious billing lined up for the Raj to the Republic concert in a flier fluttering about ages ago. It was just one of an entire line-up of events to mark 60 years of Indian Independence but certainly the one I was most keen to pursue. Convinced V that it would be the chance of the lifetime to go and see, among other greats, sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. He concurred that it would be a good box to tick and we booked ourselves two places.

It was yesterday, in the confines of the enormous Royal Festival Hall, that V and I sat in the balcony and had to acknowledge that it was so much more than a tick box event. It began slightly late, like all things Indian, with the excuse of the freewheeling event holding up the crowds. The first part was Dr. L Subramaniam playing the violin, preceded and then accompanied by his 16 year old son, Ambi Subramaniam. It was fantastic, made more so by the accompanying trio of instruments, the mridangam, ghatam and morsingh [which I had never heard before]. Ambi Subramaniam stole the show. He was simply brilliant, confident and engrossed and producing leaching brilliant music from his violin. And I can't get past the fact that he's only 16.

After a short interval it was the turn of Kishori Amonkar, the legendary Hindutani vocalist. She seemed to have a sore throat but despite that the power in her voice was evident. As I said before I don’t really understand classical vocal and so this was my least favourite bit of the evening. The ovations and endless clapping showed clearly my inadequacy in understanding and appreciation.

After another break it was the lovely Anoushka Shankar, accompanied by the very talented Ravichandran Kulur on flute. She is a petit young thing, her short straightened hair framing her look alike face, her confident walk belying her 26 years. She walked on much before her father and played two pieces, joking after the first one that she knew the audience was waiting for her father but that she would play just one other short piece. She was brilliant, composed and energetic, playing with an ease incongruous with the demands of a difficult instrument like the sitar.

Then finally at 10pm Pandit Ravi Shankar emerged, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. In his late 80’s now, he seems so frail that I immediately wondered how he would bear the weight of the magnificent sitar. He sat on a small bench and played Raag Jogeshwari and within those first few chords proved that those fingers knew no frailty. When he played with Anoushka and a few other accompanying artists, it was as if no other sound existed. The music was unbelievable and simply magical. He is called a maestro for good reason and I am undeniably lucky to have heard him play.

The only two sticking points for the entire evening were that it was not a well organized show. First, it was not smart to have a seven hour long performance from 4pm to 11pm on a Sunday night when 2pm to 9pm would have meant more people being able to stay the entire seven hours instead of dashing home because of trains/ tube/ bus connections. And second, the RFH’s bar was useless and overpriced, selling soggy popcorn and little else in the way of meaningful sustenance. Had to go home and have a midnight feast like some Enid Blyton Mallory Towers characters.

I had no idea how we would sit through a seven hour concert, but when it came to it the evening played out beautifully and musically, seven hours seemed too short even. The concert far exceeded any expectations V or I had, and was certainly no box-ticking event. All in all watching Ravi Shankar play live will be the best memory I took away from an evening of scintillating music. Undoubtedly though, for me, Ambi Subramaniam and Anoushka Shankar were the highlight of the evening, their youthful interpretation and dedication to their art as clear as the finest diamond. It’s the knowledge that music lives through generations and is passed down in the genes and by sheer undaunted practice that makes my mind joyful. And it is the certain knowledge that I am hooked that makes my heart so.

8 comments:

  1. What a lovely review. Here's to attending many more concerts :)

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  2. What about my leather bun? Disgusting. Please include that in your review.

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  3. You didn't do justice to the popcorn. I was expecting a more explicit description of just how soggy, awful and strange tasting it was. :)

    But yes, the concert was lovely, even though we had to leave before Shankar and Co. started playing.

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  4. you're right, they should have started earlier so more people could stay till the end. lovely write up!

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  5. Cool. I attend quite a few classical music concerts here in Seattle, but it isn't a big enough venue for a lot of performers, so not everyone who's big shows up. There's a definite charm to hearing these artists live.

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  6. You convey the thrill of discovery. And inspire me to post about the sheer wonder of waking up in the IIT-Delhi auditorium at 4 a.m. as Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia started on Bhairavi.

    J.A.P.

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  7. you know, I see videos of him at woodstock and wish to God that I was there!

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  8. Lovely post! Like you, I am not someone who can appreciate the finer nuances of classical music, but have been to several live concerts and one of the lasting thoughts it leaves in my mind is also sheer admiration for the artists' dedication and efforts, and the absolute magical feeling it leaves one with. Your post put exactly my post-concert thoughts in words!

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