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Anoushka Shankar. RISE. EMI classics.
Ravi Shankar grew up as a living representative of Indian culture to thousands of people throughout America and Europe. But his relationship to Indian culture was paradoxically both close and distant. He was familiar with some of the finest aspects of Indian music and dance, but they were filtered through the unique genius of his brother Uday Shankar. Uday had been a painter living in Europe when the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova asked him to help her choreograph a piece called “Oriental Impressions.” The success of this project inspired Uday to study dance traditions from all over India, from which he fashioned a highly original new style that was still unquestionably Indian. Ravi started traveling with Uday’s troupe when he was 10, and for many Europeans, this troupe was their first direct contact with Indian culture. But Ravi himself spent his formative years mainly in Paris and London, and during that time had more direct exposure to Europe than India. Cole Porter, Stravinsky, Toscanini, and Gertrude Stein were household guests, he heard concerts by Andre Segovia and Cab Calloway, and a beautiful Hollywood star once offered to adopt him. Nevertheless, his indirect exposure to Indian culture defined him as a person, and he knew that he had a special responsibility to be authentically Indian. Perhaps this was why he had to return to India, and immerse himself in Hindustani music in the traditional guru-shishya relationship.
Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka was similarly suspended between cultures. She grew up first in London, then moved to California, acquiring a new accent for each location. But she also learned to speak Tamil to her mother, Bengali to her father, and Hindi to their friends. She studied sitar with her father but also became accomplished at European classical piano. She is now almost the same age at which Ravi Shankar achieved international recognition as a musician, and has released her first fusion album, Rise, which has been nominated for a Grammy. There is also a re-release of Ravi Shankar’s earlier music in a double CD called the Essential Ravi Shankar. One CD consists entirely of classical Hindustani performances, the other is selections from different fusion albums.
In old photographs of the young Ravi and recent photographs of Anoushka, they seem like brother and sister, or even twins. But what is even more striking is how much their sitar playing sounds alike. These recordings of the young Ravi, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, have the flash, sparkle, and flair of Anoushka’s current playing. He was clearly inspired by the virtuoso rock guitarists of the time, as they were famously inspired by him. None of these recordings show the full development of a raga that Ravi Shankar would have presented during a strictly classical concert. Instead, the compilers of this CD choose recordings where Ravi Shankar expands light formats and compresses serious ones to get the maximum amount of expression from each minute. A light dadra begins with virtuoso leaps and sequences, and ends with dazzlingly fast scales. A performance of Desh in slow Teental compresses every essential nuance of the raga into 15 minutes, including a short alap. There are still some techniques on this recording that Anoushka has not fully mastered (yet), such as the surbahar-inspired bends in the lower register. But she has already captured so much of the sound and feel of the youthful Ravi Shankar that mastering the rest seems inevitable.
The music on the second CD was created before terms like “fusion” or “world music” existed, and thus seems astonishingly prophetic today. This CD opens with a selection from the famed 1967 East Meets West collaboration with Yehudi Menuhin, and continues with selections from the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, which gradually show more mastery of various Western idioms. The selection from East Meets West is actually the sort of fixed composition used as a teaching exercise by classical Hindustani musicians, but which is never performed in concert. Recognizing that these fixed compositions really are beautiful enough to be performed, and that they were a perfect vehicle for Menuhin’s virtuoso reading abilities, was a masterful reframing of traditional material. Other selections come from Tana Mana, which features Ravi Shankar playing keyboard synthesizers supported by orchestrations of acoustic Indian instruments; Live at the Kremlin, featuring Russian symphonic and folk performers; and Passages, a collaboration with minimalist composer Phillip Glass. For these albums, Ravi Shankar skillfully created orchestrations for large ensembles, but deliberately limited himself to the modal and monophonic materials of Hindustani music. This worked especially well in his collaboration with Glass, who had been independently going in that direction from the symphonic tradition, and was thus in effect able to meet Ravi Shankar half way.
Rise, Anoushka’s first fusion album, shows a similar adventurousness, but with a more improvisatory feel. She had originally intended to take a year off from touring and performing, but discovered that she relaxed best by playing in a recording studio. She kept inviting friends to play with her, such as Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, pianist Pedro Ricardo Mino, and tabla players Bikram Ghosh and Tanmoy Bose. There was some sheet music used, but the main creative process was playing together and multi-tracking until organic interaction evolved into fully realized composition. Her break from Hindustani music did not mean that she was neglecting it. On the contrary, there are tracks here that contain the best alaps I have ever heard her perform, which are actually enhanced by the electronic keyboards and signal processing. Just as Ravi Shankar learned how to adapt Western sheet music and arrangements to his Hindustani roots, so also Anoushka has learned to adapt the technology of the 21st century recording studio to her father’s gharana. She is clearly carrying on the family tradition of adaptation and creativity.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.