Legendary Indian musician beats back pneumonia to amaze Zellerbach with 18-stringed instruments and decades of experience. By Monya De That Ravi Shankar appeared at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall Sunday night was a miracle.
After a luminous set by his 25-year-old daughter Anoushka, the revered sitarist who introduced the world to Indian music walked onstage to a standing ovation before he played a note. Taking the microphone, the star informed the audience that he had recently battled a double pneumonia that threatened to silence him forever. As Shankar soon demonstrated, it takes more than a virus to squash the sound that transformed no less than the Beatles.
The 87-year-old played an entrancing series of ragas, the Indian instrumental song style that is less rhythm and meter than emotion and spirituality. The sitar is an eighteen-stringed instrument that lets the player dance between and around the common Western twelve-toned scale, and Shankar interspersed technically demanding runs with full, yearning notes. In his hands, the instrument was like a young woman singing. It was easy to understand why legions of hippies made his music part of their psychedelic experiences in the '60s. His connection with young sitarist Anoushka was magical; their sitars spoke as one. His third raga in particular highlighted the complexity of the art form; dissonance and off-rhythms challenged even the most astute musicians, and the two displayed their improvisational abilities. The result was an exciting mix of new sounds and rhythms.
Tanmoy Bose provided virtuoso accompaniment on tabla, and shone when he drummed in the cloying call-and-response with both Shankars that built and built thrillingly. Ravichandra Kulur's solos on the bansuri flute were haunting, with notes so throaty and textured they could have been coming from a clarinet.
Anoushka Shankar has come into her own as a musician with identity. She contrasts her father's ethereal style (as well as the jazz stylings of half-sister Norah Jones) with assertive attacks on each note, tense pizzicatos and razor-sharp grace notes. The tension between artist and instrument was showcased; the message seemed to be "This sitar isn't going to play itself." She did great justice to one of Ravi's compositions, a raga she described as "very sweet." Radiant in a coral salwar kameez and huge gold earrings with her hair bobbed, her long fingers skipped up and down the sitar that looked bigger than her own body. When she reached to the top of the instrument to tune using the kunti, she evoked the powerful, many-handed Hindu goddess Durga. Her demeanor was serious initially, then her body began to undulate with the rhythms onstage as she traded musical cues with Bose and Kulur.
When the audience leaped to its feet on Shankar's final note, he immediately launched into a dhun or freeform piece that showcased his sensuality and musicianship once more. "We will play whatever comes to mind," Shankar said. The final notes sounded, and Ravi and Anoushka Shankar rose with ear-to-ear grins, beaming gratitude for life and for music, to the raucous cheers of Zellerbach.
Photo credit: Bob Sheridan.