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Jeff Moehlis: Ravi Shankar Mesmerizes with Mastery

The Indian sitarist and composer gives an inspiring performance at the Arlington Theatre

There are relatively few musicians who are universally viewed as supreme masters of their respective instruments. Two such individuals who spring to mind are violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma (the latter of whom will give a concert at The Granada in a little more than a month).

Indian sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar, who gave an inspired performance at the Arlington Theatre on Sunday night, is another such musician.

Shankar often has been described as the non-Western musician who is best known in the West. His embrace by the West was greatly enhanced by his association with George Harrison from The Beatles, who studied sitar under Shankar in the 1960s, and Shankar’s performances at some of the watershed events of that era, including the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, Woodstock in 1969 and the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Although Shankar disapproved of his music becoming part of the drug culture, it certainly helped it become well known in the West.

The performance at the Arlington, part of the UCSB Arts & Lectures series, started with the disappointing announcement that Shankar’s daughter, co-billed sitarist Anoushka Shankar, was too ill to perform with her father. However, the elder Shankar and the supporting musicians saw to it that no one went home disappointed.

The first piece (performed without Shankar) began with a gentle drone from tambura players Kenji Ota and Courtney DuCaine. Ravichandra Kulur joined in with mellifluous flute that gradually built, with percussionist Pirashanna Thevarajah’s accompaniment on mridangam, into a tour de force of fast runs and flutter-tongue technique.

Somewhat jarringly, after the 20-minute piece, a 20-minute intermission was announced. I would guess that, had she been healthy, Anoushka Shankar would have played a piece before the break.

After the intermission, the 89-year-old Ravi Shankar emerged to a standing ovation from the appreciative audience. After tuning with assistance from Ota, he playfully said, “Welcome to Santa Barbara,” and explained the parameters for the first raga, called Raga Jogeshwari.

What is a raga? Not being a scholar of Indian classical music, I’ll quote Shankar’s detailed concert notes, which say: “Ragas are extremely difficult to explain in a few words. Though Indian music is modal in character, ragas should not be mistaken as modes that one hears in the music of the Middle and Far Eastern countries, nor be understood to be a scale, melody per se, a composition or a key. A raga is a scientific, precise, subtle and aesthetic melodic form with its own peculiar ascending and descending movement ... .”

According to Shankar’s introduction of the piece, the first raga was based on an 11-beat cycle, which the concert notes said “are only played by outstanding musicians on rare occasions.” It was a slow, meditative piece that mesmerized the audience, with expressive string bends and occasional resonance of the sitar’s sympathetic strings. A subtle touch was that some of Shankar’s notes were sustained by the flute. It seemed as though time stood still for its 20-minute-plus duration.

The next piece was shorter — not even 10 minutes — and more up-tempo, featuring sitar runs rather than bends. It included tabla from the delightfully animated Tanmoy Bose, with whom Shankar shared an amazing rapport.

Shankar explained that the final piece was in the semi-classical form, and would consist of “whatever comes to mind,” such as folk tunes, but always coming back to the main theme. It was slow at the beginning with sitar string bends, and eventually grew into a playful, joyous piece featuring traded licks between sitar and flute, mind-blowing percussion solos and exchanges, and new textures provided by Kular’s tambourine, Thevarajah’s morsing (like a Jew’s harp) and Bose’s rapid-fire konnakol (scat-singing vocal percussion). After nearly an hour, it finally built to a ferocious climax.

We are truly blessed that Ravi Shankar is healthy enough and willing — despite being well beyond retirement age — to share his mastery of the sitar with us.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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