Ravi Shankar’s The Extraordinary Lesson

cover artThis three-part DVD captures a performance and a masterclass Ravi Shankar gave before an audience in Paris on successive days in September 2008. The only shortcoming of this disc is that it doesn’t include the first day’s concert at the Salle Pleyel, which was billed as his last in Europe. The public lesson before his performing ensemble, which included his daughter Anoushka, was the first time in his long and eventful life that he had done such a thing.

The first section is a one-hour documentary in English and French with English subtitles. It is centered on excerpts from the Paris concert and lesson, interspersed with a variety of scenes of daily life in Paris, New Delhi and the Indian countryside, plus scenes from a private lesson with Anoushka at the Shankar Center in New Delhi and “talking head” interviews with Anoushka and others. These include sitarist Subhendra Rao, a disciple and the son of one of Shankar’s earliest disciples; flautist Henri Tournier, the film’s musical consultant; and Shankar’s luthier, who talks about the innovations Shankar made in the instrument over the decades and shows off the latest sitar he made for Shankar, which is modified to allow for the master’s age and frailty.

Watching the documentary, at times I was near tears as father played and talked with daughter. The close bond between the two – father and daughter, teacher and student – comes through again and again as the two share glances during their lessons, interviews and performances. On several occasions when one plays a musical phrase, the other glances over and flashes a quick smile while responding on his or her instrument. In the same way, the sense of joy from the other musicians as they listen to each other, interact with facial expressions and respond to each other’s improvisations is palpable. And they, too, respond to Shankar with deep love and devotion in their eyes.

Near the end of the documentary, there is a performance by the Anoushka Shankar Project, a Western/Indian hybrid band that includes sitar, cello, jazz drum kit, and other Indian and European instruments. Before the performance, she talks at length about herself, her father and the music, its evolution, and the modern expressions of tradition. At one point she makes a distinction between her father’s approach and her own; paraphrasing, she says that he draws from music and gives to life, whereas she draws from life and brings it to her music.

I’m going to take things out of order. The third part of the DVD contains five excerpts of performances that took place in 2009 at the Ravi Shankaar Center, a beautiful teaching, performance and research space in Delhi. The introduction to this piece shows a very large group of sitarists, all Shankar students, performing a piece in unison. The five showcased performances are two vocal works by Manjiri Asanare-Kelkar and Jayaterth Mevundi; southern Indian dance by Divya Devaguptapu; northern Indian dance by Uma Sharma, and karnatic violin music from Lalgudi Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi. All are quite inspiring in their own way, but could use perhaps a bit of exposition for the non-initiated. Mevundi’s performance was the most riveting for me. This is not the type of music that you would listen to casually, but this singer’s technique, mastery of the material and breath control are easily the equal of any of the best singers in the Western opera tradition. Absolutely spectacular.

The centerpiece of the DVD is the “lesson” in its entirety, on stage in Paris. Shankar’s students, all young masters of their instruments, are Anoushka on sitar; Tanmoy Bose on tabla, the set of two tuned hand drums; Sanjeev Shankar on shehnai, an oboe-like flat-reeded instrument; Ravichandra Kutur on flute and kanjira, a small tambourine; and Sanjay Sharma and Kenji Ota on tanpura, the Indian lute that produces the music’s distinctive drone. Shankar is helped onto the stage by one of the musicians, sits and begins talking in English to the Paris crowd about technical, musical and spiritual aspects of Indian music. The event’s organizers have given him several questions about the music, which he responds to at length, both in words and by having the musicians demonstrate. Then for the final 10 minutes or so, he directs an improvised performance, pointing at each musician in turn and singing a phrase which the player then echoes, first one at a time but eventually all at once. It is as thrilling a musical performance as I have witnessed in a long time!

Here’s an excerpt from the lesson.

The various parts of this DVD were filmed quite well to my eye. The scenes of Indian life in city and country are particularly vibrant and beautiful, although at times I felt that they clashed with or interrupted the points that were being made about Shankar and his music.

Ravi Shankar’s legacy is an impact on the world’s music that will reverberate for incalculable ages. This little DVD reflects but a tiny bit of that legacy, but it does so with reverence and beauty. It comes inside a small hardcover book, with accompanying text in French and English. I highly recommend it to all of his fans.

I’ll let Shankar himself have the last word. During this extraordinary lesson, he addresses the spiritual dimension of music, which to him has always been the most important:

“It is something which can’t be described. It is such a spiritual thing. Each note starts vibrating in your mind and the natural thing is that if you feel it, in your eyes the tears are coming. If you can feel that, if you can really touch these notes with this emotion, it is bound to have an effect on the listener.”

(Accord Croises, 2010)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.