India Today - - INSIDE - —Anita Roy

When Pan­dit Ravi Shankar passed away in De­cem­ber 2010, writ­ers and mu­si­cians the world over strug­gled to con­vey just how great a con­tri­bu­tion he had made. His friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor, the avant garde com­poser Philip Glass, put it suc­cinctly: “It may be hard to imag­ine that one per­son through the force of his tal­ent, en­ergy and mu­si­cal per­son­al­ity could have al­most sin­gle-hand­edly al­tered the course of con­tem­po­rary mu­sic in its broad­est sense. But that is ac­tu­ally and sim­ply what hap­pened.”

Ravi Shankar was a tire­less in­no­va­tor, con­stantly push­ing the bound­aries of his art and ex­per­i­ment­ing with form. Be­sides Philip Glass, his mu­sic en­riched and was en­riched by other artistes, most fa­mously in the West, the likes of Ge­orge Har­ri­son, Ye­hudi Menuhin,

and John Coltrane. In his eight­ies, at a time when most peo­ple would be rest­ing on their (in his case, con­sid­er­able) lau­rels, Ravi Shankar set sail on a new ad­ven­ture. He be­gan work on an opera, based on a story from the Ma­hab­harata, of Chya­vana, a great sage who med­i­tated so long and so un­mov­ingly that for­est ants built their hill around him un­til he was com­pletely en­gulfed. Out walk­ing in the for­est one day, a beau­ti­ful princess, Sukanya, came upon the anthill. Mis­tak­ing the sage’s eyes for glow-worms buried in the mound, she pierced them with thorns. Blinded, Chya­vana emerged from his aus­ter­i­ties and de­manded Sukanya’s hand in mar­riage. She agreed and they lived to­gether hap­pily.

Per­haps Shankar was drawn to this story, with its theme of love between an older man and a younger woman, be­cause his wife, whose name is also Sukanya, was con­sid­er­ably younger than he. Per­haps he wanted this as his ‘swan song’— an op­er­atic of­fer­ing to his beloved wife. He be­gan work on it in the mid-1990s, but large parts still lay in­com­plete when he passed away. Sukanya Shankar says that he had told her he was con­fi­dent that their daugh­ter Anoushka would complete his work if he didn’t man­age to. “I think he would be very happy to know that his works are in safe hands,” she says.

Anoushka Shankar seems to have in­her­ited not only her fa­ther’s mu­si­cal DNA but his lively dis­re­gard for rigid con­ven­tion as well. In an echo of Philip Glass’s words about her fa­ther, fel­low mu­si­cian Nitin Sawh­ney once wrote that “no one em­bod­ies the spirit of in­no­va­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion more ev­i­dently than Anoushka”. Work­ing with Ravi Shankar’s ex­ten­sive notes and sketches, she and con­duc­tor David Mur­phy fin­ished work­ing on the score—for a full phil­har­monic or­ches­tra plus clas­si­cal In­dian in­stru­ments—but they needed some­one to write the words, some­one who would see be­yond the to­kenism of ‘fu­sion mu­sic’ to the deeper meet­ing of East and West that Ravi Shankar spent his life ex­plor­ing. Amit Chaud­huri, whose many nov­els in­clude Af­ter­noon Raag, and a singer and mu­si­cian him­self (who re­leased an al­bum ac­tu­ally called This is Not Fu­sion) seemed like the nat­u­ral choice.

“In fu­sion mu­sic, you tend to throw in a bit of this and a bit of that, and call it ‘fu­sion’,” says Chaud­huri. “Ravi Shankar’s mu­sic con­tains, rather, a rich sense of one tra­di­tion open­ing it­self in a very deep and per­sonal way to an­other tra­di­tion.”

How are we to lis­ten to this new mu­si­cal form? Hear­ing a raag sung by a so­prano is an ini­tially dis­com­fort­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Not quite one thing, nor the other, it’s the mu­si­cal equiv­a­lent of one’s taste buds try­ing to make sense of a com­pletely un­ex­pected flavour. How­ever, 46 years have passed since Shankar’s clas­sic com­ment to the pre­ma­ture applause at the Con­cert for Bangladesh: “Thank you. If you ap­pre­ci­ate the tun­ing so much, I hope you’ll en­joy the play­ing more.” Western au­di­ences th­ese days are used to the sounds of sitar and tabla, whether Philip Glass’s opera Satya­graha, sung in San­skrit, or

Nitin Sawh­ney’s Asian-Bri­tish trip hop. It’s not just to do with in­creas­ing so­phis­ti­ca­tion; it’s just that hy­brid forms are the norm, th­ese days.

Chaud­huri’s li­bretto is also some­thing of a hy­brid. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell the story ‘straight’, as an In­dian fairy­tale or a para­ble in English verse,” he ex­plains. In­stead, he took in­spi­ra­tion from a va­ri­ety of sources—in­clud­ing W.H. Au­den and Shake­speare’s Two Noble Kins­men, a play whose au­thor­ship is it­self dis­puted.

Sukanya is a story from the Ma­hab­harata, so of course there must be shape-shift­ing, mis­taken iden­tity and mag­i­cal meta­mor­phoses. Two young princes, ap­palled that the beau­teous Sukanya is wed­ded to the aged sage, in­vite him to en­ter a mag­i­cal river. He does, and all three of them emerge from the re­ju­ve­nat­ing wa­ters, hand­some and de­li­cious: a tempt­ing iden­tity pa­rade for Sukanya to pick from. In Chaud­huri’s ver­sion, the young princes’ view is pre­sented—a cen­so­ri­ous view of an old man’s “in­ap­pro­pri­ate de­sire” for the young woman. Yet, to go back to Shake­speare, isn’t that just like love? “Love is not love which al­ters when it al­ter­ation finds.” Or as Chaud­huri puts it in his mov­ing obit­u­ary of Shankar in 2012, “de­sire and love on the one hand and mu­sic on the other were not en­tirely sep­a­rate cat­e­gories of ex­pe­ri­ence for Shankar... Love, like mu­sic, en­tailed its own kind of de­mands and pain; and mu­sic, like love, was ev­i­dently a cause for con­stant re­ju­ve­na­tion.”

The Ma­hab­harata is an an­cient text, end­lessly re­birthed in new forms. Ravi Shankar’s opera is just the lat­est in a long line of such rein­car­na­tions. Whether it man­ages to break the so­cial snob­bery as­so­ci­ated with clas­si­cal mu­sic and ap­peal to a wider au­di­ence re­mains to be seen.


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