September 24th, 2000 marks the first time I saw the great Ravi Shankar (1920-2012). I saw this as a rare chance to attend a performance by the sitar master, a man who has been known to sell tickets a full three years before the show date, and a man revered by one of the world’s most populous nations (and Beatlemaniacs alike), many of which would be quick to snap up any and all available tickets when a Ravi show came to town.
By this time I was well versed in obtaining tickets, using an atomic clock to signal onsale times, using computer and phone simultaneously, and I was not yet above arriving at the box office as early as 5am. Whatever method I used I had a ticket to this show and I was excited.
It’s not like I walk around humming Ravi Shankar tunes or anything, but from the first time I heard a raga I was hooked on the timeless, buzzy sound of the sitar, tablas, and tamboura. The music sounded so new and so old to me at the same time and for a while I listened to every raga I could get my hands on incessantly. Which, of course, exposed me to my fair share of Ravi Shankar.
For this show Ravi was joined by his daughter Anoushka, a pretty talented sitar plucker herself. (Ravi also has another well-known female offspring in the form of Norah Jones, mothered by one of Shankar’s many concubines and as such generally ignored by her father – of course she was nowhere in sight on this night.) It was a droning overtone fiesta, a feast of atonal bends and slides pushed on by millions of finger-tapped woomps and slaps from the tablas.
My eyes were closed half the time as I swept myself to Indian mountains and vistas I’ve never seen. When I opened my eyes I was pleased to see the Indian audience members tapping along with the complex rhythms, as the crowds that attend ragas are expected by the musicians to understand the intricacies of the music and keep time with a series of palm-up/palm-down quiet hand claps. It’s so very civilized, and lends much credence to the skills of the musicians.
When my eyes finally opened for good at the end of the night my ears were full. They had absorbed slow melismatic notes that lasted for long, drawn out minutes and flurries of a thousand sounds at a time at the hands of two (count ‘em, two) seriously good sitar players. I walked out of the theatre quietly and serenely, having experienced a spa day for the senses.