Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ravishankar: Why his sitar gently weeps

The year was 2006 and it was an early morning in the month of September, when the third semester of my undergraduate studies had begun. As the tides of unknown dreams receded, my hearing was reestablishing contact with the outside world. The door percussively clung to the magnetic stopper with a loud thud followed by a thampura ladled voice that floated across the room pecking my brother and I with precious maternal affection cool as morning dew, almost in harmony with Subbulakshmi's Suprabhatam so as not to awaken us with startling apaswara. I rose with a straightened back that was responding to the fragrance of sandalwood. My mother was standing at the door with a towel soaking up her hair, radiant despite the closed curtains. "Yellu Kanna! Ghenta six-thirty aathe!", she cheerfully implored in raaga. "Seri Amma," I agreed using up my kannada vocabulary. Smiling at my brother keeping blind and flailing his arms for more blanket to hide under, she swiveled back into the kitchen to make us idlis, which now that I think about it, varied in texture and taste based on the radio more than randomness. And when there was no electricity, we were treated to Amma's carnatic gymnastics or gamakas. Music permanently bounced off every painted surface in our house with no regard for the sufficient.

I had my own means of addressing my spiritual concerns. I would run up to the rooftop with my mp3 player to listen to Feynman's lectures for a few minutes while the Sun's light lost most of its blue to scattering, painting the horizon with the remaining red as though this filling was a compulsion, much like music filled the house downstairs. But today's playlist was different. I had just independently discovered Ravishankar's albums. This was important, for if Amma had suggested it to me, I would have instantly rejected it, as is characteristic of any professional adolescent. Of course, Ravishankar WAS played at home, but just when I was deliberately inattentive. Now that I was in the driver's seat of MY Magical Mystery Tour, it had to be an eccentric Beatle and not Amma who introduced this material to me. Sounds of India opens with a four minute introduction to Indian music and if my mother had seen the look of naive anticipation on my face - a boy out of mind and time waiting for a chairlift to scoop him off to marmalade skies - she would be miffed. After all, I had been her first student in carnatic music. Though I didn't expect Amma to get that this was a product of 1968. When Jimi Hendrix was reinventing rock with the release of Electric Ladyland. When Eric Clapton's fans challenged the church over who their deity really was. When the Beatles visited India in an attempt to escape western materialism. (Gita Mehta recounts this dichotomy in Eastern and Western perceptions in an interview with Alan Gregg: "When they got off the planes, they were all dressed as Indians, and they didn't sing Rock and Roll, and they were chanting mantras. And to their horror, we were not dressed in saffron! We were wearing jeans and t-shirts with terrible slogans, trying desperately hard to be like them!")

But if my influences were to be superficial and stereotypical, the music certainly felt real. And "if it felt real it must be real," my selective rationalism permitted. How else could these purely instrumental sounds cause my spine to tingle, heart to race and head to throb while carnatic varnams barely aroused a single hair on my back? Why did Sindhi-Bhairavi make me weak at the knees while all Sindhu-Bhairavi reminded me of was the agonizing sitting posture that tightened them? Why did north sound secular but south devotional? There was something else that delineated my musical terrain: Ravishankar was a savage genius and at first I took this too lightly. His mastery was at such an altitude that I couldn't really tell if I could see it or not. Yet it was blissful, far more than ignorance is purported to be. 

I torrented listened to more of this kind of music, gradually resolving the reasons for why the word "genius" must be strictly and exclusively reserved for minds that are incapable of mediocrity. The sitar as pleasant sounding as it is when its strings are struck with the least intention (remember Norwegian wood?), requires a true master to unleash its full potential for euphony, unlike the rhythm guitarist caricatured by Mark Knopfler who "doesn't make his guitar cry or make it sing." The transmission of intense perspicacity from mind to fingers in Ravishankar's case is not very different from a great poet's. I don't mind vandalizing Wodehouse to make my point: "The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G.K. Chesterton Ravishankar falling on a sheet of tin.” Any player of a stringed instrument, at any level, can appreciate the swells,cuts and blisters that come from inescapable practice. However, perfecting the arduous physiological connections and neural pathways are necessary but not sufficient for the true genius. Therein lies his abundant capacity for metaphor; his ability to tap into his and his audience's various synesthesias. Take for instance his "Homage to Mahatma Gandhi". The first track "raaga Mohan Kauns" is a musical expedition following the life of Gandhi; one can picture a young confident lawyer hailing from South Africa saddened by the pestilential British Raj in the opening bass notes, slowly escalating in tenor through the promise of Satyagraha and eventually exploding in a crescendo that captures the sanguinary amputation of India, leaving the listener with a sense of the past which no history book can hope to  convey. And as moist as I tend to become when describing these things, keep in mind that in Indian music, the raaga is the nucleus of the song. It is the auspicious totality of the raaga that scrawls the terms and conditions for every note, vibe, flirtation and detour on the fabric of the song. Mohan Kauns comes from Mohandas and was divined by Ravishankar for the singular purpose of portraying a deified man. My sympathies belong to those who never gave themselves the opportunity to see Indian music in this light. And shame on those who take the numinous hostage in the name of religion.

George Harrison, the quiet Beatle, had started to discern the delusions that come with fame and fortune in the late sixties. Studying the sitar under Ravishankar turned out to be the spiritual resuscitation that he'd secretly longed for. And that infectious grade of moral relativism that is endemic to India gave him a perennial temperature; just listen to "While my guitar gently weeps". It was such a persuasive philosophy that his friendship with Eric Clapton, infamous for philandering with Harrison's wife, survived that tumult. Indeed it had to be Clapton who organized the Concert for George in 2002 at the Royal Albert Hall, where proceedings began by opening with Ravishankar and his devilishly talented daughter Anoushka in an Indian styled orchestra, consecrating the way Harrison would have himself. This music isn't as much of a novelty as it was forty years ago; the opening scene of the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 at Madison Square Garden shows us a younger Ravishankar tuning his instruments only to be rudely hastened by his audience with loud clapping, to which he wittily replies, "If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you enjoy the playing more." By his side on stage was Allah Rakha, another giant of Indian music, who with his tabla vitalized the sounds of the Sitar in cardiac fashion (His son Zakir Hussain magically increased the weight of my lower jaw one night a few years ago). His music touched things before he did as it enveloped his presence everywhere, like atmosphere held by a planet's gravity; his step-daughter Norah Jones has a voice that can lull war to peace. And lets not discount those multicultural concoctions he developed with Philip Glass.

California provides an ample residence to the tired musician, a perk I hadn't factored in when enrolling at USC. The coincidence blessed me however, as I now had the chance to see him perform live, and as I discovered today, his last. I'm filled with an ineradicable hollowness but I'd sound foolish to claim that I wasn't expecting this. My friend and I witnessed his final act at Long beach last month and I remember the momentary lightness of air from a thousand breaths held back at once when he was introduced on stage in a wheel chair carted by his dear wife - with plastic veins running out his wizened nose and an overall terminal countenance of a ninety-two year old that amplified the unease. But once reunited with his sitar, his spell binding notes replenished the air and rarefied it with his own graceful genius, implying that inexplicable immortal character of music. And while the mourning transcends the subcontinent, am I to rejoice that I was one of the fortunate few to revel in his final performance? 

1 comment:

Nikhil Rajagopalan said...

I think you are rather lucky to have seen him perform live. There are some memories that we cherish and I think the fact you were one of the few to witness his talent upfront, before his passing, is something precious and worth holding on to.