Ravi Shankar, Barbican Hall, London

Hushed awe as the master bows out on a high note

Lisa Markwell
Sunday 08 June 2008 00:00
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The atmosphere at the Barbican Hall on Wednesday was one of hushed reverence ... and slight trepidation. Ravi Shankar, right, had cancelled the five preceding shows of his Farewell to Europe tour and, when he didn't appear on stage with the rest of his ensemble, one could almost hear the audience thinking, "Is he not going to come on?"

The artist could be forgiven for simply being too tired. He is, you see, 88 years old and not expected to visit Britain again. The queue for returns confirmed that Shankar has many fans here determined not to miss the chance to hear the sitar player who has been so influential for so many decades.

His daughter Anoushka, herself a talented sitarist, began the concert accompanied by flautist Ravichandra Kulur and two drone stringed instruments. Her ragas had something of the contemporary about them, and the flute playing was hypnotic. Despite the languorous structure of each raga, it was impossible not to be drawn into the music.

The interval came and went – still no Shankar. But then the auditorium fell properly silent. The master, who has worked with everyone from John Coltrane to the Beatles, was led on to a low podium. This frail figure in sweet white ankle socks didn't seem capable of commanding the vast space, and his first few strokes seemed hesitant. But, with the slow, solid backing of his daughter, the first raga grew stronger and more lyrical with every moment.

Shankar began the penultimate raga, "Bihar", with an explanation of its 10-and-a-half beat rhythm which served to impress and confound us further. His veteran tabla player Tanmoy Bose made small hand gestures on the beat until the tempo quickened and he joined in. It felt at once familiar and exotic – a lyrical journey that ended all too soon.

Shankar's final piece lasted for 40 glorious minutes and by then his playing was urgent and powerful. Although he had proclaimed earlier that he hoped this London concert was "not the final, but the semi-final", as he stood to take the standing ovation he seemed exhausted, once more the frail old man. It would be an enormous shame if he does not appear again, but everyone in the Barbican Hall could be happy in the knowledge that they had seen a master still with power at his fingertips.

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