Anoushka's augmented reality: क्या बात है
Indian fusion finale to wrap up Chan Centre season
For his Vaishnavite devotions, we learn from the Brhaddharma Purana, the sage Narada was vouchsafed a heavenly dream in which he met the personified ragas of Indian classical music – all 84 of them (six Daddy ragas, 30 Mommies and their 48 offspring). Exquisite beings, but hideously maimed, one and all – lame, twisted, leprous or somehow truncated.
In pity and horror, the sage demanded what had done this to them. It was the mutilative performances of generations of imperfect, mortal musicians and wouldn’t be rectified until Lord Siva Himself returned to render the ragas in their full purity.
But that was then, back in Vedic prehistory. Now, in our Age of Prosthesis, no need to wait upon the Natraj; we can borrow from the whole panoply of World Music or turn to technology to gloss over innate limitations of any given genre.
The resulting fusion is a chimerical cyborg music, neither fish nor fowl, but appetizing in its own way, at least judging from the reaction of the packed crowd at Anoushka Shankar’s return engagement here to wrap up the Chan Centre’s 2018-2019 season.
It helps that she is young (38), charming, soignée, and technically impeccable. Plus, she’s the linear descendant and principal student of legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar, himself a fusion pioneer with the likes of Beatle George Harrison or Western violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin.
Indian fusion music seems to share with Indian fusion cuisine a penchant for “gravy” – a richer, creamier texture than its source ingredients, achieved by stirring in some sort of thickening agent. The particular roux added to Anoushka’s appearance here was British cellist/pianist Danny Keane.
His bowed accompaniment and arpeggiated swoops helped smooth some of the janglier sitar riffs, although occasionally muddying a tour de force. More to the point, I felt, were his rare pizzicato interpolations and even more so his solo piano improvisations.
Ravi Kulur’s alto and soprano bansuri flutes provided a usefully acerbic counterpoint to cut the gravy of the intermittently turgid fusion flux. In duet dialogues with Anoushka he more than held his own. Their flute-and-sitar rendition of Voices of the Moon, for instance, struck me as much more sensitive than the lilting, lisping santoor-and-sitar version on Anoushka’s Reflections album.
A highlight of the evening was another selection from the same album that had originally featured Shankar’s half-sister, Nora Jones. We didn’t get to hear the legendary jazz singer in person at the Chan Centre (if only…Chan management take note), but Anoushka managed to wring out of her sitar a hauntingly credible simulacrum of a darkly bluesey human voice.
The most crowd-pleasing jugulbandhi (duets) of the evening, though, were between the two percussionists, Hindustani (North Indian) ustaad Ojas Adhiya and Carnatic (South Indian) pandit Pirashanna Thevaraja. Much of the time they confined themselves to self-effacing support of the instrumentalists, but when cut free for drum solos they soared to dizzying heights in their frenzy to outdo (or compliment) each other.
Thevaraja had at his disposal a whole range of sound textures: a full-throated, double-headed mridangam drum, the hollow resonance of a clay-pot ghatam and the Jews’ harp twang of a metallic moorsing. Adhiya, on the other hand, had only the two drums of his tabla set, his dayan and bāyāñ. But from these he could ring such a range of tonalities that it sometimes seemed as much a melodic as a rhythmic instrument.
Still, in the rows around me at the Chan Centre I noticed several attendees subliminally counting taal, the compound rhythms of Indian classical music apace with the performers onstage. Sage Narada would have been gratified – a more meaningful endorsement than the by-now-almost-rote standing ovation at the end of just about every Canadian concert.