Review: Anoushka Shankar @ Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (London 4th October 2014)

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Rabindranath Tagore was the most important Bengali artist of the 19th and 20th centuries. He influenced and redefined not only Bengali literature and music, but also theatre and painting. Throughout the decades that bridged the two centuries he became a cultural and political guide for his country. To celebrate the memory of such an influential figure one’s sense of artistry, grace and harmony must be sublime and the setting exceptional. These were the challenges that ‘Celebrating Tagore,’ a series of cultural events marking his 150th anniversary had to deal with since it got underway a few months ago. But when the Globe Theatre invited Anoushka Shankar, the daughter of the unforgotten Ravi Shankar, to curate an Autumn Programme she had no qualms about celebrating the Bengali Master (and first Non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature) and organised a series of four events recalling Tagore’s music and poetic production, his Bengali roots, and the legacy he left to contemporary Indian artists. By doing so Anoushka Shankar not only revealed her deep admiration and respect for Tagore but also the relationship between Tagore and her father.

Arguably the most exciting and moving episode of ‘Celebrating Tagore’ occurred during the last night of the Festival when Anoushka consecrated the show by exploring the Indian classical tradition through a repertoire of raga that she learnt from her father. Surrounded by a scenography as sumptuous as the courtyard of an Indian palace and framed by candles, Anoushka Shankar went on stage accompanied by her sitar, dressed in a refined short-sleeved dark sari, which could not hide the first signs of her pregnancy, nor her unmistakable elegance. She sat in the centre of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage adjacent to the Globe, or as she defined it ‘the most gorgeous living room’, lulling the audience that hung on her every word in adoring silence. She introduced her notable stage-partners, then intoned the “exotic, far from Western scales” raga‘Purvi’. Then the tablas entered, played by Tanmoy Bose (a favourite of her father) and two tanpuras, one in the hands of the Japanese Kenji Ota (another pupil of Ravi Shankar). She entranced the audience with extended musical pieces, their classical Indian forms so unusual still to many European ears.

Throughout the evening, Anoushka used Tagore’s memory as a pretext to celebrate Southern Indian music in general, unfolding the many variations of its erratic nature. With atmospheric pieces and her enchanting presence she figuratively swam across the tiny concert hall, touching everyone’s soul with the graceful sound of her sitar. Her obliging manners and the complicit musical relationship with Tamnoy Bose enlivened what was a serious classical music event.

In little more than an hour the London born artist and her colleagues had paid homage to Tagore, recalled the memory of Ravi Shankar, revived the western audience’s interest in Bengali music and demonstrated the complexity of the centuries old Carnatic tradition. They did it gently, alternating strident passages with gentler moments, such as the raga Charukesi, written by Ravi Shankar for his daughter, and more lighthearted and impromptu sketches when Anouskha and Tamnoy duetted, which were entertaining and funny. However, the highlight was the concluding piece, a raga of the Carnatic tradition, which was the climax of the event. Thanks to the participation of Sanjeev Shankar (another disciple of Ravi Shankar) playing the shehnai (a two reed oboe) and Pirashanna Thevarajah with hismridangam (drum), the twenty-minute long epilogue was unravelled through a series of solos and call-and-response between the musicians. The music enchanted and hypnotised the audience, fulfilling itself with a final standing ovation from the audience.

‘Celebrating Tagore’ couldn’t have been a more appropriate grand finale, a last night during which grace and harmony played together and a night that shone one more light on the cathartic artistry of Anoushka Shankar.

Review by: Marco Canepari
Photos by: Yuval Hen/Deutsche Grammophon

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