Culture

The Shankar family show hits Beiteddine tonight

BEITEDDINE, Chouf Mountains: "'You have tremendous talent but you will never do anything because you are like a papillon,' my guru told me in 1935. 'You are always flitting around, dancing, chasing girls. You are not focused,'" Ravi Shankar tells me amidst the ornately sculptured wood paneling of the magnificent Mir Amin Palace hotel's lounge.

Could guru Baba Allaudin Khan have been more wrong?

Seventy years later, as the sitar maestro and his daughter Anoushka prepare to perform at Lebanon's prestigious Beiteddine International Festival this evening on the second leg of his 85th birthday tour, Shankar has become one of the greatest musicians of modern times, in any genre.

Compared to Mozart by no less a genius than Yehudi Menuhin, revered by the late Beatle George Harrison, and as the man who is the leading light of classical Indian music (and is responsible for bringing it to the West), Shankar has had foundations named after him, has received numerous awards and decorations, and has sired two daughters - both of whom are acknowledged as talents.

From his musical achievements as composer, performer and ambassador of Indian music to passing on the skill that runs in the family, Shankar has without question "done something."

One of his daughters, Norah Jones, has taken the jazz world by storm in recent years. The other, Anoushka Shankar (at 23, the younger of the two), has been learning sitar from her father since the age of 8, released four of her own albums, and is so full of life she looks set to continue his mission of spreading Indian music the world over.

"It was always the obvious choice for my father to teach me," says Anoushka, smiling. "I mean I wanted to do it, of course, and I definitely feel it's a responsibility I want to continue, but it will never be the same. It's all very special."

Her father chuckles and returns to the subject of his guru with much seriousness.

"He was just very old school, old traditions, Allaudin Khan, very zealous in his art and purity, but was just worried that I was less orthodox - which was true.

"Still, after he challenged me I was not happy; I always thought about what he said, and when I was 18 I returned to study with him for seven years."

Today the 85-year-old is spritely and energetic, his facial expressions animated when he talks about everything from his spirituality, his music, his daughters and his annoyance with the hippies of the 1960s.

"My relationship with George (Harrison) from when we met in 1966 was always one of teacher and adviser. We never jammed together.  Not a lot of people know that.  And it was great to be with him because it helped bring all the young people to me.

"But then I would perform and all these hippies would trivialize the music and I lost a lot of people by rejecting that. They thought that our music was pop music and there was all these drugs and obsession with gurus. But I rejected that. And I am glad I stayed true.

"Our music, the classical ragas began as a spiritual thing, because it was taught as an oral tradition and not written down. It is thus improvised and very deep. I am always discovering," Shankar explains.

As we talk I cannot help but notice the immense presence and stature that emanates from this small man and his fundamental sense of calm. That, combined with his wealth of experience and wisdom gained from years of travel and dedication to his art washes over you in waves.

Shankar's choice of weapon, persuasion and spirituality is his sitar, and his language his music - the grip of his hand is firm and one can sense fingers still filled with great power.

The spiritual side of Indian music as much as her father's influence is what drives Anoushka too, which is not surprising, as the system of Indian music known as Raga Sangeet can be traced back nearly 2,000 years to its origin in the Vedic hymns of Hindu temples, the fundamental source of all Indian music.

That spirituality is something all the audiences she has played in front of with her father notice, and which will no doubt be experienced by those lucky enough to be in the grand courtyard of the Emir Beshir Chehab Palace this evening.

"From my father, from my studies, Indian music is just very deep, I hate to say because it sounds so clich?d but it is transcendental," Anoushka says. "When I play, it fills all of me, very Zen and meditative, that's the feeling in the moment when we play in concert.

"The audience reacts and it's magical. That's why I love the stage so much."

I wonder if it's been hard for Anoushka to manage her relationship with her dad, as both daughter and pupil.

"He's always been my dad. I mean as a child we would sit and watch TV and there was so much love, and then we would go into the music room and it would be more serious."

Did she ever feel she was forced into following in her dad's footsteps?

"No. I mean I had the spark; if that wasn't there I wouldn't have done it," she says.

"It was her mother that really pushed for it," interjects Shankar.

"But you know," Anoushka continues, "I have not let music become my whole life. It is always there but I love doing other things, traveling and mainly hanging out with my friends. I want to do more acting after my first film ("Dance Like A Man") and I would like to write some more."

In 2002, her biography of her dad, "Bapi: The Love of My Life," was published to great acclaim.

Between the two there is clearly much love, and it is something that makes their performances together all the more special.

"Now I feel blessed every time I play for anyone," says Ravi Shankar. "At first I enjoyed India the most because you had most of the connoisseurs of the music there."

On the subject of Lebanon, he is simply hugely excited to be here.

"You know, 30 years ago I came to Lebanon and it was such a lovely, amazing place before the trouble happened. I wanted to buy an apartment here."

For a man who has achieved so much, I wonder if there is anything he still wants to do.

"Well, you know I still have visions of opera and ballet, composing for film," he replies.

Since Shankar began his career as a dancer at the age of 10 before picking up the sitar, the question remains: does he still dance?

"Only when no one else can see me. The body doesn't move so well at my age. But I do, I do," he laughs.

Even after all the music and all the concerts - all the traveling - Shankar's greatest legacy, apart from his daughters, may well be the effect he has had on the people he has encountered along the way. Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, for whom Shankar has nothing but respect, named his son after him.

As we near the end of the interview and prepare to take pictures of father and daughter together, the image of familial bonding is touching.

Shankar seems almost like a child as he holds Anoushka round the waist and kisses her head before she says "Bapi, not for the camera." Tonight that bond will manifest itself in music.

For tickets, call +961 1 365174 or +961 1 999666.

 

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