When Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away in December 2010, writers and musicians the world over struggled to convey just how great a contribution he had made. His friend and collaborator, the avant garde composer Philip Glass, put it succinctly: “It may be hard to imagine that one person through the force of his talent, energy and musical personality could have almost singlehandedly altered the course of contemporary music in its broadest sense. But that is actually and simply what happened.”
Ravi Shankar was a tireless innovator, constantly pushing the boundaries of his art and experimenting with form. As well as Philip Glass, his music enriched and was enriched by other artists, most famously in the West, the likes of George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin, and John Coltrane. In his eighties, at a time when most people would be resting on their (in his case, considerable) laurels, Ravi Shankar set sail on a new adventure. He began work on an opera, based on the story from the Mahabharata of Chyavana, a great sage who meditated so long and so stilly that the forest ants built their hill around him until he was completely engulfed. Out walking in the forest one day, a beautiful princess, Sukanya, comes upon the anthill. Mistaking the sage’s eyes for glow-worms buried in the mound, she pierces them with thorns. Blinded, Chyavana emerges from his austerities and demands Sukanya’s hand in marriage. She agrees and they live together happily.
Perhaps Shankar was drawn to this story, with its central theme of love between an older man and a younger woman, because his wife, whose name is also Sukanya, was considerably younger than he. Perhaps he wanted this as his ‘swan song’ – an operatic offering to his beloved wife. He began work on it in the mid-1990s, but large parts still lay incomplete when he passed away.
Sukanya Shankar says that he had told her that he was confident that their daughter Anoushka would complete his work if he didn’t manage to. “I think he would be very happy to know that his works are in safe hands,” she says.
Anoushka Shankar seems to have inherited not only her father’s musical DNA but his lively disregard for rigid convention. In an echo of Philip Glass’s words about her father, fellow musician Nitin Sawhney once wrote that “no one embodies the spirit of innovation and experimentation more evidently than Anoushka.” Working with Ravi Shankar’s extensive notes and sketches, she and conductor David Murphy, finished working on the score – for a full philharmonic orchestra plus classical Indian instruments – but they needed someone to write the words. They needed someone who would see beyond the tokenism of ‘fusion music’ to the deeper meeting of East and West that Ravi Shankar spent his life exploring. Amit Chaudhuri, whose many novels include Afternoon Raag, and a singer and musician himself (who released an album actually called ‘This is Not Fusion’) seemed like the natural choice.
“In fusion music, you tend to throw in a bit of this and a bit of that, and call it ‘fusion’. Ravi Shankar’s music contains, rather, a rich sense of one tradition opening itself in a very deep and personal way to another tradition that one has encountered and been changed by.”
How are we to listen to this new musical form? Hearing a raag sung by a soprano is an initially discomforting experience. Not quite one thing, nor the other, it’s the musical equivalent of one’s tastebuds trying to make sense of a completely unexpected flavour. However, 46 years have passed since Shankar’s classic comment to the premature applause at the Concert for Bangladesh: “Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the playing more.” Western audiences these days are used to the sounds of sitar and tabla, whether Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha, sung in Sanskrit, or Nitin Sawhney’s Asian-British trip hop. It’s not just to do with increasing sophistication; it’s just that hybrid forms are the norm, these days – everything’s a little bit mixed.
Chaudhuri’s libretto is also something of a hybrid. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell the story ‘straight’, as an Indian fairytale or a parable in English verse,” he explains. Instead, he took inspiration from a variety of sources – including W.H. Auden and Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen, a play whose authorship is itself disputed.
Sukanya is a story from the Mahabharata, so of course there must be shape-shifting, mistaken identity and magical metamorphoses. Two young princes, appalled that the beauteous Sukanya is wedded to the aged sage, invite him to enter a magical river. He does, and all three of them emerge from the rejuvenating waters, handsome and delicious: a tempting identity parade for Sukanya to pick from. In Chaudhuri’s version, the young princes’ view is presented – a censorious view of an old man’s “inappropriate desire” for the young woman. Yet, to go back to Shakespeare, isn’t that just like love? “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” Or as Chaudhuri puts it in his moving obituary of Shankar in 2012, “desire and love on the one hand and music on the other were not entirely separate categories of experience for Shankar… Love, like music, entailed its own kind of demands and pain; and music, like love, was evidently a cause for constant rejuvenation.”
The Mahabharata itself is an ancient text constantly made young, birthed in new shapes and changed forms. Ravi Shankar’s opera is just the latest in long line of such reincarnations. Whether it manages to break the social snobbery associated with classical music and, especially, opera and appeal to a wider audience remains to be seen.
India Today 27.4.17