Though he doesn’t look much like a typical rock star, at 91, Ravi Shankar could have fooled anyone during his mesmerizing performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Uniquely worthy of the term “living legend,” he first amassed attention outside of his native India after befriending George Harrison in the 1960s, whose enamor with Shankar and the transfixing sounds he produced on the sitar sparked the rise of raga-rock embraced by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things, Jimi Hendrix and many other rock musicians of the time. The venerated sitar master captivated the Los Angeles audience Sept. 29, at long last. One year and two cancellations since the originally scheduled concert, ticketholders grew anxious we’d never see the venerated Indian sitar master — he’s not getting any younger, after all — a fact which also raised questions about what a performance by a nonagenarian would be like. Would his playing be as impressive as in decades past? Could it be?
When Shankar carefully stepped to the stage, cane in hand supporting his withered frame, I could sense the eyebrows around the room creeping up toward the ceiling in speculation. Before taking his seat upon a raised rug in the middle of the stage, Shankar joked, wondering if the audience would still recognize him. “I’ve gained some weight” he said, stroking his new fleecy white beard — which actually did look as if it were the heaviest part of his body.
Once that sitar was within his grip, however, worry about his capability as a performer flew out the window as fast as his lightning-speed jhalas up and down the fretboard.
Joined by impressive tabla players Tanmoy Bose and Samir Chatterjee, a second sitarist Parimal Sadaphal, flutist Ravichandra Kulur, and two additional background performers, Shankar started things off with a slow raga, gradually building into a compelling drone. The second raga took an upbeat approach, which gave Shankar the opportunity to brandish his formidable chops with rapid-pulse displays on the sitar. An interlude featuring both tabla players displayed a frenzied and wildly impressive back-and-forth drum and vocal exchange leaving the two, and the audience, breathless. The final raga, lasting an impressive half an hour, featured a dramatically enlivened Shankar. Working his way around the instrument like a man decades his junior, he kicked his feet as he played the buoyant melodies, holding fast to his renown as an incomparable sitar master.
As Shankar took his final bow, a surprise guest took to the stage. With her beaming eyes and enraptured smile, Suki — Shankar’s waggy tailed white maltipoo — exuded the delight we all felt after the performance, a perfect embodiment of the evening.