Ravi Shankar Centenary at the South Bank Centre review: a rare and thrilling celebration

Sukanya Shankar hosted the event  (Pete Woodhead)
Sukanya Shankar hosted the event (Pete Woodhead)

The most surprising moment of this extraordinary concert was Sukanya Shankar, wife of Ravi Shankar, singing a duet with Dhani Harrison, son of George Harrison. The performed I Am Missing You, a hippy love song to Krishna written by Ravi Shankar in 1974. It shows that The Beatles had influenced him as much as the other way round.

Sukanya said this concert would be her first and last time on stage, but she and daughter Anoushka co-hosted this gathering of illustrious friends and disciples to celebrate Ravi Shankar, the most influential of India’s musicians, who died aged 92 in 2012. It was first planned for his centenary in April 2020, but delayed twice because of Coronavirus. Sukanya was the familial hostess with Anoushka attending to the musical duties, and clearly enjoying directing over 20 musicians and playing super-slick sitar as well.

Indian classical music is usually performed by a soloist with percussion, but one of Ravi Shankar’s innovations was to create music for ensembles of Indian musicians in All India Radio and subsequent theatrical shows. This was the focus of the performance.

 (Pete Woodhead)
(Pete Woodhead)

The pieces also reflected the diverse repertoires in which he worked. With Western classical musicians, Raga Palas Kafi, for Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and Anoushka Shankar, was played by cellist Barry Phillips and Anoushka with Ravichandra Kulur on the surprisingly pervasive bamboo flute part. Jaane Kaise Sapnon Mein, a lively song originally performed by Bollywood’s Lata Mangeshkar reflected Ravi Shankar’s film work. Sukanya told us that Lata - a legend in Indian playback music who died last month - used to sing to Ravi down the phone every week during his last months. Nitin Sawhney, another illustrious guest, performed River Pulse, also inspired by Ravi Shankar’s film music, a thrilling track featuring fizzing riffs on Nitin’s guitar and Anoushka’s sitar.

The final special guest was jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, leader of New York’s Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1970s and ‘80s. Anoushka played lithe sitar melodies, alternating with jangling percussive effects that sounded like cymbal clashes, while McLaughlin’s mellow electric guitar created a beautiful sonic dialogue. This is music that doesn’t sound like fusion, but something pre-fused and natural, because the musicians are so familiar with each others’ styles.

It’s rare to get a line up like this in one place and rarer still to get a talent like Ravi Shankar. As Anoushka said, “it’s lovely getting to bask in this music again with all these musicians on stage.”

Then there was a slightly surreal postlude as dancers came into the hall for a prayerful send off with petals falling from the roof, dimmed lights and illuminated candles. Spiritual or kitsch? Hard to say.

Royal Festival Hall