The Ravi Shankar Collection

Label: EMI Classics
PRIce: Rs 1,995
rating ****

This happened approximately 57 years ago. According to Andrew Robinson, author of the book Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye: The Biography of a Master Film-Maker, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar watched about half of Pather Panchali before beginning work on the soundtrack. The half he saw was a rough edit, but he found it inspiring enough to compose a tune based on a folk song, to be played on a flute and used as a motif throughout the film. The result — along with two pieces for sitar based on the ragas Todi and Desh — was considered one of the greatest scores of our time.

Improvisations on the theme music from Pather Panchali find themselves on Disc Five of this gorgeous 10-CD collection from EMI Classics. This critic suggests you begin your exploration of the maestro’s oeuvre at that point. It finds Ravi Shankar at his playful best, starting out with a call-and-response (the traditional sawaal-javaab) featuring sitar and flute, moving into the sort of improvisation that made him such a huge figure in the West in the seventies, before closing with a traditional raga. It is, for lack of a better analogy, like being taken on an unpredictable ride with no idea of what your destination could be.

There are a number of things about this collection that deserve praise. At a superficial level, there’s the quality of packaging. Given how thoughtfully it has been priced also makes it a fantastic gift idea. Far more important though is the quality of sound, the mastering (presumably underappreciated unless played on audiophile equipment) and sheer breadth of work covered. It’s the sort of collection that dispenses with the need for a review altogether.

What one gets, in effect, is approximately 11 hours of music culled from a reported 56 studio albums and innumerable concert appearances. It’s a body of work guaranteed to exhaust one with its sheer vitality, more so because all we receive here is a mere glimpse. Spread across the CDs is everything from Raga Khamaj (remember Tere Mere Milan ki Raina from the film Abhimaan?) and Raga Puriya Kalyan to the exhilarating Indo-Japan Finale and Raga Bhimpalasi, which is to be played in the late afternoon. What one is left with is immense respect for the sheer range of experimentation on display, along with collaborations with some of the world’s most revered musicians.

To be honest, listening to this at a stretch can be overwhelming, especially for folk like yours truly who are thoroughly unschooled in Hindustani classical music. That the collection still manages to bring to mind the fact that Shankar once considered taking up dancing as a career is a testament of his ability to conjure joy via his instrument.

It all ends with Raga Bhupal Todi, traditionally played in the early morning. If you haven’t immersed yourself in the music of Ravi Shankar before, the loss is undoubtedly yours alone. If you have, this review is irrelevant and ought to be cast away at once. 

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