They are each seen in their own way as musical bridge builders: Zubin Mehta, who was the first Indian to forge a unique career as a conductor on the international classical music scene, and his fellow countryman Ravi Shankar who, before he died in 2012, taught western audiences to appreciate the beauty and fascination of Indian music. Shankar toured Europe and the USA as a member of his brother’s dance troupe in the 1930s, which gave him a deep understanding of Western musical culture. He decided rather late, at the age of 18, that he wanted to be a professional sitar player, and studied the Asian long-necked lute under the sitar master Allauddin Khan for six years. He later founded the Indian National Orchestra and was music director of All India Radio. However, what established his worldwide fame were his numerous tours of Western countries, his legendary appearance at Woodstock in 1969 and the “Concert for Bangladesh” in New York in 1971, plus his encounters and collaborations with outstanding classical and pop artists: the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the ex-Beatle George Harrison, and the composer Philip Glass. “Music transcends all languages and barriers and is the most beautiful communicative skill one can have. Music makes us all experience different emotions or the Navarasa as we call it.”
“Father of World Music”
As a composer, his intention was always to combine the improvisation-based soundscape of India and its subtle, sophisticated melodies called ragas, with Western music and its polyphonic structure. As such, he was one of the first cross-over artists and is often referred to by many as the “father of world music”. The bringing together of Indian and classical music techniques also characterises his Concerto for sitar and orchestra No. 2 Raga-Mālā, which Shankar was commissioned to write by the New York Philharmonic and their former musical director Zubin Mehta in 1981. Mehta, a long-time artistic and personal friend of Shankar, remembers well the genesis of the work: “Ravi initially played ragas on the sitar, and since he had not mastered Western notation, I wrote everything down. He then worked with our section leaders and wrote out a kind of Indian improvisation.” In this way, a sensuous dialogue between solo instrument and orchestra was created which, to Western ears, sounds strange and familiar at the same time.
At his next guest appearance in Berlin, Mehta performs his friend’s concerto with the Philharmoniker. For classical musicians, it is – says the conductor – an unknown world, so he is pleased that the Berliner Philharmoniker are brave enough to take it on. Soloist Anoushka Shankar, the composer’s daughter, who was born in the year of the concerto’s premiere, began her studies with her father when she was seven years old. Today, she herself is one of the leading sitar players of her time and a worthy heir to Ravi Shankar’s ambitions to combine different musical traditions: “I grew up in three different countries, and the balancing act between Western and Eastern cultures is something that came easily to me,” she says. “That sets me apart from most musicians from India.” But not from Zubin Mehta who, like Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, is a musical cosmopolitan of our time.