A recital by Ravi Shankar, master of the sitar, is an intimate ritualistic experience, even when the venue is the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium, and the crowd is at capacity. First, a pair of incense sticks are lit on the stage, their woody scent allowed to waft lazily into the audience. A pair of tamboura players carrying their stringed instruments enter, soon followed by Alla Rakha, the tabla virtuoso, who fine-tunes his drums with a small metal mallet. Shankar at last takes his place across from Rakha, first checking his sitar's intonation, then that of the two tambouras, whose hypnotic drones will underpin all the ragas performed. The four musicians, sitting cross-legged on elegant carpets, are now prepared to play -- perhaps mesmerize -- the eager onlookers with music that is constantly evolving, emotionally gratifying and spiritually uplifting.
The riches of raga, like other brands of spontaneous art, are best appreciated live. Saturday night Shankar, along with his empathetic accompanist Rakha, pulled the expectant audience into their midst, creating a communal atmosphere rare in classical music. They needed only the gentlest of tugs actually, for raga is very much music of the affections. In the course of three extended pieces, the musicians explicitly conveyed feelings of sadness, joy, devotion and humor.
Opening with a raga commemorating the rainy season, Shankar plucked a series of eerie single-string bent notes, an invocation suggesting a group of disjointed, wailing human voices. When Rakha finally joined in, the mood became serene, the textures a bit more complex, but nonetheless transparent.
Rakha, who has a Yoda-like presence about him, took a brief tabla solo, first in response to phrases articulated by Shankar, then in answer to his own sung patterns. Rakha's and Shankar's most brilliant playing occurred in the closing raga, which was much freer than the other works. Elastic rhythms on the tablas met dazzlingly fleet sitar melodies, and built such a head of steam that the audience was literally dragged to its feet in unison.