I have recently moved back to New York City. I say “moved back” because if you’ve lived in New York once and have left it, you are always expected to come back – for who would leave New York forever?
I lived here first in the mid-1980s, and a few things made me feel prouder in those days than seeing arthouse cinemas showing a Satyajit Ray film, or a Ravi Shankar concert at the Lincoln Center. Shankar had not only built bridges across cultures by performing the sitar in the great concerts halls of the world, he had also created compositions with some of the world’s leading orchestras.
One such was with Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra; the other, the Raga Mala, which he created with Zubin Mehta at the New York Philharmonic. As a student in New Hampshire, I had heard the tune on a cassette. Once I moved to New York, I went one afternoon to the Lincoln Center – you could hear the rehearsals for $3 in those days, and as a student and an intern, that was what I could afford. And I heard Raga Mala.
From the gentle rise of Lalit, which set the mood of something unusual and unprecedented, then Bairagi, in which you see the sitar’s flexibility and virtuosity as it moves from one note to another with serpentine grace, while the rhythm-obsessed western instrumentation can only offer a pale echo.
It is in the third movement, Yaman Kalyan, that the orchestration comes into its own, setting targets for the sitar to follow, like in any good jugalbandi. And then the climax, Miyan ki Malhar, where Shankar and Zubin Mehta blend the harmonies beautifully, bringing the garland of ragas to a magnificent crescendo.
This piece of music has stayed with me for years. It has brought me joy on rainy afternoons in Singapore (where I lived next, for eight years), under gloomy, grey skies in London (the following 20 years) and now, back in New York, during its most stressful period.
Yes, New York had 9/11, another Black Swan moment, but large cities have known the threat of terror. This is an unseen enemy, which could pass from one person to another surreptitiously, and there is so little one can do, other than washing hands and staying clean and away from people. To be in New York and not be able to get out; to listen to the sirens and realise it isn’t cops chasing robbers, but an ambulance rushing to a hospital is, if I may use a British understatement, slightly depressing.
At such a time, Ravi Shankar and Zubin Mehta take me back to a time when my paths seemed full of possibility, the future wide open, and worlds waiting to be conquered. May this music bring you some of that optimism and joy; may we all remain healthy; and may we look at the world again with the inquisitiveness and curiosity of Apu and Durga watching that train from the kash field in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (for which Shankar provided the musical score), looking at the future with wonder, a delight of the unknown. May we all rediscover unknown delights; this too shall pass.
Salil Tripathi is the author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy.
Read other articles in The Art of Solitude series here