"Rainbow Concerto?" I can hear you asking. If you are a knowledgeable music-lover, or (I hope not!) a music critic, you may say "Ravi Shankar never composed anything like that!"
You'd be quite right, of course, for he never composed any work bearing the title Rainbow Concerto. But that's the name I would like to give to his Sitar Concerto No. 2, which he called Raaga-Maala (meaning 'Garland of melodies' in Hindi). It was composed by him specially for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and its glamorous conductor Zubin Mehta, who was one of his greatest admirers.
And what precisely is the reason for my preference? Just read on!
THE HINDU, New Delhi
28 April 1989
It is a compulsive characteristic of the adventurous human spirit that it accepts no achievement as a terminal one. For many decades men had constantly struggled to conquer the Everest. But as soon as some of them had accomplished the fantastic task, others had to start trying to do it without wearing oxygen masks. For centuries men had aspired to fly in the free sky. But after they had learnt how to do it, they had to cross the sound barrier and then to reach out to the moon.
The supremely creative person in the visual and performing arts is a great adventurer. His spirit can recognize no boundaries which would confine his experience within prescribed norms even if he happens to be a seasoned practitioner of traditional art. A superior exponent of classical music may be a trusted custodian of traditional values, but no rules or conventions can really contain his spirit if it trespasses into alien territories.
After setting up unprecedented standards of excellence in playing the violin according to Western norms for more than half a century, Yehudi Menuhin finds a thrill in sitting cross-legged on the floor with Ravi Shankar, willingly accepting the dominance of the sitarist in a novel and intriguing experience which obviously enhances his musical vision. . . .
Beyond the borders
A dessert in a dinner, far from being forbidden, is a desirable element of it. Similarly, while one cannot imagine Western orchestral music being totally invaded by Indian colors, one cannot also object to an earnest partnership between a composer who is a master of Indian music with a desire to explore the mysteries of orchestral sound, and an eminent conductor who offers to command the powerful forces of a Western orchestra to enable the imaginative venture to be fulfilled. It all really depends on who is the composer undertaking such a venture, and who is the conductor aiding him.
And when they happen to be Ravi Shankar and Zubin Mehta, with the sitar maestro featured also as soloist, the resulting music is bound to be electrifying. I am not surprised to hear reports that the European Community Youth Orchestra's current tour, with these twin captains at the helm of the cruise, had attracted delirious responses from music-lovers in Madrid, Rome and London where they had rendered Ravi Shankar's Sitar Concerto No. 2 -- titled 'Raaga-Maala' -- before they performed it in New Delhi last week. Nor am I surprised to see that our own music-lovers have been overwhelmed by the phenomenon.
What a fabulous rainbow does Ravi Shankar reveal to us in this magnificent work! In the first movement he explores the raga Lalit in depth. In the fourth movement he wields a kaleidoscope and shows in flashes the varied shapes and hues of Mian-ki-Malhar, Shyam-Kalyan, Tilakkammod, Bhageshree, Hindol, Bahar, Bihag, Rasia, Pahadi, Sindh Bhairavi, Dhun, Malkhauns, Hamsadhwani, Sudh-Sarang, Jog, Shree, Suha, Kedara....
For a while I wondered whether it was proper for the performers to skip the second and third movements of the composition. But the answer was not difficult to see! In spite of the sensational quality of the Sitar Concerto, it had to be featured only as a lesser fraction of the evening's program, if the orchestra was to retain its own character and credibility. And quite appropriately, there were superb renderings of Beethoven's Leonora Overture No. 3, Ravel's sound-poem La Valse, and Mahler's Symphony No. 1.