Purcell Sessions Anoushka Shankar
4 December 2019
Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London
Reviewed by Ken Hunt
Photo: © Santosh Dass/Swing 51 Archives
The Southbank Centre’s December 2019 brochure was skimpy on detail about Anoushka Shankar’s Purcell Sessions residency. In eleven words, it distilled three consecutive evenings down to: “In a new collaboration, this genre-defying sitarist presents never-before-heard works”. This is a review of the middle gig in the Southbank’s intimate 295-seat venue. She made it homelier still.
Looking at the stage set-up before show time with its large central divan straightaway started me free associating with Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan (‘West-Eastern Diwan’). That book has nothing to do with furniture, though. It is a diwan or collection of lyrical poems but the décor stimulated my wordplay glands. Anoushka Shankar’s return to the London stage came after no little adversity in her recent life. Maybe she needed the psychological boost of familiar objects around her… Like the light fixtures from home, she explained. (Their designer Martha was in the Wednesday audience.) Maybe it was like a subconscious echo or evocation of the way Indo-Pakistani musicians and rasikas or music connoisseurs transplanted and re-enacted the house recital scene in Delhi or Lahore to London, Leicester or Berkeley. Name musicians used to give private, intimate recitals in private homes. For example, in the pre-sitary boom years, Michael Davis wrote a superb, eyes-widening-open piece about this in The Observer entitled ‘The Music of Kings in Belsize Park’ about a private Ali Akbar Khan sarod recital. Two decades on, I sat in London living rooms in front of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Lakshmi Shankar.
Accompanied by, sticking to their main roles, Nina Harries (double-bass, backing vocals), Danny Keane (cello, piano) Alev Lenz (vocals, tanpura, piano), Pirashanna Thevarajah (mridangam, kanjira, ghatam and morsing) and Nicki Wells (vocals), the ensemble opened with the instrumental ‘Voice of the Moon’ set in the Hindustani-assimilated southern rāgam Kirwani from her 2005 album Rise. Its sitar-cello interplay with Keane summoned memories of Anoushka Shankar’s father’s groundbreaking West Meets East project with Yehudi Menuhin where the violinist sight-read his improvisations to, within limitations, Ravi Shankar’s more spontaneous sitar vocalisations. Sitar is a female voice and sarod is a male voice. Here sitar and cello also recalled her father and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan female and male musical dialogues. That said, free associating does give free rein to the imagination…
Next, in this living room atmosphere things turned dark. I happen to like dark. Like the way Tom Waits de-Disneyfies ‘Heigh Ho’ from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Or Leonard Cohen kisses Death on Thanks For The Dance. Sticking to the songwriter’s mantra of ‘Keep it simple’, the very raw ‘Bright Eyes’ to bowed double-bass and bowed cello introduced the evening’s presiding theme of pain. It is a call or cry to an erstwhile lover: “Will you call her bright eyes, too?” ‘Lovable’ continued in a similar vein with “Am I still loveable if you stop loving me?” Turning to pain of another kind the sextet performed the first of three pieces from what I consider her non-classical masterwork: her 2014 album Land of Gold. It explores themes of migration and the plight of migrants. The sextet’s rendition of its instrumental ‘Boat To Nowhere’ re-examined it afresh quite differently from previous recorded and live versions. For example, Pirashanna Thevarajah’s hand percussion – an almost click track section followed by miked kanjira (small hand drum) – against bowed cello had the wow factor.
Another portent of Love Letters, Anoushka Shankar’s 2020 album, was ‘Sister Susanna’. She read aloud a twelve-point (bullet point) description of wifely duties (“There are others” was a late arrival) like she was reading a party-of-the-first-part contract. “Don’t give me a hard time about work”, “When I am staying away for work…” and “Be present…” are examples. Such was the piece’s intensity my notes end where it started with Keane creating a sound effect by rubbing the cello’s soundboard with his right hand and Thevarajah reflecting that by rubbing the kanjira’s drumhead. Having caught the Land of Gold suite with Alev Lenz as a pre-recorded vocal track twice, finally getting to see Lenz sing her lyrics to ‘Land of Gold’ was lovely. That repeated outro line, “Tell them I walked…” gained added traction. Before the next to last piece Lenz coaxed something out of Shankar. It was something she had said the first night of the Purcell Sessions which had caught her ear. It went, “Sometimes lyrics last longer than romances…” It set the scene for Nicki Wells singing another new song with the lines: “Turning my face to your sunshine/And drinking you in.” For Anoushka Shankar, the evening marked an inspiring return to the London fray. Its scenarios wouldn’t have been out of place on any of the nearby National Theatre stages.