Lack of incense was an issue at Symphony Hall on Sunday. House rules, Ravi Shankar complained, denied him the aromatic wafts that inspire his playing. Still, the 85-year-old sitar maestro delivered a typically soaring performance to a rapt full house, with a depth and coherence that the evening's Festival of India lacked at the start.
Backed by daughter Anoushka on sitar and Tanmoy Bose on tabla, Shankar began with Maru Bihag, a classic raga of the late evening. He explored its poignant, emotional themes during the alap (unstructured first phase) with infinite grace. If anything, the accompaniment set in too soon, rushing a raga that needs time to unfold.
Mishra Piloo, a lighter raga associated with afternoon but versatile enough for any time, was the show's creative zenith. A brief but exquisitely pretty alap led to an exhilarating rhythmic portion that found Shankar and Bose operating in perfect, playful complicity.
The second sitar role, which provides counterpoint and repetition, suited Anoushka, whose slightly heavy touch limits her impact as a classical soloist. Her other line of work, in border-crossing world music and electronica, is the more exciting.
Earlier, Shankar sat out the first set while Anoushka and 10 others played his compositions in a light classical vein. The group featured instruments from the North Indian tradition, such as the sarod and shehnai, and from the Carnatic, or southern tradition, such as the violin and mridangam drum.
Such large ensembles are rare in Indian classical performance, which privileges patient thematic development by a principal instrument with tonal and rhythmic support. Here, the musicians were reduced to taking solos in turn and reuniting in group harmonies that felt chaotic and loud.
The effect was that of a gaudy wedding where the father of the bride has hired a surfeit of musicians without concern for how they will mesh.
Behind this sort of program often lurks a concern with keeping the music simple and brief enough to accommodate western ears. But a cosmopolitan, curious audience -- let alone the numerous Indians present -- need not be spoon-fed. In India, a concert so stacked in talent would run from dusk until dawn. Promoters, take note.