GREG HAYMES Staff writer
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B9

Date: Friday, October 1, 1999

It was almost inaudible when it began, as quiet as the hum of an insect's wings. Slowly, deliberately, decibel by decibel, the sound grew louder. The tempo grew faster, more frantic. Tension, emotion and drama built to a climax. It became a swirling, all-encompassing roar, something akin to jet plane at takeoff.

Ravi Shankar was sitting in the spotlight, his sitar resting on his left foot as his arms tenderly embraced the instrument like a lover. Shankar, of course, is the master of the sitar. He is also an indefatigable composer and performer, a teacher, a writer and India's most esteemed musical ambassador. For more than a half-century, he has been a bold pioneer, not only bringing the music of the East to the West, but also bridging the worlds of classical and pop music.

Ravi Shankar was the king of world music before the music marketing folks had even conjured up the label, collaborating with everyone from the Beatles' George Harrison to violin vituoso Yehudi Menuhin and performing everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the original Woodstock festival in 1969.

At the age of 79, Shankar is in the twilight of his years, and although the power and majesty of his playing seems only slightly diminished, his live performances are all too infrequent these days.

So it was a very rare and special treat, indeed, to watch and hear a true master at work in concert at the Calvin Theatre in Northhampton, Mass., on Wednesday evening. He had originally been slated to perform there back in May, but the concert was postponed due to illness. And Wednesday's concert began about 45 minutes late, after a transportation snafu caused a delay in his arrival. But all within earshot knew that it was worth the wait.

Shankar ambled out onto the stage as a small, unassuming man dressed all in white. His hair was gray, but he almost seemed to radiate light, a beatific presence. The crowd -- a delightfully diverse, multicultural, multigenerational gathering of more than 1,000 -- leapt to its feet in applause.

He sat center stage on the large oriental rug. Incense wafted through the theater. The audience fell into a reverent hush. And he began to play, alone at first and then later accompanied by a five-piece ensemble that included two tabla drummers, two tambura players and his 18-year-old daughter, sitarist Anoushka Shankar, who also opened the concert with a 45-minute performance of her own.

``I happen to be her grandfather's son,'' the elder Shanakar joked.

Shankar opened his 50-minute performance with a tribute to Mahatma Ghandi, a lengthy, mournful dirge which he composed 51 years ago upon the occasion of Ghandi's death.

And Shankar closed his concert with a complex, almost symphonic evening raga in three parts, opening in medium tempo and building speed throughout each of the successive segments. The piece stretched out over 30 minutes, Shankar cuing in the other musicians with a tap of his foot and setting the tempo with a wave of his arm. Amid a thunderous standing ovation, Shankar simply stood, smiled and bowed deeply. The respect and admiration was clearly mutual.