Ravi Shankar - Sitaring on top of the world


If Ravi Shankar had continued to concentrate on the talent that first brought him to the attention of a world-wide audience, this legend of Indian culture might be appearing in Edinburgh International Festival 2011’s dance programme rather than under the music banner.


Except that, at ninety-one, Shankar suspects that such physical performances might now be beyond him. Besides, had he not decided to focus on the sitar in his teens, he would almost certainly have missed out on two of his most cherished friendships – with Beatle George Harrison and saxophonist John Coltrane, both of whom became Shankar’s disciples, taking lessons from him in the mid 1960s, and in Harrison’s case particularly, opened doors that led to the wider appreciation of Shankar’s music and the tradition that nurtured him.


“George was like my son and my brother,” says Shankar. “I loved him and miss him so much. You know, it’s forty years ago this year since the concert for Bangladesh took place in Madison Square Garden in New York, and for one day the whole world got to know about that state and the troubles its people were facing. The concert was my idea but it was George who made it happen, got all these big stars like Bob Dylan involved, and he made me feel very proud.”


Speaking to Shankar on his mobile phone only emphasises the changes that he has seen in his long and very eventful life. The city of Benares, or Varanasi as it had been before the British occupation of India, where he was born in 1920 and spent his early years, was virtually unchanged in two thousand years. Apart from a few cars and other modern trappings, he remembers it as an ancient city. Music was all around. From the big houses of the maharajas, he remembers hearing the shahnai players undertaking their strict duties of playing ragas six times a day. His mother also used to sing to him and tell him stories so vividly that he could see them in his imagination.


A real adventure story was about to unfold, however. When the young Ravi was ten, his older brother Uday came and set out his plans for a touring troupe of musicians and dancers who would present Indian culture to the world. Already showing an aptitude for dancing, Ravi was included and he and his mother set off for Uday’s base in Paris, travelling by train to Bombay, where Ravi, a life-long film fan, saw his first “talkie” and where they boarded the SS Ganges (“it was like a floating city,” he remembers) for Brindisi, in Italy.


“For a young boy of ten back then, this was a fantastic journey,” says Shankar, “but when we went on to Paris via Venice, it just got better.”


In Paris he would meet Henry Miller, Cole Porter and Andres Segovia, among many other illustrious names, and when Uday’s troupe followed tours all across Europe in the early 1930s with trips to America, the apparently very cute Ravi was almost adopted by the Academy Award-winning actress Marie Dressler – his brothers refused, much to his disappointment – and found his dancing and choreography praised in the New York Times.


All this might have gone to a teenager’s head but when the great sarod master Ustad Baba Allaudin Khan joined the troupe, he gave Ravi some advice that kept his feet on the ground.


“I’d been playing various instruments, as well as dancing, in the troupe and Baba said to me, ‘If you keep doing all these different things, you’ll become a jack of all trades and a master of none.’ I’d been getting more and more interested in Indian classical music with Baba around. So when the Second World War broke out, my brother disbanded the troupe and I went back to India and decided to focus on the sitar,” he says.


This was no light undertaking. There followed years of study, rising at four in the morning to practise and continuing for between fourteen and sixteen hours a day. For someone who had been, he readily admits, totally spoiled as a touring performer with his brother, such a rigorous regime was hard. Fortunately, though, he had the strength of mind to continue and in 1956, having made his reputation in India through concerts, radio and film soundtrack work, he left for the west again.


“Having toured with the troupe in my teens, I knew how to explain this music to people and how to present it in a way that would appeal to them, even if – or especially if – they’d never heard it before.”


Shankar was already a much respected artist and teacher when he was adopted by the burgeoning rock music scene in the 1960s after me met George Harrison. Championed by Yehudi Menuhin, who was always alert to master musicians whatever their genre, he’d recorded his first album, for HMV in London, barely a year after leaving India and his arrival in America soon after that had coincided with an increasing interest among record labels such as Elektra and Columbia in what we now know as world music.


His appearances at festivals including Monterey Pop and Woodstock, however, gave him star status among young audiences, even if he wasn’t at one with some of the goings on at these events. Although he loved Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Otis Redding and the Grateful Dead, he was famously unimpressed with Jimi Hendrix, a musician he admired for his virtuosity, when he began, as Shankar recalls it, making love to his guitar before setting it alight. For a musician from a culture that has deep feelings of respect for its musical instruments, Hendrix and The Who, with their demolition tendencies, went beyond the pale.


“That era was a big boom for me and I was happy to be part of it,” he says. “But seeing people destroying their instruments was the limit for me. I also had to be a little strict with audiences in those days. I objected to their smoking and drug taking while I was performing because it was disrespectful to the music. So I had to put my foot down and tell them from the stage not to do that.”


Shankar’s recollections of John Coltrane, who named his son Ravi after the sitarist, are, he says, all too short. “We met in the winter of 1964-65 and we had three or four sessions where I would demonstrate ragas and talas with my voice and sitar and he would ask questions and write down a few notes. Then we fixed a date when he was going to cancel all his concerts and come to Los Angeles and study properly but he sadly he died before then.”


Teaching and passing on his tradition, he says, gives him enormous pleasure, especially knowing that his disciples will carry on the music. He’s particularly proud of his daughter Anoushka being one of his best students. His other daughter, of course, is pop singer Nora Jones, of whom he’s also very proud - he describes the two women as “like my eyes.”


These days the marathon practise sessions are behind him but he still plays every day for about an hour. “I usually play in the morning but if I miss my practice for whatever reason, I’ll make sure that I play later in the day,” he says. “It keeps my fingers supple. But also I can’t be without it. I love it so much. It’s my life.”


From The Herald, August 10, 2011.


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