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Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar

Today’s guest post comes from blogger CultHorror.

At the age of 92, the internationally renowned composer and sitar maestro Ravi Shankar died today (12/12/12) in hospital, near to his home in California. Arguably he represents perhaps the most important single figure in the rise of World Music and his association with The Beatles and the hippy movement has ensured his enduring place in cultural and musical history.

Born in Benares in 1920 to a high caste Brahmin family, Ravi Shankar’s life was from the very start closely associated with the performing arts. With an absent father whom he did not meet until he was eight years old, Ravi’s early years were shaped significantly by his older brother Uday who became a feted dance artist in Europe and America during the 1920s following a series of collaborations with Anna Pavlova. In 1930, at the tender age of 10 Ravi travelled to Paris with Uday’s dance troupe, beginning the first of many trips abroad to both Europe and the USA. Whilst visiting the USA the young Ravi was exposed to the brightest lights of the entertainment world, visiting the Cotton Club on several occasions and meeting such luminaries of the film world as Clark Gable and Joan Crawford.

It was not until 1934 that Shankar first began to learn the sitar when he was accepted as a pupil by Alluaddin Ali Khan and in 1938, Ravi moved to Maihur to be closer to his guru and studied there for seven years. During the 1940s Ravi Shankar worked successfully as both a musician and composer for All India Radio and worked in areas as diverse as ballet and film. In the 1950s he enjoyed a long association with celebrated Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, for whom he contributed some four film scores, including that for the internationally acclaimed Pather Panchali (1955), which won Shankar the Best Film Music Director of the Year award at the 1957 Berlin Film Festival (a year later he went on to win a BAFTA with his score for the Canadian short film A Chair’s Tale).

It was during the 1950s that Shankar started touring both Europe and the USA as a sitar player, which marked the beginning of his life-long attempt to bring Indian classical music to a global audience. Key to this development was Ravi’s association with Louis de San; a minister at the Belgian embassy in Delhi, where the musician performed a series of sitar recitals to a largely Western audience. It was at such events that Shankar developed his combination of performance and explanation; his desire to educate as well as play for non-Indian audiences subsequently became a central pivot of his international career. In 1957, EMI released the first of Shankar’s recordings to a Western audience and Ravi Shankar Plays Three Ragas became the first of several albums to be released that year marking the beginning of his international recording success.

Ravi Shankar and Menuhin

The 1960s is undoubtedly the decade that Ravi Shankar will always be most associated when his international profile skyrocketed. This period represents the beginning of a number of attempts to fuse or combine elements of Indian classical music with a range of Western styles. The first of these collaborative projects was undertaken in Los Angeles in 1961, when Shankar alongside other Indian classical musicians played together with various noteworthy jazz artists, including celebrated flautist, Bud Shank. In 1963, he performed at several prestigious European music festivals – Leeds, Edinburgh and Prague – evidence of an increasing level of interest in Indian classical music in the West. His travels abroad, combined with his rising international profile brought Shankar into contact with a range of musicians, many of whom were becoming increasingly interested in Indian music. In New York in 1965, he had the first of several meetings with jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, whose interest in Indian culture and music was nurtured by Shankar having a profound effect both on his own musical output and his personal life (later naming his son Ravi). In 1966 Shankar performed the first of his East/West collaborations with violinist Yehudi Menuin at the Bath Festival in the UK. The two musicians had met originally in Delhi in 1952 and the performance at Bath was the first in a series of collaborations.

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar with a sitar in 19060s

It was in London in June 1966, that Shankar met George Harrison for the first time; this was to have a profound effect on the musical careers of both men and set about changing the future direction of music from the East and West. At the time of their first meeting, Harrison already held a deep fascination for Indian culture and music, having contributed a rudimentary sitar passage on ‘Norwegian Wood’ for The Beatles album Rubber Soul. Harrison had, up to this point, received no formal training on the sitar and after Shankar agreed to tutor him, travelled to India for six weeks of training with his guru. Although this was the only sustained period of tuition Shankar gave Harrison, this period marked the beginning of a life-long friendship and had a profound effect on the sound of subsequent Beatles recordings; most notably on 1967’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band particularly on the track ‘Within, Without You’ which incorporated a range of Indian classical instruments, sounds and influences.

The considerable influence of Indian classical music on psychedelic rock and pop of the period – ranging from the use of sitars by bands such as The Rolling Stones and Traffic, to the meandering ‘raga rock’ guitar solos of artists such as The Grateful Dead – undoubtedly owed a great deal to the pioneering work of Ravi Shankar and during this period he found himself playing alongside many such artists. In 1967, Shankar played at the Monterey Pop Festival in California and continued to perform at a number of similar events, culminating with Woodstock in 1969.

Ravi Shankar playing the sitar at Monterey

Despite the fact that his music was taken by many to be the ideal accompaniment to the hippy values of peace, love and drugs, Shankar himself was somewhat uncomfortable about his role in the counter-culture. After Monterey, he became disillusioned with the behaviour of the ‘unruly’ festival audiences and regretted his role at such events. In his autobiography Raga Mala he states;

After Monterey I performed three or four more festivals. My manager had booked me so I couldn’t avoid them but I hated being there. People in the crowd were shrieking, shouting, smoking, masturbating and copulating, all in a drug-crazed state – it was a horrible experience. I would ask myself “Why am I here?” I felt as if I had soiled and diluted my music. At times I walked offstage with my sitar because it was too unruly, and would only come back again when they had calmed down.

Of his final festival appearance of the decade at Woodstock he says;

This was a terrifying existence. If Monterey was the beginning of a new movement or beautiful happening, I think Woodstock was almost the end… I wish I hadn’t performed there but because of my commitment, I had to… I learnt that apart from the abundance of drugs, there was violence, theft, robbery and raping at Woodstock. It was not what people try to glorify it as today.

Despite his misgivings, Shankar’s role as musical guru to the counter-culture endowed him with the trappings of superstar status. Appearances on prestigious chat-shows either side of the Atlantic (including David Frost in the UK and Johnny Carson in the USA) reflected this new found status. Subsequently he found The Doors front-man Jim Morrison attending his sitar classes in California and Marlon Brando inviting him to play the 1968 UNESCO benefit in Paris in front of the great and the good (including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor).

Back in India however, Shankar’s success in the West was not greeted with such universal acclaim and he became accused of ‘commercializing’ and ‘Americanizing’ the ‘pure’ tradition of Indian classical music.  Although Shankar has always refuted such claims, his own unease at the ‘superficial’ interest that the counter-culture was paying Indian music and culture in general, led him to deliberately turn away from the rock and pop arena. Instead he refocused his efforts on classical performance and collaborations such as the composition and performance of a sitar concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970. By 1971, he was back performing with George Harrison as part of the Concert for Bangladesh and in subsequent years continued to compose, perform and record as a ‘pure’ classical Indian artist as well as continuing to develop East/West collaborations in pop and rock as well as classical tradition. He continued to perform regularly around the world well into his eighties and his last concert was in November 2012 when he played alongside his daughter Anoushka at Long Beach, California to celebrate his tenth decade on stage.

The range of innovation, artistry and collaboration that characterised the career of Ravi Shankar marks him out as the prototype World Musician whose lasting influence continues to be felt both in the East and in the West.

Ravi Shankar and sitar