Interview With Ravi Shankar

Interview With Ravi Shankar

Apr 10, 1998


“World music,” that arrogantly Western catchall phrase for anything that’s not a guitar/bass/drum outfit, has been cut a raw deal these days. Look in any record bin and you’ll find snaky Indian sitars, African drums and chanting Spanish monks tossed together without hesitation, even though the only thing they have in common is that they weren’t made in the U.S.A.

Still, other cultures’ music is more popular than it ever was, even though it’s taken time for Western ears to adjust. When George Harrison struck a sitar on John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” it opened the door for hippie kids to use spiritual rhythms to accompany their drug use – a practice that irked a 48-year-old Ravi Shankar.

Now 78, Shankar is more forgiving. (“I got used to it,” he says.) Although most believe he was “discovered” by his most famous student, George Harrison, Shankar was already an accomplished arranger and composer – which is documented on the 1996 4-CD boxed set “Ravi: In Celebration” (Angel).

Born in Varanasi, India, in 1920, Shankar joined his brother’s dance troupe at age 10. That gave him his first taste of American culture as he traveled first to Paris, where he heard jazz and met American ex-patriots, and then to New York City, where he visited Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.

The young Ravi later returned to his Indian roots through his guru, Ustad Allaudin Khan, who introduced him to the sitar – a musical force that is taught orally, requiring intense memorization and brutal strength.

In his 20s, Shankar set off for a career writing stage musicals, concertos, ballets and film scores (he won an Oscar nomination for the score to “Gandhi”). He was music director for All-India Radio, gave Indian music lessons to John Coltrane, toured internationally and in 1968 won a Grammy for “West Meets East,” a collaboration with U.S. violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Still, it was his exposure to rock audiences that made him a household name, with Shankar playing Woodstock, Monterey and Harrison’s concert for Bangladesh in 1971. It was those experiences that made Shankar a controversial figure in his native India and caused a retreat from the hippies who misunderstood the music.

Living in Encinitas, Calif., with his second wife and 17-year-old daughter, Anoushka, who he performs with, Shankar has released “Chants Of India” (Angel), which is also produced by Harrison.

Composing new music for texts that date back 2,000 years, Shankar is still very much the “godfather of world music” that Harrison calls him – exposing new ears to spiritual rhythms, a quiet revolution he’s practiced for 65 years.

Q: What was the reason for recording an album of ancient chants and rhythms?

A: This is something I’ve grown up with. It’s part of our Vedic culture, very old. Most of these mantras are something that I knew, and then I did a lot of research. This one was something that was inspired because, at that time, Steve Murphy was the head of Angel and he, me and George (Harrison) were sitting down one day and they had said that “Chants” (with the Benedictine Monks) who were very successful, so he said, “Do you have these types of things in India?” I said, “Yes, we have lots, even older ones, because they date back a couple of thousand of years ago.”

Q: When I approach soothing music like this, I’m reminded of a quote Van Morrison said about pop music: that it exists just to titillate or excite, but the more pure forms of music like jazz or blues stir something in the soul.

A: It is a very debatable thing because among the new writers, sometimes they are writing something very soothing, very cool and not very loud or harsh. Accepting those few exceptions, most of the things you said, I think, are quite true. Because in the older music, you do find peace and much more without the mechanical help and techno sounds and things going on that are very exciting.

But the pure thing in a sitar or harp can evoke that beautiful thing when you listen to it. It’s something different from all this keyboards you hear now.

Q: The Western viewpoint of music is usually that it exists for entertainment. Have you found it difficult to teach the notion that music can also be very spiritual?

A: Absolutely. That is the main thing about our music. I try to give to my music the spiritual quality, very deep in the soul, which does something even if you are not realizing it or analyzing it – that’s the duty of the music.

Q: And it doesn’t matter what dogma you follow.

A: It doesn’t matter what your religious belief is, it just doesn’t matter.

Q: Was that your mission early in life, to showcase the spiritual?

A: It always was.

Q: Do you find that task is even more difficult today, that perhaps we live in a culturally stifled time of remakes and retreads?

A: Now, the whole approach in everything has become so commercial and wanting to make big bucks by everyone. This sort of trying to do something new and create and sell it is the big thing now. Before, people really wanted to create when they had it within them to do something.

Now, the approach is different. It’s money for money. You always read how many million copies sold, that’s the new thing. So the same thing is happening in arts, unfortunately, whether it’s poetry or literature or painting. I’m really sensing the same approach everywhere.

Q: Are you optimistic things can be shaken up and originality can be found?

A: I am really very optimistic. I think after all this, we will be very tired.

Q: As a master of the sitar, can you explain how the instrument is different from the Western guitar.

A: Basically, I think it’s the only instrument you can’t call easy. You start with the posture of sitting. You have to sit in a way which is very abnormal for your spinal cord, with your leg crossing with your other leg.

Then cutting your finger with steel strings and wearing a pick on your fingers that is tight and (it) swells up and you get calluses. There is so much pain, you have blood sometimes coming out of your finger when you cut close with the steel string. It takes two years to conquer this and get comfortable.

And then you have to go through the whole process of the music itself, which is not like learning a few chords on the guitar and if you have talent and you can write poetry you become a rock star.

There is so much continuous practice and discipline with the additional difficulty being we don’t have written down music in front of us, which makes it even more difficult because we have to memorize everything. That’s why a guru is important – person to person.

Q: It’s an oral tradition of learning.

A: An oral tradition where you have to learn for years all the hundreds of thousands of ragas (traditional melody patterns).

Q: Do you still practice?

A: You have to continually practice, otherwise the calluses will go away, and you have to start again with all the pain and blood (he laughs).

Q: You were first exposed to Western culture as a boy traveling with your brother’s dance troupe. The places you landed, Paris and Harlem in the ‘30, must have been extraordinary, especially considering the art, literature and jazz there.

A: Yeah, at that time Paris was our headquarters, but we were traveling continuously. We came to the States, also, and I had the fortune of going to the Cotton Club and heard Cab Calloway and Satchmo, Duke Ellington when they were very young. So I fell in love with jazz along with the Western classical music.

And Paris, of course, was the center of art in the whole world. Everyone either visited or stayed there for some time. So I was very lucky for listening and seeing and had a wonderful experience for almost seven or eight years.

Q: I’m assuming you heard symmetry of Indian music in jazz.

A: Not symmetry, no. The only thing it resembles is the improvisation. In the olden days, I believe Mozart also improvised on piano, but somehow in the last 200 years, the whole training of Western classical music – they don’t read between the lines, they just read the lines.

It’s very natural for them to become accustomed to that, and they lost the faculty of improvising.

We improvise on ragas, and jazz improvises on a theme based on chords and harmonies, to some extent. We do the same thing but we have to follow the ragas – we cannot use any other notes than the raga permits, which takes years and years to master.

After we assimilate the system, we are as free as a jazz person can be but, again, it’s like being free but with specifics.

Q: By the time the ‘60s hit, you had a career others would be very happy with.

A: The whole ‘60s, of course, opened up to a bigger thing because of George Harrison becoming my student. I had nothing to do with the other Beatles, which people mistake. Just George as a person, because he has tremendous love and respect for Indian music and tradition and the whole Vedic culture, which I really inspired and helped him get into it.

Q: When he was your student, was there a worry that perhaps, as it happened, the pop world would simplify your music?

A: Yeah, there was. Some in the West were worried, but the main worry was in my country. They thought I’m a goner, they thought I’m just selling my music, commercializing, becoming a hippie.

But the fact is, luckily, I was 47, 48 and quite mature. I didn’t sell my music. But I was fighting all the time here, telling the kids not to smoke, not to be stoned and to behave properly, and back home I was being condemned. It was a very painful situation for almost five years.

But all that is passing. People realized I kept my two identities zealously; as a performer in keeping my tradition intact and the other side, as a composer.

Q: What was your biggest shock when you were first exposed to rock audiences?

A: The biggest shock was the drugs. I felt and I still feel strongly about that. Now, everything has gone underground, but it’s as bad as before and, I’m told, even worse. And that is something that has shocked me and hurt me very much. I’m not a preacher, I’m not a social reformer, and I think people can do whatever they want, but, you know, when they mix it up and especially when they started mixing it up with my music – coming to concerts shrieking, shouting, masturbating, copulating, taking pills like toffee and all those things I saw, I couldn’t believe.

I fought continuously all those gurus like Allen Ginsburg telling these very young kids that in India everyone takes drugs.

There were, of course, alcoholic musicians also, but they were achievers. Like the beatniks, great artists, painters, writers – they took drugs but they gave what they could. The same is what I saw in my childhood, the Bohemians in Paris, great artists, musicians – they were all addicted to either cocaine or hashish. But no one complained because they had given so much, they had contributed.

But not little kids of 13, 14 or less. They thought they had achieved already – all playing guitar, writing, painting – they thought they were doing great things, which was not true.

Q: What did you think when you started hearing the sitar on records by the Beatles and others?

A: It hurt me in the beginning, of course, because they were not played well and were used electronically with very distorted sounds. They were used in the films, whenever there was a scene of an orgy, there was that twang. That hurt me, initially, but then I got used to it. I said it doesn’t matter, really.

Q: Your teenage daughter has performed with you now for six years. Are you her guru?

A: Absolutely. But at the same time, I am her father and we are living in California and she is a teenager. So it cannot be exactly the same as it was in my youth. And I have to compromise. She cannot give as much time as I did practicing and learning. But we are doing the best we can, and she is fantastic and very gifted and very balanced. I hope in the next couple of years I’ll be very satisfied, hopefully.

Q: And she wants to continue the family legacy?

A: She does. But as I said, there are so many things going on.  She’s 16 going on 17 in June and (he laughs) she has friends, telephones, she has e-mail everything like any other little kid – it can’t be helped, living here. If I can take her away in some remote cave, but that is not possible (he laughs). So we are doing the best.

Q: When people go see you in concert, what do you hope they will get from it?

A: I always expect and request, whenever I can, to keep an open mind. People who are very much into Western classical music, they have the maximum difficulty in getting quickly attuned to our music – they are so regimented in their listening to harmony, modulation and they are not open. We give stress to melody and rhythm and follow this raga system and never change the pitch.

There are things that if you bear in mind and let yourself go, you see that after some time, something happens.

Q: What is that?

A: First it is the visual aspect. You see we look at each other, we smile, we appreciate each other spontaneously, shaking our heads, or in our eyes. Because we are improvising all the time, it’s always fresh. Even the same raga we might play 100 times, each time it has something new, something different.

Q: George Harrison refers to you as the “godfather of world music.” What do you think he means?

A: What he meant, maybe, is that I’ve done so many different things and so many varieties.

Starting with my own old style playing of sitar to contemporary than my own compositions – vocals, choral, orchestras. And also, maybe, because I’ve been accepted all over the world by God’s grace and my guru’s blessing – maybe that’s the reason.


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