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Ravi Shankar: Remembering A Master Of The Sitar


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. Ravi Shankar, who popularized the sitar and Indian music in America, died this week at the age of 92. He befriended the Beatles, gave George Harrison sitar lessons, and inspired Harrison to launch the first superstar benefit concert, 1971's the Concert for Bangladesh.

That's when Ravi Shankar, tuning up before his performance, responded to the polite but clueless support of the U.S. audience. His ad lib was good-humored but pointed.



RAVI SHANKAR: Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you'll enjoy the playing more.


BIANCULLI: The Concert for Bangladesh was the first time many young Americans heard Indian music in its unadulterated form. After those musicians tuned up, this is what the audience heard.


BIANCULLI: In his lifetime, Ravi Shankar also influenced the work of John Coltrane, Philip Glass and many other Western musicians. The week before he died, he was informed he would be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award next February. His children include Anoushka Shankar, who also is an accomplished sitar player, and singer Norah Jones.

Ravi Shankar spoke with Terry Gross in 1999. She asked him about his relationship with George Harrison.



Now, you've been very close to George Harrison. You've described him as being almost like a son. And he's described you as being almost like a father. You met him in 1966, and this was a period when all the Beatles seemed to be searching for some kind of...

SHANKAR: Exactly.

GROSS: ...spiritual help. What did you make of the Beatles when you met them? They were in this period of a kind of spiritual search. Did you consider that search to be an authentic search? Or do you think - did you feel that they were very kind of confused about what they were looking for?

SHANKAR: It was exactly what you are saying. They were confused and they were searching. But to tell you truth, when I met them, I didn't know, almost didn't know them or know anything about them, because I had just vaguely heard that it's a popular group. And it was in a party that all the four were there, but it was only George that interested me from the very beginning because of his being so inquisitive and asking the questions about music and relation to the religion and the spiritual aspect of it and the whole thing. And that's how we came close together and he started having some lessons.

GROSS: What did you think of the solo he played on "Norwegian Wood"?

SHANKAR: I never heard it before. And it was only much later on, my nephew and nieces, they played it for me and I thought it was terrible, in the sense - in the sound that was produced on the sitar. The song was nice. I liked the song very much but it was a peculiar sound. It didn't sound like sitar even. So he had had little lesson from a person in London who's a student of a student of mine, who is to be in London at that time. And I told him frankly that it's fine. People like it and you are happy but I didn't find it interesting enough because the very sound of sitar, it is something which we have developed since last 750 years. And - but I - he understood and that's why he wanted to learn.

GROSS: You started playing with Western musicians. And I think really you were the first Indian musician to start playing with Western jazz musicians and rock musicians and classical musicians. Why did you want to do that?

SHANKAR: As Sale Lucien (ph) said to his son, correction, I would like to correct you...

GROSS: OK. Please.


SHANKAR: I didn't start with rock or jazz musicians. It was just my great dear friend whom I miss very much who is no more, Yehudi Menuhin, Lord Yehudi Menuhin. We got very friendly from the year 1952. And when I came to Europe and started performing, we cut three albums in those days, known as "West Meets East." And then I did many other things later on, of course. My student George Harrison, who is like my son, and a great friend of mine, whom I taught sitar initially but later on he was so interested he composed a lot of songs being influenced by our Indian music and Indian spiritual and religious teachings, things like that. And I've done a lot of experimentations, which I don't like to call fusion or trying to mix Indian music or Western music like a cocktail to make it interesting. Genuinely what I wanted to do is have the base as pure as possible Indian music within the framework of raga and tala, and use non-Indian musicians, non-Indian instruments for a special sound, for the range, for the volume, for the colors and all that. And I think some of them came out nice. Of course I was very much criticized also for it...

GROSS: Criticized in India.

SHANKAR: Especially from India, and our musicians. But nevertheless, now things have changed. Things that I have done 30 years ago, 40 years ago, are being appreciated now, which makes me happy.

GROSS: When you were studying with your guru, he told you that music is sacred and should be kept that way when you perform. And he told you that this applies not only to the performer but also to the atmosphere that he's playing in. In other words, there should be a sense of decorum shown by the audience. And you write in your book that there were times when you didn't feel that kind of sacred sense around the music, when the audience would be drinking or talking too much or the place was just too messy.

SHANKAR: Exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: And you wouldn't even play, you'd leave.

SHANKAR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So what was it like for...

SHANKAR: So many times I stopped and I told them I won't play unless they move away all the drinking things and they sit properly and they have a platform for me, not just spread a rug on the floor. This was with some harajas and aristocrats in India. I always fought with them. But later on I had to fight with my young friends, whom I loved very much, in the mid-'60s onward, the hippies. You know, almost same thing, because George was my student and I was the guru of George, it become like a cult sort of thing, you know. Along with the music, they took me as a guru, yeah. What happened, they came to my concert with the same spirit, being stoned, absolutely high on drugs, LSD or whatever, shouting, shrieking and misbehaving, doing all these sort of things that they should not do. So I had to tell them that, look, when you go to listen to Bach or Beethoven or Mozart, do behave like that? I'm sure they don't go to listen to these people.

GROSS: No, I was going to point that out. Yeah.


SHANKAR: First of all. But even if they did, they wouldn't behave like that. So many times I had to walk out with the sitar and I had to explain them, please try to listen with a pure mind, because I assure you that our music has that power, that it can make you feel high. But if you are already gone to - so spacey, you know, what you hear is not the real thing. And...

GROSS: But you played, you played at the Monterey Pop Festival. You played at Woodstock. And, you know, certainly at Woodstock especially, that sense of a kind of respect and sense of, you know, sacredness of music...

SHANKAR: Well, I have written about it, and I'm sure I have spoken about that a number of times. Monterey was something which I liked because it was still new, fresh. And there was some - in spite of the drugs and everything, when these young girls and boys, they showed these two fingers like that, like a V, and said peace and love and offered you a flower, there was some innocence. There was some beauty which touched me so much. But Woodstock was a time which was almost two, three years later. And believe me, by then I thought that this thing is not going to live anymore because it was far gone. Music was just an incidental music to them. They were having fun. It was a fun place, picnic party. They were all stoned. It was raining. It was in mud. And as I said in my book, it reminded me of these water buffaloes we see in India who are, you know, they feel very hot and they sit there, get so - so dirty, but they enjoy it. So I mean that was the thing I felt. But because it was a contractual thing, I couldn't get out of it. I had to go through it. But I was very unhappy.

GROSS: Now, I know that you don't like psychedelic drugs and don't really approve of them. The funny thing is, there was a period in the '60s when if you heard the sitar in America, chances were it had some kind of psychedelic connotation to it. It was in a movie about psychedelic drugs...

SHANKAR: Exactly.

GROSS: ...or an advertisement for a place that wanted to have a kind of psychedelic image. How did that make you feel?

SHANKAR: Terrible.


SHANKAR: Because all that was so bizarre, I tell you. When I went to Haight-Ashbury and saw what is happening, I couldn't believe it, you know, and all in the name of tantra, mantra, yoga and everything. It got mixed up. And that's why they had to have a sitar twanging whenever they showed a orgy scene or anything like that.

GROSS: Exactly. (Laughing)

SHANKAR: And used to make me so, so unhappy, I tell you. So it was difficult for me. Now I'm used to it. It doesn't matter to me. Whatever you do is your business. As long as you do it yourself well, as long as you are happy and you can make others happy, I think that's fine. I can really, I have changed quite a lot in my way of appreciation or being angry at something. All that is no more there.

BIANCULLI: Ravi Shankar speaking with Terry Gross in 1999. He died this week at age 92. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.