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Ravi Shankar: Sitar Maestro
Text and photo: Thakur Paramjit, Chandigarh

July 29, 2005

(This story first appeared in October 2002 in Winds, the in-flight magazine of Japan Airlines.)

Far and away the best-known Indian musician in the West is the sitar player and composer Ravi Shankar. More than any other individual, Ravi Shankar has in his long career helped Western audiences gain an insight into the spiritual depths and melodic brilliance of his country's music. The winner of countless honors and awards, he picked up his third Grammy Award for the album Full Circle/Carnegie Hall 2000.

The great Indian musician talks to Thakur Paramjit.

How did it feel winning your third Grammy Award?
When you get any award, whether a world-famous or local one, you feel very honored. But I felt very happy when I got that Grammy Award. It carries a special significance as it is given only for musical excellence. The first time I got it was in 1966, but that was more for experimental work with different international artists. The present one was particularly for a classical concert that I gave in Carnegie Hall.

It was a live recording. I don't make many of these because in Indian music we improvise and are informal. So it is very difficult in a live situation as you have to edit a lot later. That is why I prefer to record in a studio. But this time it worked very well. We had very little work to do afterwards because the two hours of the concert didn't need much shortening. I was very happy with it.

Which award has given you the greatest pleasure?
It is difficult to say. For some moments, for a few days, any award gives you a warm feeling inside, and people come and congratulate you. The press gives it wide publicity. But after a few weeks or months, everyone forgets about it; even I forget about it. Ultimately, the main thing that counts for me is performing, when I am in front of the public and get their immediate reaction and appreciation. That is extremely satisfying for me.

What differences do you see in the classical music of India and that of the West?
Indian classical music does not give much importance to harmony and chords. We work mostly with melody and improvisation. Western music has done away with the tradition of improvisation: it is all composed and written down by the great composers. It is played exactly to those lines, varying according to a particular artiste's interpretation, which of course makes a big difference. Indian music has evolved very gradually through the creative gifts of innovative artists. Since the advent of radio and the gramophone during the last 60 or 70 years, the changes have been so much faster. Classical Indian and Western music are great in their own ways of expression and are regarded as such by their own bands of listeners. Since Westerners understand their music better and are more used to it, naturally they prefer it, just as Indians like their own music more.

Would you say that Indian music is the music of the heart and Western music that of the mind?
Not really, since the heart is also there in Western music: without it, it wouldn't touch you. By one stroke of the bow, some Western musicians can make you feel like crying. So the heart has to be there, whatever the style of music.

You are famous for having popularized Indian music in the West.
I started propagating our music in a very organized form about 50 years ago. Luckily, I succeeded because when I started there were no other musicians in India who could communicate or explain that music. Many of them had traveled to the West, but their whole attitude was wrong. They would, for example, play a particular raga for one or two hours, without realizing they were playing for an audience that did not know anything about the music. So Western audiences thought our music boring and believed it could never touch them. In spite of the fact that Indian music has so much feeling, it did not get through.

From about the age of 10 to 18, I performed with my brother, Uday Shankar, whom I consider one of my gurus in the sense that he taught me. Paris was the headquarters of our dance company, and we worked in the United States, Europe, Asia and other places. We had great musicians in our troupe. During this period, I keenly listened to our music and observed the reaction of audiences on hearing it. This critical analysis helped me to decide what we should give to Western audiences to make them really respect and appreciate Indian music.

Presentation is very important. I tried to give Western listeners the right proportion, the right rate. But I never compromised on style, I never compromised in giving them anything un-Indian in a bid to please them. All I did was to reduce the duration. Instead of one or two ragas in two or three hours, I played maybe four ragas within two hours, with an intermission and explained to them the ascending and descending of a particular raga, what mood it creates, whether it belongs to the morning or evening, whether it belongs to spring or the rainy season and so forth. The result could be seen immediately. They could understand and accept our music.

When you popularized the sitar in the West, it was exported in large numbers to those countries.
Yes. It became very popular all of a sudden mostly after George Harrison became my student in the summer of 1966. Just before that, he had been listening to me and was very attracted to the sitar. He used it in the Beatles song 'Norwegian Wood.' I was touring all over Europe and America and I noticed that more and more younger people were coming to my performances. It was the start of the old hippie movement, and gradually the sitar became popular. I had already been fairly well known, but from around 1965 or so I became more like something of a pop star. After George used the sitar in 'Norwegian Wood,' other pop groups also started with it, and some tried attaching electronic devices to it or experimented with the shape. But those efforts didn't work out. It was like a new fad. When there is something new and it becomes a success, everybody tries to do it sometimes for a few weeks, months or maybe a couple of years.

You have performed with Japanese musicians. How do you compare the traditional styles of Indian and Japanese music?
Since my childhood, Japan has always held a special attraction for me. I appreciate the Japanese ability to preserve their culture from the onslaught of modernization or Westernization. Though Japan has changed a lot since I first saw it, I appreciate the Japanese ability to control both their own culture and Western culture in a very balanced way. When the Japanese entered the field of electronics, they surpassed everyone. But they don't deserve praise for their technological advances alone. I have seen their manners, their etiquette, their love for flowers, their love for cars, their love for beauty and the way of their life. These are the things which I appreciate very much.

After I had been traveling for some time, I heard the shakuhachi and koto, and I started admiring Japanese music also. I felt that their traditional music was played in a modal structure - a structure which follows scaled sequence of notes in ascending and descending order. Their songs are composed in structures that resemble some of our ragas. It happened that I met Hozan Yamamoto, the shakuhachi player, and Susumu Miyashita, the koto player, and I was inspired to do a recording with them. I composed specially for them using some of our ragas, which have some modal structures that the Japanese musicians could use. And I had my accompanists with me, including the wonderful tabla player Allah Rakha, at that time, and it worked out very well. I called the album 'East Greets East,' and it is one of my favorite efforts. I am seldom happy with my own compositions: afterwards I always think I could have done better. But I was very happy with this one.

How did you begin to devote yourself to the sitar?
As I said, I was with the troupe of my brother, Uday, who was a famous dancer. So, naturally, I was initially introduced to dance. Right from the beginning, I was lucky to be in the company of wonderful musicians. They didn't teach me, but I listened. I had a natural flair for picking up anything and just by myself I used to try my hand on the sitar, sarod, flute and tabla in addition to dancing. But when Baba Allaudin Khan, my guru, joined sometime in 1935 he immediately took interest in my training. He told me I had plenty of talent, but that I needed to do a lot of regular practice. I was trying so many things, and he wanted me to concentrate on one. He advised me to master the sitar as he thought I was best suited for this instrument.

Over the years, I have tried to follow the whole gamut of our music, not just emphasize one aspect. I have covered everything from very slow to very fast music, very deep to very light, very frivolous to very philosophical. From the outset, I have been gifted with an ability to improvise. When I do a particular piece of music, I immediately think of how I might make five variations of it. Improvisation is only composing on the spot.

Traditionally, the Indian guru taught music orally to his disciples. With changing lifestyles, the number of devoted disciples is dwindling. How do you view the future of Indian music?
We are at a crossroads. It is a very difficult time and I am a bit concerned. But a lot of good things are happening. I see a fantastic amount of talent in the young generation - people are so talented that they pick up systems of music very quickly. We see young boys and girls playing the sitar, flute, violin, drums or tabla - any instrument. Such advancement, all of a sudden, is a good sign. Some of them have had good teaching by a competent guru or a senior performer, and I think those are the ones who might be able to carry it on. My only worry, however, is that these days many young people want to do it all so very quickly: it seems that they instantly want to make a name for themselves, to travel and become celebrities.

Can you tell us something about your experiments as a composer?
Improvisation and composition are basically the same thing; composition is something which you think and put it down in writing. You may either play it yourself or someone else plays it. I have always been interested in composing. I started my experimentation when I was in the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1945. I composed Sare Jahan Se Accha, which is a kind of national song. During that period, I did my first film music also.

People think that I brought Western music and Eastern music together; I never did that. My sole purpose was to utilize non-Indian music. Two sitars playing together sound terrible. As solo instruments, our instruments are great, but, they have certain limitations. So I wanted to try working with Western instruments and experiment with non-Indian music - even though this went against the grain with many traditionalists. But I never tried to do anything Western, such as rock music. Even in jazz, I found certain things that are similar to Indian rhythms. So I worked with some jazz musicians and played some Indian folk music with them. These were my sole intentions, not to leave the orbit of Indian music - the raga, tala, folk tunes and so on. I worked within Indian music, but the sound and sometimes the musicians were not Indian. So I have carried out a number of experiments that have been accepted by other people; they have copied them and so I am glad I did them.

Out of your numerous performances, which one gave you the highest satisfaction?
That is very difficult to say because I am 82 now and I have been performing since 1939 - for 63 years. So out of that time, there are at least 20 or 25 particularly memorable things. Like once when I was playing for the seer Kashi Shankaracharya. We were sitting under a tree, and no one else was there. It was just me playing for him. Or it could have been playing in Carnegie Hall. There are so many, and so it is very difficult to pinpoint them.

Do you feel that age is adversely affecting how you practice or is there a little less vigor in your recitals?
I perform much less now and do special concerts only and not for long hours. Previously, I used to play continuously for eight hours or nine hours, which I can't do now. But, by the grace of God, I am still performing.

What is the secret of your success?
Well I consider it my great privilege, my great luck and, more than anything else, I believe in the blessings of my guru and God.

Thakur Paramjit is a well-known writer/photographer based in Chandigarh. He contributes articles and pictures to national and international magazines on various subjects including performing arts and culture. He can be contacted at +91-172-2725641 (landline) and +91-94172-10101 (mobile).