From: What the Beatles Missed About Ravi Shankar
by Tariq Ali, Counterpunch, Dec. 14, 2012”
“A raga,” Ravi Shankar explained to his illustrious fans in the west, “is a scientific, precise, subtle and aesthetic melodic form with its own peculiar ascending and descending movement consisting of either a full seven-note octave, or a series of six or five notes in a rising or falling structure called the Arohana and Avarohana. It is the subtle difference in the order of notes, an omission of a dissonant note, an emphasis on a particular note, the slide from one note to the other … that demarcate one raga from the other."
From: What the Beatles Missed About Ravi Shankar
by Tariq Ali, Counterpunch, Dec. 14, 2012”
Age is a cage where I sit and watch my youth pass by,
Though I cannot run as fast as I did before,
musically I think I am better than ever for sure.
Should I be missing my youth,
or thank the Lord and rejoice in the
everlasting magic of the music.
How does one put the spiritual significance of music on paper? Music transcends all languages and barriers and is the most beautiful communicative skill one can have. Music makes us all experience different emotions or the Navarasa as we call it. Different types of music, whether it is vocal or instrumental, Eastern or Western, Classical or Pop or folk from any part of the world can all be spiritual if it has the power to stir the soul of a person and transcend time for the moment. It makes one get goose-bumps in the body and mind and equates the highest mental orgasm and the release of grateful tears!
If I go back in time, about 67 years when I was 20, and think about the dream and vision of what I had then for Indian classical music as a young aspiring musician, I have to admit that even though I have achieved more than I have ever dreamed of personally, I am disturbed to see the plight of it today here in India.
Our country is so rich with a living tradition unlike anywhere in the world. The whole world looks up to India to enrich themselves with the rich cultural heritage of our country, and yet we try to ape the west. They call it globalization but it really is Americanization. It is good to absorb the good points of any culture, but to lose our own is a shame. Like anything we need a good balance. In the west, you may have pop music which attracts thousands of people, but at the same time they also have great auditoriums, which is sold out for ballet, western classical program or opera.
At this point, I’d like to reminisce about my long musical journey.
Let's talk about Bombay and Calcutta in the 1940's and 50's, which had music conferences every year and lots of programs going on all the time. The important thing were the Music Circles. There were quite a few within the city and some as far as Andheri and Villaparle. This was so in Poona, Hubli, Dharwar, and few other places in Maharashtra. They were very intimate, having anything from a hundred and fifty to four hundred people listening. Most, squatted on the floor, with just a few chairs scattered about at the back for the few who could not sit on the floor. The artists performed on a low dais. I still believe baithak-style settings like these can be most satisfying for Indian classical artists.
I don't want to talk anything political, and will stick just to music and other art forms in the pre-independent era. The British although did nothing to encourage our art forms, thankfully did not interfere or stop anything. There were still a few native states where Maharajahs, Zamindars and Aristocrats supporting some of the great musicians. Occasional music festivals were also held in in Calcutta, Allahabad, Lucknow and Bombay. Bombay and Maharashtra were special places where classical music was patronized through the music circles and a few aristocrats.
I started my own career in Bombay and I will never forget some of my memorable concerts, which would often last five to seven hours. It used to be such a joy to have senior musicians, students of music, and rasikas, who were true aficionados present all together. I'm sure all the musicians who have experienced this period will agree with me.
Music has evolved like always. But as far as I am concerned, 1950's and 60's were the golden for Indian classical music. We had the best of the great senior musicians, middle aged and the younger ones. The whole attitude of the music world was different. The senior musicians may not have been very rich, but they were adored and revered.
There are two points I want to make and emphasize;
1 - Classical music was never appreciated (in west as well) by the masses. It was always, cherished, developed and patronized by a “class” of people in the same way as in literature with Shakespeare or Kalidas, and hence the term classical, and not musical or pop, which unfortunately many people expect it to be. Of course, I do want our Hindustani music especially today to have larger rasikas - listeners, as carnatic music in the South enjoys. In the South at any given time and especially during the festival season there sveral sabhas or concert venues having music from morning till late night with sold-out audiences.
2 - Our music has always gone through changes becoming more and more developed and sophisticated through centuries. We today feel the onslaught of disturbing elements because the changes are very rapid for us to adjust. Those days the media of communication was limited to live concerts.
Then came the gramophone, the radio and then the television. But now with the age of computers and instant access it is really overwhelming. I am not saying that this is good or bad but it is a fact. Every kind of music has and in fact is going through changes more rapidly now than ever before, and who am I to say if its for better or worse.
When dear Yehudi Menuhin came to India in 1952, I performed for him and it was the first time he heard any Indian music. He was completely blown away with our music and was an ardent follower until his dying day. Even though I had met him when I was about 10 and he 14 in Paris, this was the first time that we really connected. He went back and invited me to come and perform in 1955 in New York. Unfortunately, due to domestic pressure at that time, I couldn't go but sent Ali Akbar. I started performing abroad with small audiences and then slowly went on to performing major halls by the end of 1950's. This I did by playing, teaching and explaining. I had the advantage of the language unlike many musicians at that time and since I had almost grown up on stage from the age of 10 in my brothers troupe in the west, it was easy for me to communicate and be understood.
I feel lucky and blessed that even today after being on the stage for over 7 decades. I perform to sold-out audiences and I am overwhelmed by the way I am received by my admirers. And all this when I perform our Indian classical music.
Except for a few of us senior musicians, I feel people don't go to listen to young talented musicians in India. I also would like to mention about the Delhi culture where people don't buy tickets to go to a concert, probably the only place in the world. Also a great country like India with some of the greatest art forms does not have one state of the art auditorium of international standard. I am also appalled to see that there are no music reviews any more except in the Hindu. All that people are interested is gossip and who went to which party wearing what. The other thing which shocks me, is the inaccuracy in reporting anything.
There are only two kinds of music; good and bad. Music appreciation is very personal depending on the person's age, experience, knowledge and background.
It is very important that our government introduces classical music, dance and other art forms on a compulsory basis right from the kindergarten level. We need a conservatory of music and music colleges. I wish all the millionaires and billionaires in India would contribute something to the art of their country. I am not condemning any type of music but when the whole world comes to see and visit India, it’s the incredible tradition of this wonderful country that attracts them.
Superior quality always wins and lasts. Students need to be dedicated to their Guru and before you start learning be positive that you have the talent and patience as it is a life time of dedication. Today everything is so advanced that you can have lessons on a computer and I feel appalled when I hear students learning from a tape. How can anyone even compare the foundation and solidity of knowledge learned for years directly from a Guru to today's hourly lessons and computer culture?
I have always encouraged the creativity of an artist. But one has to have solid knowledge and know the rules to break it. Improvisation does not mean tampering with the authenticity of a classical raga. I was probably way beyond my time when I first started to experiment with western instruments and western musicians. Contrary to popular belief, I never performed with the Beatles. George Harrison came to me as he was so taken by our music and became my student. It was not a fad for him, he loved it until the end and became very very dear to me. John Coltrane was so impressed by my music and had a few lessons from me, and again was so moved that he named his son after me.
Yes, I performed with Yehudi Menuhin, composed 2 concertos (in the process of writing my third) experimented with jazz, far eastern music, Phillip Glass, ballet, orchestration film music, music theatre and so much more-from 1945. But I guess all those were much before time!! If you listen to my CD "Tana Mana," I have worked with electronic music 25 years ago. But I did all this without compromising on the solid foundation of our classical music. If few musicians didn't understand me then it was their problem. I have no regrets. When you are doing something new, go ahead but don’t talk about your gharana and lineage, which has nothing to do with it. When you go on stage people don't care who your grandfather was! They have come to hear you and the only way you can impress is with your music.
What is it that makes a great musician as well as a super star? There were always great musicians at all times who were revered and will always be remembered and few were lucky to have heard them. We don't even have any recordings of some of the great legends because at that time the facilities were not available. What I am talking of now is about Indian classical music. Learning Indian classical music and performing is not easy. It takes years of sadhana and learning under the guidance of a good guru. If a young person wants to take this as a career and become famous, one has to stop and think whether one has the talent necessary. Then comes the question of money to live and learn. I myself have never taken a penny from any of my students, nor do I teach by the hour. Sometimes my classes can go on for a whole day with just a break for lunch. This is where industrialists can help by sponsoring a student. This way the student does not have to think about going to work and earning. And when it comes to girls, it is so important that she is supported first by her parents and then by her husband and in laws . I have had some extremely talented female students who ended up giving up everything after they got married.
I also feel the youngsters today lack humility. When they have a little success they think they are pandits, maestros and legends. I want to really discard my title of "pandit" as every Tom, Dick and Harry is a Pandit, and an Ustad. For the last so many years I have instructed all promoters to drop it and just call me “Ravi Shankar.”
Even when you have talent and work hard, sometimes it is difficult to make it. You need your lucky stars!! How long can one go on promoting oneself? There are instant super stars and they also fade away very quickly. What is it that gives the staying power? It is when you can communicate with your music to your listeners and touch their soul. You can sell your first few shows with big talk, lineage and famous last names but it is the power of your music, which will keep you there.
I implore students to volunteer help to their gurus and their schools and also help so many existing music institutions. If your guru has imparted his precious knowledge, it is most important for you to contribute with your time and get his blessings. It really makes me laugh when I see young and upcoming musicians talking so big and comparing themselves to legends and few even have their own foundation I believe!! There is a great saying in Benares, I am sorry its bit crude but so true "kal ka jogi (yogi) gantt mey jatah!!" Or something like: "An empty vessel makes more noise."
It is also very irritating for me when I see young musicians trying to sing or play a raga for a long time. It takes much experience to do that without repetition. It also makes me laugh when some idiots who know nothing about music appreciate and evaluate that as good just because he or she sang or played a raga for so long. One has to understand it is the quality and not the quantity.
God has been very kind to me and given me so much! I have been performing from the age of ten and at eighty seven still am very busy. I was very very sick recently with double pneumonia and was in intensive care for 25 days. For a further few months I was in a wheel chair with oxygen, and recouped slowly. But by some miracle and the love and care of my very dear and near ones, I performed seven concerts and am looking forward to the fall tour. I just composed a piece of music for the brilliant violist Joshua Bell and Anoushka which will be premiered at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. I am also writing another piece for Phillip Glass and Anoushka to play, and I am also writing another concerto for an orchestra in New York, and keeping busy. Through my centre in Delhi, I am getting a youth choir ready. Some of those children recently went to Austria and performed beautifully with the help of few of my senior disciples.
I am so proud of both my daughters, Norah and Anoushka who are doing so well! Norah had a fantastic tour here in the states and is now in Europe. Anoushka just performed for a capacity crowd of 14,000 people at Stern Grove, and is also in Europe. Shubho's children; my grandson Som, and granddaughter Kavi are also doing very well, and I have just had a great-grandson, Prem. What else can I ask for? I have a beautiful centre in New Delhi and hope and pray people will support it for posterity.
I don't know what to say when you ask me if I did all my projects for money and fame. I have always bubbled with energy and desire to do new things and never bothered about the financial aspect of it. Never in my life have I sat back and settled with my laurels. I have gone further and further with wanting to do new things, experimenting with music, instruments and musicians and dancers. If I had just performed my concerts which I had plenty of, and wanted to make money, I would have been a multi-millionaire now. (I think the record was something like 43 concerts in 42 days in the late 60's. Penny Estabrook toured with me then and she can tell you about that.)
I spent money from my pocket when I did; Melody and Rhythm, Navarasa Ranga, two big musical extravaganza etc. I maintained Ustad Allah Rakha in the states and paid him a monthly salary plus concert fees for so many years. I took my students like Harihar, Amiyo, Kartik Kumar, Shamim Ahmed, those days for concerts and kept them there to teach etc. Way back in 1969 I got Ustad Bismillah Khan to come and perform at the Hollywood bowl. In those days I paid for all his expenses and gave him a fee of 10,000 dollars.
In the late sixties, I also presented the Festival of India (one) concerts; bringing artists like Shivkumar Sharma, Jitendra Abhisheki, Palghat Raghu and several others. In 1974 when George asked me to join him to perform for one half of his concert tours, I could have just gone myself but I told George that I want the world to see and hear all our wonderful music and musicians. George had not heard any of them. I suggested and took Hari Prasad, Shivkumar Sharma, L. Subramnaiam, T.V. Gopalakrishnan, Lakshmi Shankar, Allah Rakha, and few others, and we had a fantastic tour.
Then the festivals which I did for 6/7 years every year in Benares where I invited almost all the artists and again all this from my own pocket. Then Uday Utsav. I started the Music Circle in Los Angeles with my disciple Harihar Rao by giving free performances to collect money. The Music Circle has invited all artists to have shows and to this day Harihar is doing a great job in running it.
From the late 1950's I have been performing all the major halls in the world including Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall etc. I have been having sold-out performances mainly consisting of the host community. Anybody can pay the money and hire a hall and perform, the prestige comes when the hall engages you.
This is the first time I am talking about these things as you are asking me. I don't send messages to India for the press every time I do some thing, and this is probably the reason that not many people in India know about what I have done in the west.
Then came the historic Bangladesh concert. That was my baby, first of its kind to collect money on a grand scale. I asked for Georges help for the plight of the people of Bangladesh, and George quickly got his friends together, and I got Ali Akbar to play with me.
In 1982 I produced another big show at Carnegie Hall and invited Ali Akbar to play with me. Then there was this concert at the huge church in new York called St. John the Divine and had a whole night concert with musicians, and I played last. People still remember me when I was playing the sun rose and the rays fell on my face through those high windows. It was magical. I can go on and on…
What a blessed musician he was – John Coltrane! Like some great creative musicians of different forms and eras he gave so much –like a magic pot being filled with his golden music spilling over and feeding his ecstatic admirers. Maybe that is why his mortal body couldn’t take it anymore – and he died so early, leaving his adoring listeners who miss him so much!
I first met him in New York around ’64. My dear friend Richard Bock of World Pacific brought us together. We had a few sessions in my hotel room where I was staying and I had also gone to hear him once where he was performing. I was very impressed meeting him because from my early years I had met or seen performing many of the legendary jazz greats – and formed the opinion that most of them were very unsophisticated and earthy individuals, being addicted to alcohol, or drugs or both. But John seemed so different. He had sophistication, dignity and at the same time such humility! Dick Bock had already told me that John had given up eating meat, had become a vegetarian, and was reading books on Shri Ramakrishna and also doing yoga.
He had heard me perform and had most of my LP records that were available and was told by Dick Bock that he was a great admirer of mine and Indian Classical Music! In our sessions he asked me many questions about the basis of our music: the way we learnt from the beginning, how much was written down, how much was memorized, how much was fixed, how and when we started improvising, etc. He did not have his instrument with him, but I had my sitar and he was taking notes from my answers. There came the question of the drone, which is an essential part of our music. I explained that a continuous drone is maintained by the 4 or 5 stringed background drone instrument ‘tanpura’, which registers mainly the tonic and its fourth or fifth note to establish the ‘raga’ (or melody form) that the artist is performing. He said that he had been experimenting with the drone effect in some of his compositions after hearing me play, and said that the effect was also very calming and soothing. I had heard, just before meeting him, some cassettes of his latest compositions and I said, “John, if you don’t mind I will ask you a question. I just heard some recordings of your new compositions and I was very intrigued” …he looked perplexed. I continued, “ I was so impressed and found it amazing and touching as well,, but in places I felt you were crying out through your instrument and it was like a shriek of a tormented soul. I have heard the same from many other great jazz performers which is quite understandable because of their pain and the hurt of generations comes out in their music. But seeing and knowing you I thought that the interest and love of our tradition and music has helped you to overcome this…” I will never forget the expression on his face, and the words which he said with such a deep feeling which brought tears to my eyes. He said, “Ravi, that is exactly what I want to know and learn from you… how you find so much peace in your music and give it to your listeners.”
This was in our last meeting - we embraced and parted with such love. We also fixed a future date in the summer of 1967 when he would keep himself free to come to LA for six weeks and take lessons from me. This alas was never to be.