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Beginning the New Year With Memories of Ravi Shankar

dvd revMany might ask why re-release Raga now [2010]? The answer is simple: it was a very special period of my life.

—Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)

The 1960s without Ravi Shankar, who died on December 11 at 92, seems as unimaginable as the 1960s without the Beatles. The headline over the New York Times obituary credits him with introducing Indian music to the West, but what he brought was beyond music; he radiated the style and ambiance and spiritual charm of his homeland. A generation’s passion for India, the fabrics, the gestures, trinkets, artifacts, posters, incense, the very colors of the country, found its brightest, warmest reflection in his presence and his devotion to his art. If it could be said that any one person was India during that period, it was Ravi Shankar, not the Maharishi or any of the other media-savvy sages.

For people in the so-called art house movie audience who had not been to India, the next best thing to being there was to see Satyajit Ray’s great Apu trilogy, where music composed and played by Shankar helped generate the emotional force of Ray’s art, particularly in the opening moments of Pather Panchali; the explosive impact of the father’s death in Aparajito; and the madness of the bridegroom in The World of Apu. For me, after returning to the States from a year in India however, the music that came closest to reviving the intensity of being up to my neck or over my head in the color and the chaos was not the sound of Shankar, but the soaring, swirling voices of Bollywood’s Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi. The chance of hearing Shankar’s music in the streets of Calcutta was about as good as hearing Mozart’s in the streets of Philadelphia.

In Person

I saw Ravi Shankar three times in India, twice in performance in Allahabad and New Delhi and once at a table by the window in the Kwality Restaurant in Allahabad. To sit down to order dinner after smiling and nodding hello to Ravi Shankar and his party was like casually nodding hello to Mozart. No surprise, really: he was in town for the great Hindu fair taking place at Sangam, where the Jumna meets the Ganges, and for the concert we would be enjoying the next evening. Among those at the table with him was a disagreeable looking man, typical of the well-fed, patronizing types who would accost us with questions (“And from where are you coming? And what is your religion?”); the most annoying such encounter had taken place earlier the same day, when I’d been cross-examined by a formidably pompous individual who suspected I was a spy because I was taking photos at the railway station (“And why is it please, sir, that you are taking these pictures?”). His excuse was that India and Pakistan were at war. My excuse was being a tourist with a fondness for Indian trains and stations.

Next evening the man I’d noticed having dinner with Ravi Shankar was sitting on the stage next to him looking distractingly like my fat, pompous accuser. There was a scowl on his face, his chin was in the air, and when he wasn’t looking superior, he seemed to be giving me dirty looks, as if he knew what I was thinking, which by then was something like what’s one of those officious creeps doing playing tabla with Ravi Shankar? Needless to say, my knowledge of Indian classical music at this time, about half a year before Shankar met George Harrison, was limited. As the raga commenced, the tabla player was still looking sour and cranky before slowly becoming earnest and intent and downright cocky as he began delivering elaborate rhythmic fills for the sitar’s introductory runs. Then, as the two men got into an incredibly involved and precise passion of counterpoint (so closely woven that “counter” had nothing to do with it), they glanced at each other on either side of the invisible temple of music they were building, and when their eyes met, the tabla player’s face lit up with a smile so broad, so sweet, so full of joy that it instantly shamed my misconception of him. From that point on he was beaming and so was the master. The shock of the transformation from fussy Philistine to happy genius was not unlike what happened, one way or another, at least once a day in India. You almost lose your life in a third-class crush on Indian Railways and a minute later your head is swimming in mindless joy.

The tabla player was Alla Rakha (1919-2000), whom Shankar describes in his 1999 autobiography, Raga Mala, as “a great virtuoso, with wonderful tonal quality and a romantic and humorous quality to his playing” who, “as a person,” has “such a good nature, almost like a child.” Grateful Dead drum master Mickey Hart was more extreme, calling Rakha “the Einstein, the Picasso … the highest form of rhythmic development on this planet.”

You can get some idea of the Rakha-Shankar chemistry by seeing Raga, or by viewing their scenes in Monterey Pop and Woodstock on YouTube.

All Aboard

In the opening image of the DVD of Raga, you’re in an Indian Railways carriage sitting next to Ravi Shankar as he stares out the window, his chin propped on his hand. There are no bars on the window to keep out monkeys, beggars, and madmen, so it’s most likely not one of the third-class coaches of my memory but a first-class car on a special train. This being one of those DVD menu sequences that keeps replaying itself until you hit Play Movie, I let it run over and over again to sustain the illusion that I was actually on that gently rocking train with the man, side by side in the moment. The fact that the haunting song accompanying the first appearance of the menu is never repeated is typical of India, where you occasionally lose moments you know are too good to be true before you have time to begin to fathom them. After the appearance and disappearance of the song, we keep moving, the hypnotic sound of the wheels in a fine subtle balance with the tranquil thoughtfulness of the man gazing out the window, perhaps listening to music of the train underscoring the story of his life as an artist, where the acceptance of the impossible is an aesthetic in itself, a sacred fact of life, as Shankar says or suggests more than once in the film, “always that sadness in a raga, that wanting to reach something that I know I never can and each note is like crying out, searching.”

Thoughtful and Worried

In this “very special period” of Ravi Shankar’s life (he would have been in his late forties) you see him reunited for the first time in many years with his musical guru, Ustad Allaudin Khan, the “tyrant” to whom he movingly admits he owes his life; praying with his spiritual teacher; receiving an honorary degree from the University of California; rehearsing with Yehudi Menhuin; teaching George Harrison and others in California, the blue Pacific in the background; and in his glory performing with Alla Rakha. What makes the film special is Shankar’s narration. His voice is tender, expressive, thoughtful, and worried, for he had much to be concerned about in the days when he was being lionized in the West: “the patterns of life changing everywhere …. The very soul of our music seems to be slipping away, so little concern, so much indifference, the young people drifting away from their roots.” The voiceover throughout is close to the lilt of a song, like a spoken version of the music that comes once and once only with the DVD’s menu. The man who died a few weeks ago is speaking to you, intimately, openly, vulnerably, telling you, and this was 40 years ago, “At times I feel as if I don’t belong today. My roots are so deep in the past; sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own country.”

Even so, as the camera moves along the riverfront in Benares, where he was born, he’s saying, “I feel all the richness of India in our music, the spiritual hopes of our people, the struggle for life …. In the holy city of Benares sound is everywhere; as a child I would spend hours filling myself with the vibrations of this place.”

In the sequence on the train, when he’s on his way to pay his respects to the teacher he loves and fears, he’s telling us how he devoted himself to the raga (working for seven punishing years “until it became alive”), which followed, he admits, the period when he was a young man in Paris (“I dressed like a dandy and chased girls all the time”). He also speaks openly about a lifelong “weakness for women” in Raga Mala, which is edited and introduced by George Harrison. At the beginning of the film there he is, one of the handsomest men on the planet, strolling through a crowd somewhere in the U.S. surrounded by fans, two beautiful girls, one Indian, one American, holding on to either arm. In view at the recent memorial service were two other beautiful women: Anoushka, his daughter, a virtuoso sitarist, and his American daughter, the acclaimed singer, Norah Jones. His final performance was a concert with Anoushka, on November 4 in Long Beach, California.

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