Saturday, December 15, 2012

Ravi Shankar: From Yehudi Menuhin To Woodstock

Ravi Shankar: From Yehudi Menuhin To Woodstock
                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi

Pandit Ravi Shankar’s worldwide popularity derived from his musical genius ofcourse, but also from his exceptional cosmopolitanism. Sixty years ago, Amjad Ali Khan’s father, Sarod Maestro Hafiz Ali Khan, would not allow his music to be recorded because it would be “played at paan shops which would debase it”.

That was courtly exclusiveness but also parochialism of a very high order.

Ravi Shankar took classical music away from this restrictive attitude. He carried it to every corner of the globe. He could do so because he had, as they say, “chosen his parents with care”. His father was a much travelled lawyer, a Bengali settled in Varanasi. Bengali settlements along the Ganges is an exquisite pattern of migrations which lurk in Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and for which Ravi Shankar provided the music.

Why Ray chose the other great sitar player, Vilayat Khan, for his remarkable lyric in Cinema, Jalsaghar, is a question well worth asking Sandip, Ray’s son.

Another advantage Ravi Shankar had over his contemporaries were his travels to the West as part of his eldest brother, Uday Shankar’s dance troupe. The lilt of dance in his music can be sourced to that experience.

“I was young and handsome and enjoyed walking the Latin Quarter in Paris in my three-piece suit, with a cigarette dangling from a fancy holder.” Yes, Ravi Shankar could be mistaken for a show-off, but such narrations were generally laced with a naughty sense of humour, an impish grin, exposing a perfect set of teeth and a well shaped mouth, and eyes which were both penetrating and mischievous. His slight frame did not come in the way of his being a captivating presence and quite conscious of that fact.

He had a natural gift of making connections and charm which he could turn on at will.

When Dr. Narayana Memon, a Veena player and Director General of All India Radio, organized an East West Music Festival in the 60’s, the stellar attendance included Yehudi Menuhin, Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan. Evidently, Yehudi and Ravi Shankar had met earlier. In the course of these interactions, Ravi Shankar had made the connection.

Lord Harewood, the moving spirit behind the Edinburgh Music Festival, a friend of both Narayana Menon and Yehudi Menuhin, had Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan ferried to Edinburgh where, for the first time, the two left an abiding impression on the audience, indeed on world music.

Sarod Maestro Ali Akbar, by universal consent the finer musician, would by himself have been lost without Ravi Shankar, much the man of the world, holding his hand in a completely new cultural space.

Introducing Indian classical music to Western classical circles was certainly Ravi Shankar’s contribution. But soon, his yen for public relations overreached itself.

While Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was keeping the Beatles in his thrall at his Chaurasi Kutia, Ashram on the Ganges in Rishikesh in 1968, Ravi Shankar could not resist the temptation of high voltage publicity that the Woodstock music festival offered in 1969.

The great Tabla player, Allah Rakha used to close his eyes in embarrassment whenever he was asked about his and Ravi Shankar’s appearance on the High Stage at Woodstock. While Ravi Shankar tuned his sitar, the Hippie enthusiasts below, celebrated the occasion by resorting to such copious love making that Ravi Shankar and Allah Rakha quickly packed their instruments and left the venue in a daze.

Despite Ravi Shankar’s growing disenchantment with the non-classical sector of Western music, he made space for Beatle George Harrison’s persistent interest in the sitar. Some Beatle numbers like Norwegian Wood have been composed on the sitar but the quality of music does not quite justify instruction at Ravi Shankar’s feet.

Why musicians of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar’s class should find California more compelling than India is surprising. Did the nightmare of earning a pittance from All India Radio concerts in the 50s and 60s psychologically dislocate them? Financial gain alone cannot explain the lure of the West. It is just possible that great artists transcend national boundaries, M.F. Hussain for his reasons and Ravi Shankar for his. They become truly global citizens.

Mir Taqi Mir lamented:
“Kab talak tung rahein sheher
                          Ki deewaron mein?”
(How long should I remain constrained in the walls of this city?)

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