Ambassador Shankar: Ravi Shankar's collaborations with George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin, Phillip Glass and other luminaries of Western music broke cultural barriers.
Ravi & Anoushka Shankar at the Civic
The great sitar player, now 87, heads to Santa Cruz this weekend with his daughter.
By Jean Stirling
The strings sob and wail, each plucked note curves hypnotically in the ether, expanding then contracting amid the resonant chamber of vibrating tones in a huge, pulsating multi-octave chord. "I have come to think that sound is god," Ravi Shankar wrote in the liner notes of Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival. Indeed if sound is god, then Shankar has long been a high priest.
Seated on an Indian rug at the Monterey Fairgrounds, 1967, the lean, noble-nosed, full-lipped man with long sideburns and bare feet wielded an elaborate long-necked instrument with many frets, pegs and strings stretched over a large resonant gourd; behind him sat a man and a woman with instruments and clothing just as strange. The 200,000-strong audience was in the middle of a stoned orgy of rock and blues music of such unheard-of scale and intensity that all were aware they were living history. They'd heard Janice Joplin, Country Joe and Otis Redding, all of whom were launched from the Fairgrounds to national stardom, and were waiting to hear Jimi Hendrix. But that afternoon, Ravi Shankar brought the thousand-year-old classical music of India to the noisy crowd and captured the imagination of a Western generation that resonated with it and created the genre that was to be called World Music. By this time, at age 47, Shankar had already had a perceptible impact on contemporary Western classical music and jazz. His groundbreaking collaboration with violinist Yehudi Menuhin in concerts and in the West Meets East recordings broke barriers in both Indian and Western classical music traditions. He had already written award-winning film scores, including what is still considered the perfect integration of cinema and music in his score for Satyajit Ray's classic Apu trilogy. Phillip Glass, Menuhin and John Coltrane (who called his son Ravi) considered him a teacher. George Harrison had met him and soon became his student, bringing the Beatles to India, triggering a decade-long embrace of all things Indian by the hippies of that generation.
"Ravi laid down the groundwork for other Indian musicians who were later able to perform all around the world because of him," Harrison wrote in the preface of Shankar's autobiography, Raga Mala, which Harrison instigated and edited. "For him to go and study for seven years, 18 hours a day, and become master of an instrument which was obscure in most of the world, and for which nobody was particularly craving outside of India, and then spend the rest of his life trying to hip everybody to it—what a thing to do!" Shankar was just 10 when he left India to join his brother, Uday Shankar, and his troupe of dancers and musicians in Paris. The troupe was part of the thrilling crowd of artists, intelligentsia and bohemians of three continents who shaped modern art. Here they met Gertrude Stein, Segovia, Chekhov, Miller. The Russian ballerina Ana Pavlova joined the troupe to learn Indian dance. Ravi danced and played sitar, but after meeting the man who was to be his music guru, Ustad Allaudin Khan, he left this dizzying world to join his master as a shishya, or student, in rural simplicity in India to study the sitar for seven years.
"Vinaya means humility; it is the complete surrendering of the self on the part of the shishya to the guru," writes Shankar in the recently released edition of My Music, My Life. "I would estimate that it requires at least 20 years of constant work and practice to reach maturity and a high standard of achievement in our classical music."Menhuin collaborated with Shankar for many performances and recordings. He wrote that Shankar's "was a music-making that I could have only dreamt of ... [you] master the scales and the rhythms, but you learn to create out of that, out of a given number of formulas ... then you break the shell of the formula, and it emerges as a living work! When Ravi plays, that is what happens."Now 87 years old, in a tour that took him earlier this month to a sold-out concert in Carnegie Hall, Ravi Shankar performs at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium with his daughter, Anoushka Shankar. Ravi has taught Anoushka within the exacting guru-shishya relationship. Her debut performance was at his 75th birthday concert in India; she was 14. Like her father, she has fearlessly taken classical Indian music to a new generation of audiences, fusing Indian and electronic music for her Grammy-nominated CD, Rise, and her 2007 release, Breathing Under Water, on which her half-sister, Ravi's daughter Norah Jones, is a guest artist. In this "Ravi Shankar's Festival of India" tour, history is being made, again, as a master joins the stage with his student.
RAVI AND ANOUSHKA SHANKAR perform Sunday, Nov. 4 at 8pm at the Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $35-$60. 831.420.5260.
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