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Ravi Shankar: The Rolling Stone Interview

Ravi reflects on ragas, sitars, and the hippie youth's appropriation of Indian culture

Ravi Shankar
Express Newspapers/Getty Images
March 9, 1968

Ravi Shankar spent much of last year teaching two courses in Indian music at the City College of New York. He taught a section for amateurs and one master class. Rolling Stone's New York correspondent, Sue Clark, attended his classes and at the end of the series sat down with her teacher and conducted the following interview.

Please tell us something about your concept of programming for your concerts at Philharmonic Hall – that is, a concert of spring ragas, rainy season ragas, etc., and what prompted you to use this idea?
Well, I always like to make programming, the items that I play, as interesting and as varied and representative of all different forms within our classical framework as possible. This was completing my 10 concerts within 12 months which, I think, would normally be too much for any artist to play in the same city, within 12 months. Therefore, I was very much more conscious that there should be a little different approach, particularly to the last three programs. I thought grouping them into seasonal ragas would be something very interesting. We have a lot of beautiful ragas which are associated with the spring, and the same way with the rainy season, and for the third one I had morning ragas, especially the very, very beautiful and and one of our most important morning ragas Lalit. Usually it is not the practice in India to play morning ragas in the evening, but in India we do sometime have, you know, very late night programs which run 'til the morning, early morning, so therefore we do get scope to play morning ragas. But here, this doesn't ever seem to be, playing very late night or early morning, therefore it would be impossible for the people in this country to get any idea, excepting long-playing records. That's why I think it was very well appreciated.

You have always mentioned that in India music is played for many more hours than in U.S. concerts. Does this refer to individual ragas that are played for a longer time?
Well, both, both. Each individual raga is also definitely played for a longer span of time, and the whole chunk of "sitting" as we call it, is longer than here.

And there are also more ragas played. Do you have breaks in India? In other words, do you play one raga for a period of time and then have an intermission?
It depends where the program is held. If it is just a one man show, my program alone, either at some concert hall or some big place, outdoor or whatever it is, then we do have an intermission. And it might be 2 hours, 2-1/2 hours, then an intermission, then again it goes on for 2 hours or so. So the whole thing might, with the intermission and everything, come to about 4, 4-1/2 hours. Once I played for 10-1/2 hours continuously, with one intermission only, and a very short, about 5 minutes break, toward the end! A whole night, very tiring of course, but at the same time it was so inspiring, the audience was so good, and I came to such a mood that it just happened. And, 8 hours I have played, many times, 7 hours, 8 hours. But this is mostly in music circles – that is, a smaller group of people, not more than say 200 to 300, or 400 at the most, and is either held in a big hall, or at somebody's house, or some school building. And these music circles, you know, they cannot pay artists much, but these consist of understanding music lovers, and they contribute and just have a one artist program, and they hear him or her to their hearts' content.

Would you please tell us about the ideas behind the recordings you made with Bud Shank and Yehudi Menuhin?
There was no idea at all as far as Bud Shank is concerned, because I wanted to do Pather Panchali theme music and I needed a flute player. At that time I really didn't know Bud Shank, and my friend Richard Bock said he is one of the best and I found him very nice. When we did that, some people said what about playing with a few more jazz musicians, would I be interested? I was very clear about it. I did not want to play, personally, the sitar in a jazz number, but I just wanted, for fun, to see what happens. Then I did this little piece called "Fire Night" on the spot and his accompanists on drum, guitar, and double bass, they came, and this recording was done. That's the only thing I did as far as a little experiment in jazz, along with also Kanai Dutta, and Harihar Rao, one or two people who were there on drums. But I have never played myself, in any other form of music than my own – which seems difficult enough to me. To attempt to play any other form, I really don't feel that I should, because it won't be doing justice to it. With Yehudi Menuhin, it is also something which came spontaneously. You see, Yehudi and I have been great friends for many, many years, and, in fact, he got to know and love Indian music through me. That's why we have a special relation, you see.

And, having heard and read and to a certain extent studied a little about Indian music, he naturally felt the desire to just try to play something, and that's how it happened.

A German musician was commissioned to write some piece, which he did, based on the raga Tilang. Both Yehudi and myself found it a bit difficult in a sense, you know. It was neither Indian, nor . . . well, we were not happy with it. But we kept about a minute or two of that piece and I redid almost everything and played it at the Bath Festival because, you know, he was commissioned. But after that when people suggested that we record it, then both of us felt that we should redo the whole thing completely. So I wrote completely a new thing, of course on the same raga, which is a traditional raga, Tilang. And then I wrote also a very short piece for him based on a morning raga, and these two pieces were recorded. And now, again, some time ago, on the 10th of December, there was the Human Rights Day at U.N., where we were requested to play a duet, I again wrote a completely new piece for this occasion, which we have recorded just a few days ago.

I was surprised, I enjoyed the U.N. much more than the recording (West Meets East, Angel 36418).
Ah, yes. It is definitely not only a better piece, but more appropriate and Yehudi feels much more at home now and I think the whole thing went off much better.

So you consider this really Indian music, even though Yehudi Menuhin is playing with you?
Yes. This particular composition, for instance, was Indian music, based on a raga, Tala.

Why did you choose the sitar rather than any other Indian instrument?
Well, it came, something happened . . . though I always played many other instruments like sarod, flute, tabla, the sarangi, a bowed instrument, but I always came back to sitar. I think that's something that I always loved more than any other instrument.

Has the increased interest in you as an artist and Indian music become apparent in other countries outside of the United States?
Yes. I can certainly tell you this much, that United States is definitely leading in this movement, or rather, appreciation of Indian music, not only now, but since the very beginning. Because it was here, almost 11, 12 years ago, that it started. I mean people were not even much aware of it anywhere else. Of course, during the last 2 or 3 years, Great Britain, which really should have been the first one to have been conscious of Indian music because of its relation to India for almost 150 to 160 years, but unfortunately that was not the case. But now in England, all the Scandinavian countries, Germany – everywhere, even eastern European countries – I have had no problem. Really, you see, anywere, from the northmost part that I have been, called Umea, a place in Lapland which belongs to Sweden, to the southmost part in New Zealand called Dunedin, I have had no problem to communicate, and everywhere I have seen very open and very appreciative audiences. But nothing to beat the United States.

The marked increase among your fans has been among the young, but have you also found an increase among older people, because of, or brought on by, the new attention focused on you?
Yes, definitely among the older people because, as you said, of the new attention focused. Many times I feel that they are dragged by their young son or daughter, or the grandson or the granddaughter. It's very strange, you know. Once they are there, as you say, they are "hooked."

In playing for audiences in the past including Philharmonic Hall, do you find a difference in the receptivity in these audiences as opposed to those you encountered at Monterey and CCNY? Do you think it has an effect on you as a performer?
I don't think there is any effect as a performer. And little by little I am finding that they are becoming the same. About 2 years ago, there was a marked difference between a place which was very sort of snobbish, but now, for instance, my last performance at Philharmonic Hall, I felt the same magic, the same, yes, magic is the word, I cannot explain anything else, which I felt in Monterey, strangely enough, though all those colors and sort of obvious hippie and long-haired look was not there, you see. I think this should be taken down, because I really strongly object about all these music critics in the papers all over this country who have been only trying to focus and write that Ravi Shankar is "raga rage" and all this, you know, funny words, and attracts the hippies, and the long-haired ones, and the high mod and the colors and beads. Even if there are, you know, about four or five in the hall, out of say 3,000 or 3,500 people dressed normally, these critics make it a point to make the headline, that, as if my audience are only that, which I really think is atrocious, because it gives completely a view which is not true.

How and when did you meet Alla Rakha?
I know Alla Rakha since, I think it would have been 1939, yes, 1939, and I always liked him as a drummer, and he has been – of course, in India I have to play with many different people – but he is one of my very favorite accompanists. And especially I like him, I mean I like to bring him more than many other people because of a certain showmanship, and the happiness that he sort of exudes. But we really do have some very good drummers in India and maybe in the future we'll have the chance to bring others also. But I feel definitely very happy playing with him. He is one of my most favorite.

In other words, you think you have a particular empathy with him when you play?
Yes, which is very natural, and that always comes when you play with someone for quite a long time and continuously.

Do you find it difficult to compose movie soundtracks? Did you approach the idea of writing the music for Pather Panchali the trilogy in a different light than the music that you wrote for Chappaqua – other than the obvious subject differences?
Ah, Pather Panchali was the most inspiring film that I wrote music for, and it was so spontaneously done. I saw the film, composed on the spot, along with myself and only four other musicians, and everything was done within 4-1/2 hours, I think an all-time record anywhere. Satyajit was not the great Satyajit Ray, which is now, he was a very nice, humble person. You know, of course, now he does his own music, he doesn't have to have any music director, but the next two also, I was very inspired, but, you know, it took a little more time, more musicians, and was done in a more sophisticated manner. Chappaqua for me was one of the most difficult films to write music for because I found the director [Conrad Rooks] one of the most difficult. He was not decided at all. Each time I went to do music, I saw a different thing. It went on changing, changing, and I really haven't seen the finished film now. I don't know. I did almost an hour of music for Chappaqua,but. I believe there is only 17 minutes that is being kept of my composition music. And I really do not know what the net result is excepting for the last sequence, which I was told was still there, which I think is very powerful music. The rest of the whole music, I did a lot of wonderful experimental things – you know, with jazz groups, with symphonic music players and with folk music players with Indian instruments, a lot of different things. I really don't know how much the effect is there.

Have you ever played any western musical instruments, such as the guitar?
No. I might have just, you know, fiddled it for fun, but never seriously. Never! Never!

Do you know the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and would you care to make any comments on his influence on George and The Beatles?
I believe in one thing: that anyone who is able to do something good for someone, I mean, should be praised. I have met Maharishi once or twice, but I won't say I know him enough. I know, just like many people, how much he is influencing George and The Beatles as well as many other people in the show business in particular and if they are going to be really helped, and if they find peace through his way of spiritual uplift-ment, then I think it's good. But you know there are many different ways, just like music, being many different musicians who have different ways but they might all bring peace and love when you hear them. Same way in this line of spiritual, you know, gurus. You find many different types. I have my own spiritual guru, and I'm so happy, and I feel so satisfied that I might appreciate many other famous gurus, but, you know, I am not attracted that way, because, I have found the person. That's why it's very difficult for me to make any different comment.

Do you feel any other type or genre of music should be played on the sitar other than Indian music?
Well, I do hear lot of this jazz raga, raga rock and all this. I have no objection, you know, to anyone, to anything. I always sort of have a stock answer to this. For instance, take the guitar as an instrument. See the range of music played on the guitar from Segovia, John Williams, Julian Breame to Montoya, to you know, Pete Seeger or all these folk people and then this electronic guitar and rock and roll and what have you. So it doesn't matter really. There cannot be any police regulation that only Indian classical music should be played on sitar! And people are playing, let's face it, and now you hear even electric sitars which are being used and many people are making a lot of fuss over it which is silly because I remember electric sitar having been popular in India during the last 25 years or more. And there are some people who have been using it in our film music and light music in India. But all of a sudden it seems that someone has created it and it is something new. It is not.

You have heard the guitars which are tuned like sitars? Have you heard this at all?
Yes, I have and it sounds new, it sounds different, not to me so much, but I think to people especially in this country who always go for something new.

How are you enjoying your extended stay in New York and in the United States?
To me, you know, from my childhood I always had a fascination for United States. And especially, now with all the love I have, and admiration I have received and I have been able to, and also give as much as I can in, ah, by starting the school in Los Angeles, and finding such wonderful students, I feel like it is my second home. So, you know, what can I say about that?!

Does your name have an English meaning?
Ravi means sun. It's a Sanskrit original word. And Shankar is another name of Shiva, one of the holy trinity god that we worship.

Would you care to comment about Indian music and drugs? The English singer-poet Donovan recently published this statement on his record cover: "Oh what a dawn youth is rising to! I call upon every youth to stop the use of all drugs and banish them into the dark and dismal places for they are crippling our blessed growth."
It is very strange, you know, because all this, ah, youngsters and all this, either Beatle or Donovan, who, they are saying the things which I have been saying for last many years. They are saying it a bit, you know, they are themselves a bit late. But I am glad they have understood it by themselves. Now the question is, just as themselves they took long time to come to this conclusion in spite of . . . many people must have told them, but they were not convinced. Something has made them convinced by their own experiences. And also now it depends upon their saying, and singing and composing all the songs, how much effect it will have on the young people who listen to them. If these young people who listen are are great fans of all these pop musicians who are now writing against drugs, it might have very good effect. There might be still a number of young people at large who might not be affected by this philosophy and still continuing to pursue, to find out things through drugs. Some of them, not all of them might go, you know, far out, and then, what is that word, point of no return. Something happens. I've been very strongly against this whole thing, you know, and I've been talking and writing about it, speaking often as I can to the young people. And I was concerned because of two reasons: All this big wave of Hare Krishna, etc., and beads, bells and joss sticks being carried in their ears or between their teeth like Carmen carries a rose, always sort of hurt me very much. I saw on one side their real willingness to feel something and get something out of the Indian cultural heritage, religious or spiritual. And also, music was there. I should have been very happy because I am very much loved by these people. But on the other hand I felt the whole approach. Either to religion or to music, the whole Indian concept, you know. And, drugs were sort of the bridge. It is now on its wane. Because now slowly that frenzy seems to be less. Of course, what I saw in California, especially San Francisco area, in Haight-Ashbury. It chilled me inside to see. India has the oldest hippies in this world, I think, before anywhere else. All this long beards, all this fantastic looking sort of types, you know, all drugged and mad things. This has been there always. But then, it's not thought of for these young people. I have always felt that these young people today are the most sensitive, most aware, people, so much more than the young people in the old, you know, a few years ago. On the other hand it is some of these self-appointed gurus, as I say, in this country. I don't like to take their names, but you know, who for the last few years have either been to India, or brought all this philosophy from India and tried to talk all the time. This had great effect on the youth, that everything you should do should be through drugs: in India everyone takes drugs, everyone smokes hashish or bhang, without taking marijuana you cannot say "Om," you cannot sing, you cannot meditate, and all sorts of things. And then unfortunately, the whole mix-up of sex and spiritual exercise all became one, you know. All of a sudden I saw it was more like a pagan ritual like you find in those peculiar books or those peculiar films, you know, orgies and religious things together. And it makes me sad because I happen to be a Hindu, a Brahmin, and belong to a very religious family and I know what has happened in India and what is happening. And it is absolutely gross, I mean, a distortion of facts. As I said, you do find lots of this type, yes. But these are the types that we really look down upon. These are all what we call the worshippers of devils. These are the witchcraft people, you know, they have what is known as siddhi, those quick attainments, by doing the sort of rituals and they are the people, you know, who sort of go to help people to get certain little powers, which according to our true yogis are nothing, mere nothing. It is the most basic that one should shun all this quick attainment, you know, and it is all associated with this type of so-called ascetics or religious people who are really not. They are followers of devils, as we think. And this became more attractive to the youth here because that is what they were told. And this whole mixup with the Tibetan and the Dead and Tantra and philosophy. It really made me so disturbed. And then there was the Indian music. They get high and stoned after taking drugs and then they put my records on and they try to see visions. And just after a little they just like animals start, you know, making love, and all that association with the music, it made me feel very unhappy. I've been talking and talking since then, and I feel so happy to see the big difference already. Of course the whole thing has happened together, the other side, of course, Beatles and many pop groups are now all saying, denouncing rather, drugs, and talking about it and maybe it has helped also. I find a great difference. For instance the groups of listeners that I had even a few months ago in the month of May, in San Francisco. And now the group that I am having. Last year in New York Philharmonic Hall there were two young boys, they were so stoned, they were LSD completely, they were just like zombies, they walked on the stage and they came straight and they sat on the dais before I entered and then the police had to take them and they were sent to Bellevue Hospital. It was fantastic, almost 50 to 60 percent of the whole auditorium was stoned, you know. Almost to that ratio. But I found a great difference this time – you find really, that's what I have been talking about, I want clear-headed, clean, physically clean and mentally clean people when they listen. Just as they would go to Bach or Beethoven, or any classical orchestra. They don't go like that. Why do they associate Indian music with that? It's so wrong absolutely. Here I've been trying to preach, and that's what I've been doing in my school in Los Angeles, that's what I tried to do in CCNY, and I think I have been quite successful in that, at least the group of people who have been hearing and talking about it to others. I think it will have very good effect, bring out the pure and clean side of our music and culture.

I was surprised to see a string break at your concert Saturday night. Is this an uncommon occurrence?
Well, it does happen once in a while, you know; the string that broke the other night at Philharmonic Hall was one of the sympathetic strings. It didn't bother me much. But sometimes the main strings also snap. It is one of those rare things. It can't be helped.

Who are some of your favorite Indian musicians?
Oh, well, this could run into pages. But among the singers my great favorites, among the living ones, are Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam, Ali Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, and others; in the South M. S. Subbulakshmi, and D. K. Pattamal; and among the instrumentalists, of course, the great Ali Akbar Khan, is one of my very favorite. He happens to be my brother-in-law and son of my guru, a great sarod player. I appreciate very much Vilayat Khan, the sitar player, and Bismillah Khan, the shehnai player; and among the tabla players, of course, Alla Rakha, Kishan Maharaja, and all these people.

When you record, are any of the ragas edited down for release or are they released as you played them?
Most of them are not. But at times, you know, I have helped; I am always there when it is edited. Like, suppose there is lot of tuning, which has to be done, and if the tabla has not started yet, it's very easy to eliminate a big length of tuning, and things like that.

For example, the record done at Monterey is unedited?
No, it has been edited a little here and there, just the tuning parts, and things like that. Otherwise it is not.

Have you ever played an electric guitarfor kicks?
No, but I have got an electric sitar which was given to me by a manufacturer about 8 or 10 years ago. A number of other electric sitars, you know, are manufactured by some Indians, and have been for many years. I've just played for fun.

Have you ever heard any non-Indian music played on the sitar in a way that you approve? The question of "approving" doesn't come, as I said earlier, I don't care one way or the other, but I have never heard any music, non-Indian music, played on sitar that has impressed me, let's put it. To be good enough, you know. I am not so orthodox or small minded – if something is done beautifully I will certainly appreciate it.

This story is from the March 9th, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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