Although he stands just 5 feet 3 inches tall, Ravi Shankar is a towering musical figure. George Harrison called the Indian sitar master the Godfather of World Music, and perhaps no one has influenced as many different kinds of musicians – from the Beatles, the Byrds and the Grateful Dead to John Coltrane (who named his son Ravi) and avant-garde composer Philip Glass. Shankar’s new album, Chants of India, produced by Harrison, finds Shankar both demonstrating his mastery of classical Indian forms and experimenting with new compositions. At 77, Shankar hasn’t lost a bit of his wry sense of humor or youthful enthusiasm.
How did Chants of India come about?
Steve Murphy [the president of Angel Records] said, “I would like you to do some of those chantings from India, because they had a great success with those Spanish monks.” George Harrison was very enthusiastic, and he wanted to take charge of the production. These chantings are very old, from the Scriptures. Some I composed. “Mangalam” came to me while I was walking in Friar Park, George’s place, where we were recording. I was looking at the trees and the sky, and feeling very elated all of a sudden, wishing everything should be good for everyone, and it just came to me.
Do you often compose that way?
That’s the trouble with me. When I’m commissioned, I have a lot of problems. I have great difficulty sitting in the middle of the night and writing. Everything I do comes spontaneous. Sometimes it takes a long time; sometimes it comes just like that.
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How much input did Harrison have?
He took great interest and participated by strumming his guitar or playing the glockenspiel, vibraphone, autoharp, and some vocals. He inspired me with his enthusiasm.
Describe your relationship with George Harrison.
[Harrison] gives me tremendous respect. He’s very Indian that way. We are such good friends, and at the same time, he is like my son, so it’s a beautiful, mixed feeling.
When did you first meet him?
In 1966 at the house of a friend. I had heard of the Beatles, but I didn’t know how popular they were. I met all four, but with George, I clicked immediately. He said he wanted to learn [sitar] properly. I said it’s not just learning chords, like the guitar. Sitar takes at least one year to [learn to] sit properly because the instrument is so difficult to hold. Then you cut your fingers to this extent [shows tips of two fingers – purple, with calluses]. He said he would try. He seemed so sweet and sincere that I believed it.
So what did you think of “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”?
To tell you the truth, I had to keep my mouth shut. It was introduced to me by my nieces and nephews, who were just gaga over it. I couldn’t believe it, because to me, it sounded so terrible.
Did you like the Monterey Pop Festival?
I was shocked to see people dressing so flamboyantly. They were all stoned. To me, it was a new world. I liked Otis Redding; the Mamas and the Papas; Peter, Paul and Mary, because they were very soothing. Then I saw Jimi Hendrix. I saw how wonderful he was at the guitar, and I was really admiring him, and then he started his antics. Making love to the guitar. And then, as if that was not enough, he burned the guitar. That was too much for me. In our culture we have such respect for musical instruments, they are like part of God.
When did you first come to America?
I came to New York in 1932. The Empire State Building was new. I was having fever. Whenever I was very excited, I would get a temperature. Coming to New York on a boat in the morning mist and fog, and slowly you see these giant buildings. It was magic. I went to the Cotton Club and saw Cab Calloway. He was so gorgeous. I went to Broadway – Will Rogers doing his lasso tricks – and Radio City Music Hall, with the Rockettes. Wow!
What excites you now?
Now it is special effects. Disneyland. Big malls, like the Mall of America. I don’t know why.
Do you watch television?
My favorite [TV show] was always Mission: Impossible. I Spy. Hawaii Five-O. I have a special liking for suspense.
Do you miss the big audiences you had in the ’60s?
Well, in the ’50s I started getting audiences and playing in Carnegie Hall [to people] that were not just Indians. The only difference is that when George became my student, I got a new audience: the younger generation. And, of course, they came like a flood because the whole thing happened together with the hippie movement and this interest in Indian culture. Unfortunately it got all mixed up with drugs and Kamasutra and hash and all that. I was like a rock star. The superficial people who just came because everyone else was going dropped out. Those who stayed are still there. They’re in middle age, and they don’t have beads or long hair, and they’re free from drugs. I never said one shouldn’t take drugs or drink alcohol, but associating drugs with our music and culture, that’s something I always fought. I was telling them to come without being high on drugs. I said, “Give me the chance to make you high through our music,” which it does, really. I think it’s good I made that stand, and that’s why I’m still here today.
This story is from the May 15, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.