(In the YouTube link above) Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Allarakha at the Monterey pop festival in 1967
A lot has been written in the mainstream media about sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar following his sad demise on December 11. Most articles have played touching tributes to India’s biggest musical ambassador, and I personally was honoured to be asked to contribute by Mid Day newspaper, where I once worked. For those who haven’t seen that piece, the link is attached below.
However, it was shocking to see one newspaper reproduce a critical and controversial article published by a magazine some 12 years ago, on Ravi-ji’s relationship with his first wife Annapurna Devi. Whatever happened in his personal life, this was certainly not the time to rake up old issues, that too with something that was printed so long ago. I was at a wedding reception a few days ago, where many musicians attended, and a lot of them felt this was in very poor taste.
As mentioned in my newspaper article, Ravi-ji has done a lot to promote the cause and popularity of Indian classical music, both within the country and abroad. I won’t get into details again. What I would emphasise, however, is that rather than picking faults with his personal life, it is important for everyone from the musicians, the media, show organisers and even ardent fans to do their bit to carry his legacy and musical ideals forward.
Indian classical music, though extremely popular among its followers, still has a restricted audience compared to Hindi film music or western pop music. Ravi Shankar spared no effort in helping newer audiences understand the genre. I was lucky to have interviewed him five times, and spoken to him over the telephone on a few occasions. The first time, he charmingly tried to gauge my understanding of the genre, so that he could choose how to phrase what he wanted to say. He would explain the technicalities and tell stories in such a way that even lay listeners would be captivated.
A large section of today’s youngsters are unfortunately not exposed to so much Indian classical music, and prefer rock, dance music or Hindi film music. Though some listen to fusion music, purely classical concerts by and large attract the older generation, whether it is the north Indian Hindustani style or south Indian Carnatic style.
While musicians are doing their bit, the media should be more involved in educating the masses, specially the younger lot. Music channels barely feature this genre, and though newspapers carry interviews of musicians and listings of concerts, the amount of coverage isn’t adequate. They should be writing more about the music than what classical musicians eat or wear.
Keeping all this mind, I shall now talk about how youngsters or the uninitiated can go about listening to Ravi Shankar’s music. Everyone has his or own personal taste, and nowhere should they stop listening to what they enjoy. But at the same time, it’s always good to open up one’s mind and listen to other genres. Based on one’s mood or the occasion, one can choose.
On first reaction, Ravi Shankar’s sitar will lend a calm and relaxing effect. But to appreciate it more, one should have a basic idea on how things work, and some of the terms used. One should know a little bit about the sitar, and the main practitioners of the instrument. For that, you could check my earlier blog on the sitar, which you’ll find on https://narenmusicnotes.wordpress.com/2012/10/19/instruments-from-india-2-sitar/
Having done that, it would be worthwhile to pick up some of Ravi Shankar’s recordings. One way is to randomly pick up some CDs from the stores or check out live performances or clips on You Tube. One could specifically look for ragas he excelled in, like Maanj Khamaj, Kirwani, Hem Bihag, Mishra Pilu, Pancham se Gara, Hameer Kalyani, Bhimpalasi or Charukeshi. These may be new names to many of you, but whatever raga you choose, you could just soak in the melody.
Finally, to get an idea of the diverse kinds of music he did, you could choose among the 10 CDs recommended below. There are so many recordings, and choosing only 10 wasn’t easy. Ravi Shankar did a good mix of purely classical music, east-west collaborations and devotional music, and even composed for a few films like the Apu Trilogy, Anuradha and Gandhi. While the film soundtracks are essential listening, I shall try to provide a balance between the other genres, with a brief description of what to expect. Do check them out.
The Sounds of India: This would be a great way to start because it contains an introduction to Indian music, and descriptions of the compositions. The ragas include Maru Bihag, Bhimpalasi and Sindhu Bhairavi. Chatur Lal plays the tabla.
Live at Monterey: This contains his recital at the historic Monterey pop festival in 1967. Here, he is accompanied by the legendary tabla maestro Ustad Allarakha. It was the first major exposure of rock and pop audiences to Indian classical music. Besides raga Bhimpalasi, it contains a fast light classical piece and a six-minute tabla solo recital. Ravi Shankar also played at the 1969 Woodstock festival, facing criticism for playing for a hippie crowd, and at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, organised by George Harrison of the Beatles to raise funds for war victims.
For a clip from the Monterey festival, which defines the kind of storm Ravi Shankar created in the West, you could check the YouTube link pasted above.
Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000: The album is one of Ravi Shankar’s best sellers, mainly because it won the Grammy award for best world music album. Ragas Kaunshi Kanhada and Mishra Gara are played, and it also features his daughter Anoushka Shankar.
In Concert 1972 (with Ali Akbar Khan): This double album contains a jugalbandi (duet) with the great sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and has Ustad Allarakha on tabla. The ragas played are Maanjh Khamaj, Hem Bihag and Sindhu Bhairavi.
West Meets East: A 1967 collaboration with the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, this was a unique experiment, much ahead of its time. The collaboration with the Indian sitar and western violin is mind blowing. The two of them released two more albums in the same series.
Passages: On this 1990 album, Ravi Shankar teams up with the well-known American composer Philip Glass. The style used is that of chamber music, and it also features the violin, cello, flute, saxophones, trombones and tabla.
Sitar Concertos 1 and 2: Ravi Shankar wrote two concertos, where the sitar was played prominently against the backdrop of orchestras from London. The first one was conducted by Andre Previn and the second by Zubin Mehta.
Shankar Family & Friends: This was a unique project that had devotional music, ballet and jazz. The pop bhajan ‘I Am Missing You’, sung by his sister-in-law Lakshmi Shankar became popular, and the album also features Ustad Allarakha, santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and sarod player Aashish Khan
Improvisations: Ravi Shankar first explored the amalgam of Indian music and jazz on this 1962 album, where he was joined by American saxophonist-flautist Bud Shank. A composition called ‘Rich a la Rakha’ is dedicated to drummer Buddy Rich and Ustad Allarakha. The sitar maestro later released another album called Jazzmine exploring a similar theme.
Chants of India: A must for every collection, as its contains ancient Sanskrit chants used in the Vedas and Upanishads, and some mantras. Very peaceful and soothing music.
Besides the CDs, it would be ideal if you could check out his autobiography Raga Mala, which gives a very clear picture of the man and his music. Ravi Shankar changed the way the world looked at Indian music, and it’s absolutely essential for every youngster to hear him.
The link to my Mid Day article, published on December 13, is http://www.mid-day.com/news/2012/dec/131212-Immortal-like-his-music-Pandit-Ravi-Shankar-sitar-American-violinist-Yehudi-Menuhin.htm