Ravi Shankar's farewell
Simon Broughton, Evening Standard
Everyone has heard of Ravi Shankar, even people who have never
listened to a note of Indian music. He has an iconic status equalled
by few other musicians in the world – and none of them play an
awkward, jangly stringed instrument like the sitar. His tour was
billed "Farewell to Europe" and several of the dates had been
cancelled due to Shankar's ill health. So perhaps this was the last
chance to see a legend. There was a substantial queue for returns.
Shankar first performed in the West in 1956 and went on to play at
Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock and to work with John Coltrane and
The Beatles. His daughter Anoushka, not yet 27, is starting to
blossom as a sitar player in her own right and performed a fine
opening set with flautist Ravichandra Kulur.
When Shankar, aged 88, came on for the second half, the hall rose.
"Hello London", he said after he'd settled himself down on his dais.
"They are calling this my last London concert", he continued, "but I
hope it is not the final, but the semi-final."
He began with Bihar, a night raga, and at first his sitar sounded
muffled and foggy. My heart sank. I was afraid ill-health had taken
its toll. But incredibly Shankar seemed to take strength from the
instrument itself and the mist started to lift. By the time he
reached the rhythmic section, with Tanmoy Bose on tabla, Shankar was
in his element. Playful and mischievous, his fingers scurried up and
down the sitar with fast rhythmic runs in a ten and a half-beat
rhythm. Shankar's eyes sparkled as he grinned at Bose on tabla and
Anoushka as she interwove her own flourishes with his. Familial
playing at its best.
He ended with a more romantic piece, a light-classical composition
which began with a feeling of wistfulness and resignation, as if he
was looking back not only over a successful career, but an incredibly
fulfilling one. "God bless you," he said, "I hope to see you again."
If he does return, it will be hard to beat this valedictory triumph.
'A hodgepodge of hash, yoga and LSD'
On the eve of his last ever gig in Europe, sitar giant Ravi Shankar
tells John O'Mahony why the 60s got India wrong, how his daughters
give him hope - and why Hendrix annoyed him
Wednesday June 4, 2008
If Ravi Shankar has one abiding memory of the Monterey pop festival -
which took place in the heady summer of 1967, at the height of his
notoriety as the sitar-playing guru to the stars - it is of
unfortunate scheduling. Slated to appear before him were Jefferson
Airplane, a band whose blues-inflected barrage of pulsating sound
couldn't have clashed more with his own karmic composure. And right
after him was one Jimi Hendrix, then still a relative unknown, but
with a growing reputation for ferocious, turbo-charged guitar solos.
"I thought he was fantastic, but so very loud," Shankar says now,
shaking his head. "And then he would do that thing with his
instrument when he would open up a can of gasoline and burn his
guitar. People went gaga for it; they loved it. But for me, the
burning of the guitar was the greatest sacrilege possible. I just ran
out of there. I told them that even if I had to pay some kind of
compensation to get out of playing the festival, I just couldn't do
it." The organisers' solution was to give Shankar his own stage for
an altogether more civilised afternoon performance of assorted ragas,
during which Hendrix sat quietly in the front row.
This predicament highlights what has to be one of the most
extraordinary and often bizarre career trajectories of any living
musician. Now a venerable 88, Shankar is finally saying farewell to
Europe with a tour that culminates at the Barbican in London tonight,
where he will perform a selection of specially chosen ragas with his
daughter, Anoushka, also a sitar player. Much of the tour had to be
cancelled due to a stomach virus - but Shankar has now been declared
fit and ready to play. "My mind, musically ... in every sense I feel
much better than ever before," he says. "But it is the body that
sometimes lets me down."
Meeting Shankar, it's difficult to believe that this diminutive,
deferential man has been such a counterculture luminary. His greeting
comes in the form of a namaskar, a gracious supplicant bow, and his
speech is pitched just above a gentle whisper.
"I really hope I can make a little sense for you," he says, pleading
jetlag brought on by the long journey from his adoptive home in
"I don't adjust quite the way I used to."
It is 50 years since Shankar, already celebrated in his native India,
first travelled to Europe and the US, just as a mania for eastern
philosophy was taking hold. John Cage was serving up Zen silence to
bemused concert-goers, and hippie pioneer Timothy Leary was defending
drug use by claiming membership of an obscure Hindu sect. Shankar
found himself embraced by everyone from John Coltrane, who named a
son after him, to the violinist Yehudi Menuhin; many of his disciples
saw him as a sort of spiritual beacon. Most famously, Shankar became
the guru who turned George Harrison - and, by extension, the Beatles
- on to Indian music, culture and philosophy.
When he met Harrison, in 1966, Shankar knew very little of the
Beatles' music: he hadn't heard Norwegian Wood, Harrison's first
attempt at composition on the sitar. But the two hit it off. "I loved
George as a person," Shankar says. "I gave him his first copy of
Autobiography of a Yogi and that was where his interest in Vedic
culture and Indian-ness began. To me, he was something like a son."
At first, Shankar revelled in the attention that their association
brought. "I was admired by all these hippies," he says, "and it was
wonderful playing at Monterey and Woodstock, performing for half a
But he soon became disillusioned.
"I was extremely unhappy about the superficiality of it all,
especially the wrong information that Dr Timothy Leary and others
were propagating - that everyone in India takes drugs. It was a
hodgepodge of Kama Sutra, Tantra, yoga, hash and LSD, while the true
spiritual quality of our music was almost completely lost."
The focus on Shankar's celebrity friends and admirers, the
flower-power years, has too often obscured the hard-nosed
musicianship of the man. As is still evident in his performances, he
is a sitar player of stunning virtuosity, whose silky, delicate style
often explodes into improvisational rushes more dynamic than those of
any rock guitarist. His collaborations with Menuhin - duets that feel
a little like an east/west variation of Duelling Banjos - rank as
some of the most poignant cultural fusions ever written. In India,
his compositions have entered into one of the most forbidding musical
canons on earth.
He has been a major force for innovation in Indian music. "He has
given a new shape and definition to this instrument over the course
of the 20th century," says his daughter Anoushka. "He added the bass
string that is quite common now. He created the modern notation
system for Indian music. The tabla player was never really an
important factor until my father made percussion a central part. A
lot of what people now consider Indian music can be traced back to him."
Given the improvisational nature of Indian music, Shankar can't nail
down exactly what the audience at his final London concert can
expect. "Unlike western music, we don't have written compositions or
any fixed things," he says. "So, even I don't really know what it
will be. That is the greatest thrill for me, as well as the listener,
because it is like cooking fresh food and serving it hot."
Indian music is also tyrannically precise, with extremely complex
mathematical guidelines for how ragas are played. "There are
thousands of ragas," Shankar explains, "and they are all connected
with different times of the day, like sunrise or night or sunset. It
is all based on 72 of what we call mela or scales. And we have
principally nine moods, ranging from peacefulness to praying, or the
feeling of emptiness you get by sitting by the ocean."
Born in 1920 in the holy city of Benares on the Ganges, Shankar began
his career at the age of 10, touring the world with his brother
Uday's dance troupe - the first to take traditional Indian dance to
the west. Shankar might have ended up a dancer were it not for the
master instrumentalist Ustad Allauddin Khan, who played with the
group. "He used to scold me, saying: 'You will be nothing. You will
be jack of all and master of none.' And that shocked me." When the
war halted touring, Shankar spent seven years studying sitar with
Khan in a remote north Indian village, before emerging in the late
1940s and 50s to become one of India's most celebrated musicians.
He established himself in the west by hitting the road. Starting out
in tiny venues in the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Poland, he was soon
packing out the Albert and Carnegie halls. Coltrane approached him to
ask for lessons, and began to incorporate Indian instruments into his
jazz. "He was getting ready to come to me for six weeks of study when
he died [in 1967]," says Shankar.
In the mid-70s, Shankar began to distance himself from the hippy
movement - though he seems to have been reluctant to let go of one
main principle: free love. During this period, his tangled
transatlantic personal life produced two daughters: Norah in 1979,
with the American concert producer Sue Jones, and Anoushka in 1981 to
his current wife, Sukanya Rajan, whom he pursued while with yet
another long-term partner. This all became newsworthy when Norah
(Jones) hit the big time in 2002, with her debut album Come Away With
Me, and failed to thank her father in her Grammy acceptance speech.
"I guess I am not the only person in this position," Shankar says
contritely. "It happens to a lot of musicians, actors, writers who
become well known and who travel a lot. You are in different
countries and you are lonely."
After years of estrangement, he is now reconciled with Norah, and
Anoushka has become his greatest disciple and hope for the future. At
88, he admits that he finds it difficult not to think of his legacy.
"Yes, I have considered it," he says. "I sit with Anoushka and give
her new things, information that I didn't give her before. That is
what happens with our music - it goes on growing, because it is not
written down or set in a book."
Though this tour is called A Farewell to Europe, Shankar is curiously
noncommittal about whether this will be the last time we see him
perform. "I've had quite a few 'farewell tours' over the past few
years," he smiles. "It sounds like a publicity stunt, but it isn't
really. I love to play for people. But travelling has become a hazard
- taking off your shoes in airports, and all that sort of thing. So
let's hope that this is my last, though in my heart I hope that it is not".
· Ravi Shankar plays the Barbican, London EC2, tonight. Info: 020-7638 8891.