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HVK Archives: Gentle guru still seeking new ways to learn

Gentle guru still seeking new ways to learn - The Times, London

Nigel Williamson ()
3 September 1997

Title: Gentle guru still seeking new ways to learn
Author: Nigel Williamson
Publication: The Times, London
Date: September 3, 1997

There is an aura of serenity about Ravi Shankar that touches all who come
within his orbit. When you meet him it is almost tangible, but its power
works in less intimate surroundings too: in the humid and sweaty big top at
July's annual Womad gathering his mere presence reduced several thousand
boisterous, beer-swilling festivalgoers to hushed reverence before he had
even played a note.

At 77 the world's greatest sitar player is frail - he has suffered two
heart attacks - but he moves with an extraordinary grace and maintains a
tireless schedule. His friend and musical collaborator Yehudi Menuhin once
said that Shankar possessed a "genius and humanity" to rival Mozart, and
for more than half a century he has been a peerless ambassador for Indian
culture. As a classical purist he has given countless recitals of Indian
ragas in the world's greatest concert halls. As an innovative composer he
has worked with a diverse range of orchestral, jazz, folk and pop
musicians. No one has done more to take the sometimes difficult structures
and modes of Indian music to a wider audience.

Although there is little that he has not achieved in a performing career
that began before the Second World War, his serenity remains streaked with
an endearingly boyish enthusiasm - about the trip he makes to Tokyo next
month to receive the Praemium Imperiale, the world's biggest arts prize;
about the joys of performing with his 16-year-old daughter Anoushka; and
about a new album, Chants Of India, produced by the former Beatle George
Harrison, which Shankar ranks among the most important of his career.

The role of the guru has always had a special importance in Indian culture,
hence Shankar's pleasure over the Praemium Imperiale, awarded in
recognition of his work in "encouraging the efforts of future generations
of artist,,," -- something of far more worth to him than the =A390,000 prize.

"Teaching is the Final goal of an Indian musician's life," he says. "It is
not the same in the West. for us, talent is something that is given to you
by your guru and worked at over many years. There are many who are like
parrots and sing and perform all their' lives that which they have learnt.
Then there are creative people who go on adding to it with new ideas and
have the ability to pass it on."

Shankar has established music schools in India and America and is
considered the finest teacher of his generation, but he vigorously rejects
the description of himself as a master. "I am still learning," he insists.
"You can never truly be a master, because music is so endlessly vast. But
I have been very lucky to have had many fine students over the years."

At the head of the class stands Anoushka, a precocious sitar player who is
already a veteran of the concert platform. "I had a son who was very good,
but he died five years ago," Shankar says. "Now our hopes are with
Anoushka. To find someone who is so talented and is also your own child is
very special."

Then there is that other star pupil known by Anoushka simply as "Uncle
George" and to the rest of the world as George Harrison. The relationship
between the two men goes back to the mid-1960s, when the Beatles began
flirting with the sitar on tracks such as Norwegian Wood. The two men have
remained friends and continued to work closely over the years - Harrison
also edited Shankar's forthcoming autobiography, Raga Mala. "George became
my student more than 30 years ago and it is a beautiful relationship - guru
and disciple and friend at the same time. and father and son as veil,"
Shankar says.

He admits to being disturbed when pop musicians began taking up the sitar,
even though he taught many of them. "It bothered me a lot When I first
heard Norwegian Wood," he says. "Young people liked it but I didn't,
because I was steeped in the tradition of the instrument. Gradually I got
used to it and I realised that it doesn't matter. You can use an instrument
in many different ways."

Not unreasonably, Shankar is keen to point out that he was a respected
artist in the West long before he was hanging out with the Beatles and
headlining pop festivals. "I was playing the Albert Hall in 1958, and
George wasn't there then," he says. "I got there by hard work. There is an
excitement in Indian music which has always had an appeal in the West. The
speed and virtuosity immediately have an attraction, but that doesn't have
a sustaining power. I hope I have also been able to convey a deeper side."

Nevertheless, Shankar accepts that the association with Harrison was
responsible for the explosion of interest in Indian music in the late
1960s. "George had good intentions and he meant well. Unfortunately
certain things got mixed up. It was the time of revolution, the onslaught
of drugs, Vietnam. Everything happened together and it was very chaotic
and, in a way, very superficial."

It was a difficult time for Shankar himself, as he struggled to balance the
temptations that accompany fame on such a scale with the basic spirituality
of his musical approach. "I became a superstar in a pop sense, the raga
rock king. I was glad that I was 46 and quite mature, otherwise I would
have gone completely haywire. In India I was criticised as if I had sold
my music to the devil, but I was trying to keep the sanctity of our music.
It took a lot of patience and energy."

Shankar's latest album pushes further at the boundaries of East-West
collaboration (he objects to the label "fusion" as insufficiently organic).
Using chants based on ancient Sanskrit prayers and mantras, Shankar has
created a soundscape that combines classical Indian forms, a choir and
Western instrumentation. "It is one of the most hard-working things I ever
did," he says. "I wanted to do something that would be different while not
losing its Indian quality. I wanted it to he traditional but universal.
George got very excited about it and we added vibraphone and I used harps,
violins and cellos in the background, like drones. It's very different from
all of my other albums, not least because I haven't used a lot of sitar."

One review suggested Shankar had created the Indian equivalent of
plainsong, and he is not unhappy with the description. "Any music can be
exciting on the surface but what stays is something else that touches you
deep inside," he says.

For Shankar music remain the ultimate high. "It is not for everyone. Fame
and money and sex can really catch you. So many of our great yogis have
fallen like that, and so can musicians. I haven't lived the life of a
saint, but I never sold that sacred part of our music. In the 1960s I told
everyone that when they came to me to learn they should come with a clean
head, not stoned on drugs, because I could make them high with the power of
music."

(Chants of India is realeased by EMI, Ravi Shankar's autobiography Raga
Mala will published by Genesis this autumn)


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