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Ravi Shankar was a virtuoso sitar player long before he became a cult for a drug-fuelled hippy generation that found the exquisite music he plucked from the strings a perfect accompaniment to the consumption of marijuana and LSD. Had technology been what it is now, plugged ears would have been listening to him all the way from London to Kathmandu.
The Beatles, who flirted with Indian mysticism for a while (provoking some delicious satire from Private Eye, which called the Maharishi “Veririchi Lotsamoney Yogi Bear”), became seriously fascinated by the sitar and George Harrison took lessons in Indian classical music. The results were limited, Norwegian Wood probably ahead of the others. Not to be left behind, Brian Jones experimented with the instrument as well in Paint It Black. The fad didn’t last too long. The Beatles and Stones moved on to other things. As with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in later years, the “fusion” between west and east was only partially successful. But the positives should not be underestimated. The Beatles’ affair with Indian music helped project it to a global audience. There was rarely an empty seat at Shankar’s concerts in the United States and western Europe.
His Bengali parents had inculcated a love of music and culture while their boys were very young. Uday Shankar, the older brother, was a very fine classical dancer and choreographer. He had danced with Anna Pavlova in Paris during the 20s and he rarely compromised his art in order to please audiences unfamiliar with Kathakali and other classical Indian dances. The younger brother was the same in his own field.
“A raga,” Ravi Shankar explained to his illustrious fans in the west, “is a scientific, precise, subtle and aesthetic melodic form with its own peculiar ascending and descending movement consisting of either a full seven-note octave, or a series of six or five notes in a rising or falling structure called the Arohana and Avarohana. It is the subtle difference in the order of notes, an omission of a dissonant note, an emphasis on a particular note, the slide from one note to the other … that demarcate one raga from the other.”
The response of Harrison and Jones was not recorded, but even if they understood what he was saying it left no trace in their music or the lyrics. The raga did not dominate Sgt Pepper and as the radical music critic of the 70s Richard Merton pointed out in a startling intervention in the New Left Review of all places, the distinction of the Stones lay elsewhere. For him, Under My Thumb, Stupid Girl, Back Street Girl or Yesterday’s Papers were targeting sexual exploitation: “The enormous merit – and audacity – of the Stones is to have repeatedly and consistently defied what is a central taboo of the social system: mention of sexual inequality. They have done so in the most radical and unacceptable way possible: by celebrating it.” All that can be said on this front is that making love while listening to Under My Thumb might have been more pleasurable to some men. Women would undoubtedly have preferred the slow rising movement of the Arohana.
It was the great violinist of the western classical tradition, Yehudi Menuhin, who understood Shankar immediately and demonstrated this in a series of joint concerts. I was present at one of them. The occasion was affecting and enjoyable. How could it not be with these two virtuosos in command of the evening? It did not work for me on the musical level.
The origins of Indian classical music, not unlike their western counterparts, lie in the Vedas, the ancient Hindu scriptures of 2,000 years ago. The human voice deployed to recite the Vedas and later aid the temple dancers was paramount before any instruments emerged. During the medieval period the entry of Islam in the subcontinent brought with it a Persian tradition of poetry, painting and music that spread from Afghanistan southwards. Melody and rhythm, rather than harmony and counterpoint, dominated the music from the east.
The Indian tradition remained oral, each composition a gift from the guru to his pupil, and hereditary musical families still dominate classical music in south Asia. Shankar was both pleased and amused by his sudden rise to fame and iconic status in the west. His purist colleagues in India were disdainful. Not him. He spoke of how pleased he was by “the openness, willingness to learn and sincere enthusiasm of western audiences”. He meant this, of course, and it was true. But he also knew that the innate knowledge of south Asian music-lovers could not be easily reproduced elsewhere. An all-night open-air concert in lush surroundings on a summer night in Lahore or Delhi, Trivandrum or Dhaka, with the voice of divas competing with the instruments and reaching a crescendo as the dawn light intrudes and they combine for a finale, has no equivalent in the west. Here the constraints of time and money determine the length of a concert.
Indian classical music was born when time barely existed. It developed further within the structures of royal courts and a system of patronage where the ruler or the feudal master determined all. Satyajit Ray‘s cinematic masterpiece The Music Room conveys the obsession and the flavour of that period. Much has changed in South Asia, of course, but all-night concerts still take place.
When I was introduced to Ravi Shankar in London after a concert in the early 60s, he looked at me and asked: “Well?”
“Not the same as in our part of the world,” was the only reply I could muster.
He laughed, a deep throaty laugh. “That it will never be.”
Tariq Ali is the author of The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power. He can be reached at email@example.com.