FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

What the Beatles Missed About Ravi Shankar

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 tariq.ali3@btinternet.com.

More articles by:

Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).

August 13, 2020
David Correia, Justin Bendell, and Ernesto Longa
Nine Mile Ride: Why Police Reform Always Results in More Police Violence, Not Less
Vijay Prashad
Why a Growing Force in Brazil Is Charging That President Jair Bolsonaro Has Committed Crimes Against Humanity
Brett Wilkins
Teaching Torture: The Death and Legacy of Dan Mitrione
Joseph Scalia III
Yellowstone Imperiled by Compromise
Binoy Kampmark
Don’t Stigmatise the Nuke! Opponents of the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty
Margot Rathke
The Stimulus Deal Should Include Free College
Thomas Knapp
America Doesn’t Have Real Presidential Debates, But It Should
George Ochenski
Time to Face – and Plan for – Our Very Different Future
Ted Rall
Joe Biden’s Vice Presidential Pick is … ZZZZZ
Purusottam Thakur
‘If We Don’t Work, Who’ll Produce the Harvest?’
Robert Dreyfuss
October Surprise: Will War with Iran Be Trump’s Election Eve Shocker?
Gary Leupp
The RCP, Fascism, and Chairman Bob’s Endorsement of Biden for President
James Haught
The Pandemic Disproves God
Robert Koehler
Election Theft and the Reluctant Democracy
August 12, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Trump’s War On Arms Control and Disarmament
P. Sainath
“We Didn’t Bleed Him Enough”: When Normal is the Problem
Riva Enteen
Kamala Harris? Really? Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
Kenneth Surin
The Decrepit UK Political System
Robert Hunziker
Freakish Arctic Fires Alarmingly Intensify
Ramzy Baroud
The Likud Conspiracy: Israel in the Throes of a Major Political Crisis
Sam Pizzigati
Within Health Care USA, Risk and Reward Have Never Been More Out of Kilter
John Perry
The US Contracts Out Its Regime Change Operation in Nicaragua
Binoy Kampmark
Selective Maritime Rules: The United States, Diego Garcia and International Law
Manuel García, Jr.
The Improbability of CO2 Removal From the Atmosphere
Khury Petersen-Smith
The Road to Portland: The Two Decades of ‘Homeland Security’
Raouf Halaby
Teaching Palestinian Children to Love Beethoven, Bizet, and Mozart is a Threat to a Depraved Israeli Society
Jeff Mackler
Which Way for Today’s Mass Radicalization? Capitalism’s Impending Catastrophe…or a Socialist Future
Tom Engelhardt
It Could Have Been Different
Stephen Cooper
Santa Davis and the “Stalag 17” Riddim
August 11, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
Why Capitalism is in Constant Conflict With Democracy
Paul Street
Defund Fascism, Blue and Orange
Richard C. Gross
Americans Scorned
Andrew Levine
Trump and Biden, Two Ignoble Minds Here O’erthrown
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Nationalism Has Led to the Increased Repression of Minorities
Sonali Kolhatkar
Trump’s Presidency is a Death Cult
Colin Todhunter
Pushing GMO Crops into India: Experts Debunk High-Level Claims of Bt Cotton Success
Valerie Croft
How Indigenous Peoples are Using Ancestral Organizing Practices to Fight Mining Corporations and Covid-19
David Rovics
Tear Gas Ted Has a Tantrum in Portland
Dean Baker
There is No Evidence That Generous Unemployment Benefits are Making It Difficult to Find Workers
Robert Fantina
War on Truth: How Kashmir Struggles for Freedom of Press
Dave Lindorff
Trump Launches Attack on Social Security and Medicare
Elizabeth Schmidt
COVID-19 Poses a Huge Threat to Stability in Africa
Parth M.N.
Coping With a Deadly Virus, a Social One, Too
Thomas Knapp
The “Election Interference” Fearmongers Think You’re Stupid
Binoy Kampmark
Mealy-Mouthed Universities: Academic Freedom and the Pavlou Problem Down Under
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail