Dissolving Boundaries: An Interview with Ravi Shankar
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2009, Volume 16, #9
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Mon September 21, 2009, 06:00 AM CDT
After two curtain calls, most of the musicians disappeared into their dressing rooms, but Ravi Shankar continued to hover by the stage door, peering out into the audience at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre with a look of bewildered joy on his face. After soaking in the crowd’s rapturous applause for a few moments, he raised his right arm over his head in an expression of delight before asking the exhausted-looking technician behind him to turn on the house lights. It was difficult to tell from Shankar’s reaction, but this was a scene that he has witnessed many times since he first performed outside India in 1954. For the past 55 years, he tirelessly has traveled the globe, weathering changes in culture, technology, and musical fashion to bring his unique interpretation of Indian classical fare to audiences from Moscow to Japan and everywhere in between.
Shankar will be 90 years old next year. This, of course, is an age at which most folks would be happy simply to be alive. Yet, Shankar continues to perform in selected cities around the world with amazing regularity. His Vancouver concert was the last stop on a brief jaunt that took him to seven North American destinations, where sold-out audiences enjoyed what may be their last chance to hear him unleash his magic. Shankar’s sitar is carried on stage and tuned by one of his master students. Yet, despite these concessions to age, Shankar entertained his audience for 90 minutes with the most dazzling, improvised music most people will ever have the opportunity to hear.
Aging is inevitable. Unlike many artists, however, Shankar not only has turned his diminishing dexterity into an advantage, but he also has used it to explore new avenues in his work. Some outfits rehearse incessantly to be able to rise to the demands imposed upon them by their repertoires. Nevertheless, they ultimately have nothing new to offer, which leaves their concerts feeling like a familiar, timeworn conversation. Shankar, on the other hand, clearly is not interested in reproducing past glories. Instead, he continues to develop and expand his understanding of his output. Over the years, the speed of his playing has slowed, but his music has gained inference. Shankar has reached a point where, with just a few notes, he can express a universe of sonic possibilities.
For the record, Shankar can still play fast when the music demands it. In Vancouver, he took the audience and his fellow musicians by surprise more than once when, to everyone’s delight, he significantly elevated the intensity of his performance. There were moments when it was impossible to see his fingers through the blurring speed of their movement. For the most part, however, Shankar now opts to play his sitar with graceful, selective gestures. Where he once painted in full colors, he now sketches his compositions, filling them with suggestion and nuance. Fewer notes are played, but they say more than ever. To hear Shankar in 2009 is to experience a musician who can express more with a simple melody than others can in an entire concert. His minimalist approach has not evolved in response to the process of aging; instead, it represents a grand adventure that is as much about the exploration of silence as it is about the search for new sounds.
The look of childish delight that illuminated Shankar’s face when he and tabla player Tanmoy Bose locked into a groove in Vancouver was unlike anything most people will ever experience. Somewhere in the creation of song, both age and time fell away from the performers, and their bodies became vehicles for the unheard music of the universe to come into being. Hearing them perform was something to be treasured for a lifetime.
Shankar is happy to talk about how his style has been transformed by time. When he was asked about the simplification of his approach to playing the sitar, he closed his eyes for a few minutes and wrinkled his face in a look of supreme contentment. Then, he offered his thoughts. "The music is so lovely. I am completely free now," he said. "At my age, there’s nothing left to prove. I have had a life of rigorous discipline, and now, it is the time in my life when I can be free. In some ways I have never enjoyed playing more. There is no boundary between the music and myself. The thin layer that separated me from it has dissolved. Now, I am the music. This is a time of great joy."
Shankar has always used his concerts as an opportunity to take his listeners through a variety of moods as he explores the implications posed by each of his compositional structures. Because Indian classical music is much more open-ended than its Western counterpart, his ragas offer a series of suggestions developed over millennia rather than rigid dictates of how a piece must be delivered. Yet, the training that is required for expressing the nuances that are contained in these works is every bit as rigorous and demanding. Until he collaborated with Philip Glass on the development of a system of notation — so that a piece Shankar had composed could be learned by a Western orchestra — Indian classical music was always transmitted orally. All instruction was passed by word-of-mouth from guru to student in an unbroken chain that can be traced back for thousands of years.
It is an understatement to say that Shankar is a living treasure. After a lifetime of practice, the information and intuition he carries in his DNA hold tremendous value, which won’t be fully appreciated until he has passed from this Earth. His ability to open himself completely to the music of the spheres has never been surpassed. The best jazz players as well as the most accomplished classical musicians have rarely stepped into the garden that Shankar has cultivated for more than five decades. It is astonishing and indescribable to witness the dance that occurs between Shankar and his fellow musicians as they sculpt sounds that are based upon mere suggestion and inference.
Born into an artistic family in 1920, Shankar was exposed to Western music at an early age. This allowed him to appreciate a wide range of compositional forms. Despite his reverence for tradition and the strict nature of his training, he has never been a purist. As his fame spread abroad, Shankar not only embarked upon short tours of Europe and North America, but he also began to forge relationships with Western artists. "I was inspired to experiment with new ideas," he explained. "Apart from being a sitar player, I have also experimented in different fields as a composer. I have undertaken a few collaborations with famous Western musicians, and I have written material for Western orchestras. Each experience has been a great joy."
It wasn’t until Shankar met George Harrison in 1966, however, that his music attracted worldwide attention. This exposure to a larger global audience coincided with Shankar’s mastery of his instrument as well as his complete comprehension of the raga form. One needs only to watch his performances at the Monterey International Pop Festival, Woodstock, and the Concert for Bangladesh to be able to witness an artist who is at the absolute peak of his powers. By this point, Shankar’s command of the language of Indian classical music was dazzling to behold. It is no exaggeration to assert that few artists in his or any other medium have ever reached such a highpoint of musical perception. Decades of practice gave Shankar the tools to improvise on the spot with the kinds of agility and grace that enable him to paint aural pictures as fast as the ear can absorb them.
With the dawning of the 1970s, Indian music became less trendy, and its associations with youth culture began to dissipate. Freed from the attendant baggage of the counterculture, Shankar finally had an opportunity to be heard clearly by Western audiences for the first time. Yet, his liberation proved to be a double-edged sword that placed Shankar at a personal and professional crossroads. He did his best to defend India’s musical culture, but he also suffered criticism. Often, he was all but reviled in his homeland by traditionalists. "I felt offended and shocked to see India being regarded so superficially and to witness its great culture being exploited," said Shankar. "Yoga...the Kama Sutra! They became part of a cocktail in which everyone seemed to be indulging, but at home, people said I had diluted Indian classical music."
"I can play a raga for many hours," he continued, "but I tailored what I played in the West based upon the time allowed by a concert. People didn’t understand this."
"The possibilities within a raga are infinite," said Shankar. "There are so many places one can touch down and visit in the music. The form of a raga is conceptual. Yet, my detractors in India were very rigid. They accused me of cheapening my art. But, that was all in the past, you know. Could we say it was sour grapes? Yet, it is a good feeling to know that I have influenced people like Yehudi Menuhin, John Coltrane, George Harrison, Philip Glass, and various other wonderful musicians."
In the end, through perseverance and patience, time has proven that Shankar’s instincts about the presentation of his music were correct. The world has changed so much in the past 40 years. Virtually no culture on Earth has remained pristine or been untouched by globalism’s insistent agenda. By bringing his art to the outside world and interacting with musicians from other parts of the globe, Shankar has done more than anyone else to modernize his work while still retaining his dignity and high artistic values.
It is a credit to Shankar’s perseverance that, after achieving so much in his life, he still is trying to express something new inside of an art form that is thousands of years old. These days, his daughter Anoushka Shankar regularly performs by his side, and hearing their different approaches outlines how far the elder Shankar has progressed. He clearly has realized that he has conquered all of the technical demands of classical Indian music. For him, there is no point in playing harder or faster. As his daughter so ably demonstrated, this is a challenge for younger musicians. After a particularly intense excursion on the sitar, one which would have made Jimi Hendrix proud, she beamed at her father, shrugged, and stated, "I can’t help it. I love to play fast." The look that subsequently passed between them said more than words ever could.
Delighted with his daughter’s performances on this tour, Shankar countered the criticisms that she, too, has departed from the extremely orthodox demands of Indian classical music. "Anoushka is my best student, and she is extremely talented. She has learned from me for more than 20 years. She is almost an extension of me, but with her own unique sound and identity. She has a very solid foundation, and she can experiment just like I did. I admire her quest for adventure and exploration of new areas and sounds."
Shankar may have done his best to replicate his own training with his daughter and a few carefully selected master students, but the disciplined instruction that he initially received is, of course, under threat in today’s world. Along with his peers, Shankar is trying to uphold the legacy that he helped to create, but the world has changed too much in the past century for this to be possible. "I would say that our age-old stern and strict system of Guru-shishya parampara has been watered down to the point where it is difficult to maintain the quality," he explained. "Though mechanical instructions, such as videos, can help very talented students to some extent, it cannot be the same. A solid training directly from a teacher is of utmost importance."
In today’s world, it is difficult to conceive of anyone having the patience or the opportunity to follow Shankar’s path. Before he was even allowed to touch his sitar, he had to spend several years simply learning to hear. He studied the sounds of nature and found their corresponding notes on his instrument. He listened to running water as a way of learning scales. This allowed the divisions in the natural world to dissolve, and it created a palette that was limited only by the ear’s ability to discern patterns in the universe.
After years of struggling with his legacy, Shankar has seen his country finally respect the tremendous contributions that he has made to its culture. He also has watched audiences in the West grow more sophisticated in their appreciation of his art. Shankar is a man who has passed through many challenges, and through them, he has learned simply to enjoy what he was put on Earth to do. "Now, after all that, I have come to realize that my contribution, at its best, has been my sitar performances," he concluded. "I have poured out — and still do! — all of the peace, joy, love, and pain through my improvisation of music."
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