New York — Ravi Shankar, the great Indian musician who was an idol of American hippies in the 1960s, looks back on that era with a certain distaste but not a jot of cynicism.
Shankar lives for today, leaving yesteryear to music historians. Once in the fore front of the movement that attempted a symbiosis of Eastern and Western music, with Beatle George Harrison as his most famous disciple, he now concentrates on classical Indian music and composing film scores.
“J don’t believe in gimmicks,” he said on a visit to New York earlier this month to perform his Sitar Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic and its Indian born director, Zubin Mehta, as part of the nationwide Festival of India.
“My experimentation has been with Western instruments and musicians, never with the music, I have composed for flutist Jean Pierre Rampal and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, for instance. Jazz musicians John Coltrane and Don Ellis and many others were in fluenced by my music. Composer Philip Glass, who has become famous with his operas, has worked with me.
“But all of the music I myself perform is within the traditional Indian raga, a musical form upon which the artist improvises accompanied by the tabla, a twopiece drum. In composing, I have been interested in using other than Indian instruments the whole violin family, all of the flutes but the music is basically Indian.
Shankar receives visitors to his hotel room dressed in an embroidered Indian tunic over loose trousers, diamonds flashing on his fingers. He is a small man of joyous countenance who at 65 keeps to the busy schedule of a much younger person.
He heads the department of world music at the University of Texas, Austin; and maintains his own master class centers in Delhi and Benares, where he sponsors an annual music and dance festival. In addition, he fulfills a heavy recital and recording schedule on three continents.
At the moment he is most enthusiastic about a commission he has received for ballet music from the Hubbard Street Ballet Company of Chicago, a group he hopes to bring to India.
“J want to bring more American groups to India,” he said, having a Festival in the United States is a wonderful thing, because I don’t think relations between India and the United States have been so good. Art is the way to reach the people.”
Remembering his years with the flower children after his U.S. debut in 1956 and his performances at the legendary Woodstock festival in 1969, Shankar has this to say:
“Unfortunately the young people were not mature enough. They mixed the music up with the whole scene and with the problems of their social backgrounds and with drugs. I was thrown into the midst of it all because I was the only person they would hear or to whom they would listen.”
Shankar proudly bears honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the nation’s highest honor society in the arts. His favorite American music is jazz, with country music a close second because, he said, “I have a natural affinity for banjo pickers, mandolinists and fiddlers.”
Article extracted from this publication >> September 20, 1985