Archive interview: Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar photographed by Michael Collopy
Ravi Shankar photographed by Michael Collopy
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Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar has passed away at the age of 92. Scotland on Sunday’s Chitra Ramaswamy interviewed Shankar last year when he came to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival. We republish the article in full on today.

THE last time Ravi Shankar played in Britain was in 2008. The great sitar virtuoso was 88 years old. It was billed as his farewell to Europe and much of the tour was cancelled due to illness.

Shankar with George Harrison in 1974

Shankar with George Harrison in 1974

But no-one has ever been able to keep Shankar off the stage for long. And so in London, a city he first visited as a 12-year-old dancer in 1932, he was declared fit to play and performed a series of ragas with his daughter, Anoushka, whom he taught from the age of eight. Shankar may have looked fragile, but he played masterfully.

Three years later, the godfather of world music is back. “I was asked,” he says with a shrug of his small shoulders. “And I love it.” Does he still play every day? I have to ask Shankar the question three times before he fully hears it. But when he does, a wide smile spreads across his soft, lined face. “I do. At least one hour, sometimes more. I can’t do marathons like I used to but I am much more mature now. Our music involves improvisation so it blossoms with age. I feel music more deeply, more spiritually than ever before.”

Isn’t it frustrating that as his appreciation deepens, his body slows down? “Yes that is a problem,” he says, but he’s still smiling. “My mind is so much ahead of my body. But it’s a great joy.”

We meet in the gleaming, minimal foyer of Shankar’s London apartment. He and his wife have been here more than usual this year (they divide their time between California and Delhi) because Anoushka and British film director Joe Wright, who married last year, recently had a baby. “We call him Zubin,” Shankar says. “He will be... five months tomorrow. My first grandchild from my daughters. He is so beautiful.” Another beaming smile.

A small room has been set aside for the interview, a bottle of water and a snack bar laid out for each of us. (He eats his immediately.) Shankar shuffles into the room, walking with a stick. He is tiny and graceful, wearing sandals and simple Indian dress. He sports a wispy white beard and hair that springs in enthusiastic tufts from the sides of his head. His eyes are lively and milky blue with cataracts. He is forever looking for a reason to smile, or better still, laugh, and seems in excellent health for his 91 years.

He asks me if it will be raining in Edinburgh when he comes to perform at the International Festival. “I would like to go around and see things, you see,” he says. “Such a beautiful city.” His zest for life remains, despite the limitations of his body.

His wife, Sukanya, who bursts into the room with their dog halfway through the interview, agrees. “Isn’t he just a gorgeous man?” she says. (She is his second wife and the mother of Anoushka. Norah Jones, his other daughter, was the result of an affair in the 1970s with a New York concert producer. He also has a son with his first wife, though he died in 1992.) “He is a miracle man. At the end of April he was in intensive care with heart failure. And now he’s performing.”

Does she worry when he goes on the road again? “I get so scared,” she says. “But I can’t control him. I say to him ‘I’ll have to come on stage and get you!’” They laugh at the prospect of this. Before Sukanya leaves, Shankar says to me: “I owe it all to her. She’s the reason I’m still here.”

Shankar was born in Benares (also known as Varanasi) in 1920. His father, who was away most of his childhood studying law in London, encouraged Shankar’s older brother, Uday, to take a dance troupe to Europe. The ten-year-old Shankar went along too. “I remember all the details, almost day by day,” he says, and it’s true. His ability to recall every detail of his past is extraordinary. “A boy of ten from Benares to Paris in the 1930s. Can you imagine?” He shakes his head.

In Paris, he went to parties where he met Cole Porter and Pablo Picasso, lived next door to musician Andres Segovia and watched his brother dance with Anna Pavlova. He spent eight years touring Europe, Asia and the US as a dancer. And along the way he started to play instruments.

“I didn’t learn anything properly because there was no-one to teach me,” he says. “I was dancing, playing the sitar, sarod, drums, flute, all just by listening.”

In 1935 the troupe briefly welcomed Allaudin Khan, a court musician and one of greatest Indian classical music teachers of the last century on to the tour. He advised Shankar to concentrate on the sitar and started teaching him. The first lessons took place over two months at Dartington Hall in Devon. But then Khan went back to India, and Shankar went back to dancing.

It was the advent of war that determined his career change. The troupe returned to India and Shankar made the decision to go to Khan. “He had seen me in my butterfly days,” Shankar says. “And he was always rebuking me. He told me, ‘If you really want to learn you will have to sacrifice all this and come to me’.”

So Shankar shaved off his hair and gave away all the fine clothes and jewellery he had accumulated in Europe. He packed his most basic clothing and bedding into a tin trunk and headed to the Maihar Gharana (the famed Indian classical music school) where he stayed for seven years in the old gurukul system, eating, sleeping and playing sitar under the same roof as his guru.

“I completely changed myself,” he says. “He could barely recognise me when I arrived. He said, ‘What the hell have you done?’ But I knew he was happy to see me.”

It was a gruelling process. “Can you imagine the suffering? It took a year just to get used to sleeping with mosquitoes, flies, scorpions and snakes. It was terrible. I had to sleep on a bed of rope. I played five or six hours a day, and slowly progressed to 14 hours. I got very little sleep.”

When he left, his career progressed rapidly. With his rigorous classical training (there are dozens of scales in Indian classical music, many styles, and thousands of ragas) Shankar became the director of All-India Radio. He began playing all over India, and writing scores for films including Satyajit Rai’s landmark Apu Trilogy.

He also began experimenting with the traditional music: shortening ragas, which can last many hours, and collaborating with world-renowned musicians including violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who got him an agent in London.

How did the West respond at first? “They had no concept of Indian music then,” he says. “They thought it was too long, boring, exotic, all that. So I knew what to do. It wasn’t about changing the music but making it more appealing to the western mind. I would play a little solo introducing the raga and then a cycle of eight or 16 beats. I started performing in a friend’s house and a year later I was in the Royal Festival Hall.”

The 1960s arrived and Britain began to embrace the East. Shankar found himself playing the folk club circuit. “What I saw, I couldn’t believe,” he says. “People were dressed like Louis XVI - big beards, smelling of patchouli, everyone all lovey-dovey. That shocked me. It wasn’t that I objected to it morally, but I didn’t want to associate my music with it. My music has a very spiritual background, a sanctity that is almost like worship.”

Things were about to get more shocking. In 1996, at a party in London, he met the Beatles. “George [Harrison] surprised me,” Shankar says. “He was really interested in religion and had all my records. He asked if I could give him some time, to learn the basics. I taught him and he said he would come to me in India as soon as possible.” He did, and Shankar’s influence on the Beatles was huge.

Shankar returned to India, not thinking much more of it, and told his niece and nephew. “They said, ‘You met George Harrison? You taught him?’ I said, ‘So what?’ And then they played me Norwegian Wood. That was the first time I heard them.” What did he think of the use of sitar? “It was strange, to be frank.”

Suddenly, Shankar was a pop star. He couldn’t go anywhere without being recognised. It was exciting, but in the end he felt compromised.

“This connection was like wildfire,” he says. “I became like a fifth Beatle. It was the same beards, the funny dress, the patchouli. And then came Woodstock and Monterey pop festival. I was there with all the pop stars, and believe me, it was a strange situation.”

Shankar felt unhappy that his music was becoming associated with drugs and free love. He got upset watching rock stars trashing their instruments. And back home in India, he was beginning to get a reputation. “Oh my god, I was criticised,” he says. “They said I had sold myself to the Beatles, that I was into drugs. I had to get up and walk away. I decided to stop playing in folk and pop scenes. But now my classical promoters weren’t interested either. It was a really difficult period. I was misunderstood by everyone. The East and West felt I had rejected them.”

Eventually, of course, they all came back. But for Shankar, these extraordinary stories seem far away in another life. He is older and wiser now (so wise, in fact, that when he says goodbye, I feel like I’ve been blessed by a guru). As the first artist to straddle East and West, it hasn’t always been an easy ride. But no matter what, every single day, Shankar has played the sitar.

“Music gives me everything,” he says. “It’s the most important thing. Before, I was crazy, going all over the world. Now when I think back on all that, it’s like a big flash. I can’t focus on it properly. I really am very happy with my present moment. I’m at peace now.” v

• This article was originally published in Scotland on Sunday on August 14, 2011