Ravi Shankar, the godfather of world music, has just died. Thriller was lucky enough to interview him a few years ago, and now seemed as good a time as any to share that interview. Shankar was, without a doubt, the most famous sitar player in the world, owing largely to his influence on the Beatles, a group we’ve argued is the greatest of all time. While on set filming the movie Help, George Harrison heard some sitar players and said later that he felt like he had found his home. He soon picked up the instrument, studying under Shankar. First heard on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” the sitar was the gateway to the Beatles’ psychedelic era (and it inspired many copycats, like the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black”). After the Beatles split, Shankar was the catalyst for the first-ever benefit concert. He simply approached Harrison saying that something had to be done for his homeland, and the Concert for Bangladesh was born. It was a star-studded event, featuring Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and more. Nothing of its kind had ever been done before. As if all that wasn’t enough, Shankar’s legacy also extends to his children. His daughter Anoushka is a phenomenal sitar player in her own right, and his other daughter just happens to be the superstar jazz/pop artist, Norah Jones. We are happy to honor his life and work. Rest in peace.
Spirituality seems to play such a large role in Indian music. Can you describe how the two are connected for you personally?
Indian classical music is very much connected with Spirituality. Being born Indian, it came naturally to me. Our music expresses different ‘Rasas’ –moods or sentiment– also, such as sad, peaceful, romantic, happiness etc.
After studying and playing music for most of your life, is there anything with the sitar you either can’t do or wish that you could do better?
Being an improviser, I feel the orgasmic flashes of delight when each time performing. I bring out flashes of new ideas spontaneously. If one is content with one’s achievement on any aspect, there is no room to grow. I am always striving for greater heights.
I read that you’ve been performing since 1939. How have you changed as a performer over the years? Is there anything that can happen on stage at this point that would surprise you?
My music has grown & matured with my age & experience. I have learned how to present and how much to give, according to where I perform. Since my music is ninety per cent improvised, there is always the element of surprise.
Indian classical music can be so hypnotic and almost trance-inducing. I wonder what goes through your mind while you are playing?
The sitar becomes an extention of my body and mind. The music just flows.
You’ve said in the past that you were giving your final North American concert, but you’ve come back since then. What makes you want to keep touring?
I have the urge to perform as long as my body & mind permits and as long as listeners want to hear me.
I find with Western popular music, there can be a sense that “everything has been done before.” And we’re only talking about a few centuries’ worth of music, whereas Raga Sangeet can be traced back 2,000 years. Is it hard to create something unique and new with all of that history behind you?
That is the mystery and great beauty of Raga music. But it also depends on musicians and not just the parrots.
There is such complexity to Indian classical music — for instance the twenty-two microtones in an octave compared to twelve semitones in Western music. With that in mind, I find it interesting that you caught on in the ’60s with the Rock & Roll crowd, because the whole ethos of Rock & Roll was simplicity — just a few simple chords and raw energy. Did that Rock & Roll ethos have an effect on how you approached your music? Also, do you think Indian music had an effect on the way Western musicians started rethinking Rock & Roll as the ’60s progressed?
One can say volumes about it, but no, the Rock & Roll music had no effect to my music, except using amplifications and some gadgets for larger audiences everywhere.
The way many people in America first heard of you, myself included, was through your influence on George Harrison and The Beatles. You’ve been asked quite a bit about that relationship, but there are two questions I haven’t seen answered: 1. What kind of student was George Harrison? and 2. How far did he progress in his study of the sitar?
Though he couldn’t give his total time & energy to sitar, we was a wonderful student. He could have been a fine sitarist if he concentrated on it, but hearing a lot of it and other Indian instrumental and vocal music along with his studies in Indian religion and Vedic scriptures, he really became a savant and a beautiful spiritual person.
Did you ever get into Rock n’ Roll? If so, who did you like to listen to?
No, I did not really, but am fond of some Beatles songs. Otis Redding, Simon & Garfunkel, Mamas & Papas, Elton John, Sting and a few lyrical & tuneful ones.
I read an interview with you where you said, “I’m always hungry, always unhappy because I know I haven’t reached. I’m still trying and the more I try the more I find that there is nothing to be proud of.” Do you still feel that way? Is there any accomplishment or event that could change that?
Even though I have achieved so much, I still feel there is so much more to do.
Is there any part of your career that you would change?
No, I am happy with my music, which is my life.