Music

Reaching Godliness Through Music with 'The Rough Guide to Ravi Shankar'

Photo: Carolyn Jones / Courtesy of EMI Classics

Ravi Shankar passed away more than five years ago, but his legacy will continue to loom large, as this loving compilation proves.

The Rough Guide to Ravi Shankar
Ravi Shankar

World Music Network

29 June 2018

To many people, the name Ravi Shankar instantly conjures up a whole slew of cultural images from the '60s. The Beatles were shuffling off their mop-top image and moving into more Eastern-themed sounds, under the spiritual leadership of George Harrison. A more peaceful, meditative – yet rebellious – alternative to the madness of the Vietnam War. Yet the man who is considered one of the most instantly recognizable Indians aside from possibly Gandhi was successfully plying his trade for decades before his Western fame.

Born Rabindra Shankar Chowdhury in 1920, Shankar moved to Paris at the age of 10 to be part of his brother's dance troupe, was introduced to the sitar at the age of 18 upon hearing the instrument at a classical concert performance in Calcutta, learned how to play it, and began a long, fruitful period of composing music for orchestras that mixed Indian and classical Western instrumentation. He composed pieces with famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin, performed recitals in the former Soviet Union in the '50s, and recorded music both in the early 78 RPM "shellac" format as well as the later 33 RPM LP format. He was awarded India's highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna. While it can be forgiven that most current associations with his music have to do with hippies and clouds of pot smoke, there is a much deeper, richer history.

As part of their Rough Guide series, the UK-based World Music Network label has compiled a concise, yet hugely gratifying one-disc compilation of Shankar's work that goes a long way in boiling down Hindusthani music to its very essence. There are no gimmicks here – no gratuitous celebrity guest stars, no posthumous remixes, and while his celebrated performances at both the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock are brilliant and culturally significant, they are wisely left off this set for the sake of, I suppose, cultural purity. (You can Google those performances if you like – to be honest, they're definitely worth checking out).

Instead, The Rough Guide to Ravi Shankar includes some of the sitarist's most memorable performances of six different ragas, compiled by Ken Hunt, Shankar's official biographer. In the world of multi-disc anthology collections, a single disc hardly seems generous, and while it's true that multiple volumes of Shankar's music can (and have been) compiled, this collection is a small treasure.

Spanning several decades, the collection opens with the first of two recordings of "Tilak Shyam", and while the evidence of limited technology comes through this early session, the performance is typically breathtaking as Shankar and his fellow musicians manage to strike a balance between peaceful droning and the sitar's lightning-fast notes. This performance underscores both the technical limitations of early recording techniques and how the best musicians transcend them. A 1966 recording of "Tilak Shyam" is also included. Not surprisingly, this latter version is of a much higher quality (and much longer, stretching out to 24 minutes), but the quality of the musicianship is consistent throughout the entire set.

While Western ears (like mine) not expertly attuned to traditional Indian music may not see a wide difference in the arrangements of these recordings, there's a variety of tempi throughout the collection, and instruments take on different emphasis in different ragas. "Megh", for instance, begins with what sounds like a ritual tuning of the strings, followed by several minutes of heavy tabla, giving the raga a distinctive, percussive feel. The closing track, "Mishra Bhairavi", favors a higher register, giving the ever-present "droning" a more pronounced place in the music. Clocking in at nearly a half-hour, "Mishra Bhairavi" gives the musicians plenty of avenues to explore, and while it lacks some of the speedy, intense fervor of the tracks that precede it, the overall effect is still stunning.

Popular Western musicians of all stripes revered Shankar, and while he seemed warm in their embrace, he was quick to distance himself from some of the cultural associations, particularly regarding drug use. "It makes me feel rather hurt when I see the association of drugs with our music," he once explained. "The music to us is religion. The quickest way to reach godliness is through music." If you want to explore Shankar's music pure and unfiltered, The Rough Guide to Ravi Shankar is a breathtaking, deeply satisfying ride.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Music

Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.