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.