By Saurabh Bhattacharya
The internationally-renowned Los Angeles-based sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar has seen New Age mature from the dizzy youth of the ’60s to its eclectic millennium form. Recently, he spoke to Saurabh Bhattacharya about the spirituality of music and his own growth as a musician.
You were one of the earliest catalysts of New Age. What, in your opinion, is the true New Age?
You know the saying, old wine in new bottles? The concepts are all same. Only the names seem to change. The ideas prevalent now were once part of Dadaism and Bohemianism. The New Age has given more sanctity to these ideas, unswayed by drugs and intoxicants. And that’s why I appreciate this movement. It has taken good things out of varied traditions—from Indian yoga to Japanese reiki. It definitely has a bigger and a better canvas.
Do you think music can actually heal?
Music does work as a therapy. But the way the so-called ‘music therapy‘ is practiced today is stupid. I’ve met a lot of crazy ‘music therapists‘ who are out there only to make money and fool people. If you listen to a finely-tuned tanpura in isolation and with a quiet mind, you’ll feel a sense of peace. If you listen with absolute concentration to a church organ or Bach or a truly good musician performing any raga, you shall have a fantastic sense of peace. I consider that the final therapy.
Is music essentially spiritual?
The highest form in music is spirituality. That is different from the professional approach, which even I have to unfortunately maintain—where it is a commercial arrangement that gives you a stipulated period of time within which you give your best.
Have you ever experienced a divine touch while creating music?
Oh, many times. It just happens. The atmosphere, my own mental condition, good vibrations—all play a role.
What role did Baba Allauddin Khan, your guru, play in your development as a musician?
Baba had his training under different musicians. But his main training was from the Senia gharana (tradition). He learnt from the direct descendent of Mian Tansen from his daughter’s side. Tansen was the student of a great yogi who gave to his student through his music adhyatma, that special spiritual feeling. Tansen translated this through his music in his gharana. Baba himself was a deeply spiritual person. Despite being a devout Muslim, he could be moved by any spiritual path. One morning, in Brussels, I brought him to a cathedral where the choir was singing. The moment we entered, I could see he was in a strange mood. The cathedral had a huge statue of the Virgin Mary. Baba went towards that statue and started howling like a child: ‘Ma, Ma’ (mother, mother), with tears flowing freely. We had to drag him out. Learning under Baba was a double whammy—the whole tradition behind him plus his own religious experience.
Do you see yourself as an extension of his vision
Musically, yes. Baba was so versatile—he had trained in folk, semi-classical and classical. I have tried to take most of the folk elements of his music, his exuberance in doing new things. Improvisation is my hallmark. I hardly play any fixed things on the sitar. I stick to the raga, but otherwise I let go of myself. I don’t know what I will do next. That was a wonderful thing about Baba and I want to extend it in my work.
You were the first musician to experiment with fusion…
Fusion, like New Age, is just a term. The ultimate aim is to do something new—new sound, new approach, new hullabaloo—and make money. I have never done it and I don’t want to either. I have experimented with non-Indian instruments, even electronic gadgets. But all my experience were based on Indian ragas. When people discuss tradition, they don’t know what they are talking about. Over centuries, classical music has undergone addition, beautification, and improvement—always sticking to its traditional basis. Today, the difference is that the changes are faster.
But does this rapid change harm classical music
Yes and no. It depends upon the artiste. If he is not strong enough, he might get affected. But if you have a strong background, you can perform these things without ever going astray.
After such a long and illustrious career, is there anything left for you to achieve?
I am a turbulent person. I want to do new things, new ballet, new musical productions based on our mythology. There are enough people doing modern stuff. They are younger and have better vision and education. But I want to recapture beautiful things from the past and make stage productions. All these dream projects of mine are big in scope and no one has as yet shown the guts to come out and finance them.
Ravi Shankar the phenomenon and Ravi Shankar the person-are they one and the same thing?
That’s for you to decide. I have no stupid ideas about myself. I always see bad things in me. People say that I’m great. Most of the time I don’t believe them.
Were you always this cynical?
I’m not cynical. But I know that I could have been better, I could have been greater. I have wasted a lot of time in my life doing different things, having so much interest in everything. I feel jealous of my musical friends, mostly Indians, who are in this ‘I’m the greatest’ syndrome. They are happy, because they have reached, they have done it. 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.
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