Watching the first scene in “RAGA: A Film Journey into the Soul of India” (Apple Films, 2010), one sees the Indian sitar master, Ravi Shankar, making his way through a crowd of adoring fans. It is sometime in the late ‘60s, when Eastern music was the rage in America. Shankar is smiling, clearly taken by the adulation of Hare Krishna devotees, flower children and curious, youthful bystanders. We next see him onstage, performing before a large crowd, joined by his long-time collaborator, the great Ustad Alla Rakha on tabla. These two need only a momentary glance and fleeting eye contact to produce an endless cascade of raga rhythms.
That was to be his 15 minutes of fame in America. Yet his musical influence has endured. While he emerged in the 1950s, his fame was propelled by the interest taken by the “quiet Beatle”, George Harrison, in Indian mysticism. Harrison traveled to India to study the sitar with Shankar. As a result of that spiritual journey and musical collaboration, Harrison released the album, “All Things Must Pass” in 1970 which contained the songs, “My Sweet Lord” and “What is Life?.” He also produced a charity benefit with Shankar in 1971, A Concert for Bangladesh.
By 1972, the music and the counterculture moment had died, done in by drugs, the Kent State killings, the Black Panthers and Weather Underground, Middle America’s turn to the right, symbolized by the election of Richard Nixon.
Last October, to mark Shankar’s 90th birthday year and give a new generation the chance to experience his music anew, the Ravi Shankar Foundation re-released “Raga”, the 1971 documentary along with the first (1967-68) of nine CDs in a series entitled Nine Decades, featuring rare and remastered recordings www.eastmeetswestmusic.com.
I recommend connecting with the documentary before diving into the music. Not only will you witness him rehearsing with the remarkable violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, and the oh-so-young Harrison but it will give you a greater insight into this deeply religious man who gave up the life of a dancer, living the high life in Paris, to study for over seven years with his musical guru and dedicated his life thenceforth to music. He toured America last year at 90 with his daughter, Anoushka. I regret having missed his October concert at Orchestra Hall.
The film and music took me back in time. I was 25 when Shankar came on the scene. The music first struck me as foreign, like but yet quite unlike the twang of rock guitars. Through increased listening, I found the rapid string-plucking produced rich, singing tones that drew me in. As someone who practiced yoga at the time and puffed the occasional joint, this mysterious, other-worldly music fit the alternative practices of the time. Shankar, however, didn’t approve of what he termed “the wrong approach to our music and religion, through drugs” and walked away from the fame and adulation.
Another jarring element is to see the deep poverty and squalor of India, circa 1970, at a time when today’s news is of the nation’s economic rise made possible by technology. How many will share in that good fortune? Will the great mass of the population be left behind the digital divide? Also, the film portrays a country rooted in century-old traditions and religious ceremony. Will India’s currently strong embrace of capitalism, consumption and distractions inevitably endanger its spiritual rootedness?
Ragas are the musical voice of the Indian people’s prayers. All of Shankar’s playing and raga compositions are his attempt to express the soul of Indian culture through the strings of his sitar. Ragas go much deeper than being simply sweet melodies, which is how they were treated in the West. Perhaps this time we can rediscover the true beauty of the music and the musician who remains its most renowned champion.