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Discernment. Online

























Ravi Shankar steered the hysterical youth interest in Indian music and spiritualism into something very solid and meaningful for George


'What probably touches me most about George is the sincerity of his relationship to Raviji', says Sukanya Shankar


The Beatle who loved India

George Harrison loved Indian music, food and religion, and often said he would have been empty without them. Pandit Ravi Shankar was a lasting presence in his remarkable life


"Without Ravi," George Harrison said in 1997, "I would have ended up a boring old fart."

The "quiet" Beatle edited and introduced the 1997 autobiography of the sitar maestro. Raga Mala is a beautifully produced book, a testimony to a very rare relationship between a Western pop icon and an Indian classical master. For George, the India connection was life-giving, and he acknowledged at several places how fortunate he had been to get to the best India had to offer.

When George died of cancer on 30 November, Ravi Shankar said he had lost a friend, son and disciple. This was more than polite words: the sitarist was never very close to the other Beatles, although their drummer Ringo Starr was very respectful and friendly towards him. Among the other big Western musicians who struck up fruitful creative relationships with Ravi Shankar -- Yehudi Menuhin and Philip Glass being two names that spring to mind -- George spent the greatest amount of time with him.

George was at the peak of his pop career when he met Ravi Shankar. The sitar maestro had only vaguely heard of the Beatles. "After meeting George I found out how popular he was as a Beatle, even without the other three," recalls Ravi Shankar in his book. Little did the sitarist how how influential he would be in George's life, and how the group would catapult him back into the glamorous world he had come away from in his youth.

George met Ravi Shankar in 1966, and started asking him questions about Indian music and religion. He received a copy of Paramahansa Yogananda's The Autobiography of a Yogi from the sitar maestro, and that set him off on an exploration of Indian spirituality. He was to later persuade his entire group to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (him of the kitschy religious progammes on Indian television) in Rishikesh. The other Beatles lost interest, but George continued his pursuit and spent many years reading and learning about India.

Ravi Shankar steered the hysterical youth interest in Indian music and spiritualism into something very solid and meaningful for George. Even before the Beatle met Ravi Shankar, he had picked up a sitar and played some phrases on some of his songs. He was embarrassed when Ravi Shankar actually heard them, and for his part, the sitar maestro found the sounds only distantly sitar-like. But George had ignited youth interest in the instrument.

On George's request, Ravi Shankar agreed to teach him the sitar, to which George had some technical affinity because it shares the string and frets principle of the guitar. But Ravi Shankar was not sure whether George had the attitude for something so difficult. He told him learning the sitar was like learning the cello or the violin in the western classical tradition, and asked him whether he really had such seriousness. George said he would do his best.

Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha (on the tabla) played at George's house in Esher. That was the same day George got his first lessons on how to play the sitar.

A little later, George grew a moustache, assumed a false name, and arrived with wife Pattsie in Bombay. He passed through customs without being recognised, and booked into the Taj Hotel, where panditji visited him. Within a couple of days, a lift attendant recognised George, and the hotel was mobbed by thousands of young fans.

George was impressed by Swami Vivekananda's lines: "Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest that divinity. Do this through work and youga and prayer, one or all of these means, and be free. Churches, temples, rituals and dogmas are but secondary details". He felt he had found his spiritual path.

For George, Ravi Shankar was guru, although they were also close friends who could share jokes and pun irreverently. Although media back home taunted him with headlines like "Ragas to riches", Ravi Shankar was trying to wean the flower children away from drugs and other excesses. He found Beatles melodies likeable, but was appalled at rock stars like Jimi Hendrix making copulatory gestures to their guitars. The group that shocked and disturbed him even more was The Who, who banged and shattered their instruments towards the end of the concert. By contrast, the Beatles were angels.

George was instrumental, prompted by Ravi Shankar, in organising a concert for Bangladesh refugees in 1971. He wrote a song called Bangla Desh, and sang it on August 1 at Madison Square Garden. He also roped in several big pop stars for the show. This landmark concert is remembered with particular fondness in Bangladesh to this day.

The success of the concert spurred George to produce a record called Shankar Family and Friends. It was done at Los Angeles in 1973, under George's Dark Horse label, with Ravi Shankar bringing in musicians like Shiv Kumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chourasia from India.

In 1974, George and Ravi Shankar decided to tour Europe and America with a well-rehearsed live show. George produced and recorded Music Festival from India in England. The tour was very well organised. George had hired a Boeing 707 for the musicians to travel, and their instruments travelled in trucks. George, fond of Indian food, had also made arrangements to fly in Vasudevan, an Indian cook. The tour wasn't a great artistic or commercial success, because it featured some pop and some Indian music, and, as Ravi Shankar says, "neither camp was fully satisfied".

Sukanya Shankar says in Raga Mala, "What probably touches me most about George is the sincerity of his relationship to Raviji. He is familiar with all of Raviji's records and songs and knows how each raga develops. He knows them so well. They have a unique relationship. They are so close".

George's death draws the curtains on a very deep relationship between two remarkably open musicians from two sides of the globe.

Priya Kumar 

Published on 3 Dec 2001

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