Mahatma of the sitar

Raga Mala
February 20, 1998

Fifty years ago this month, a few days after the assassination of Gandhi on January 30, 1948, the -year-old Ravi Shankar was about to make a live broadcast for All India Radio from a Bombay studio. He had been asked to play some mournful music but he was having trouble deciding which raga (melodic form) to play. Then an idea came to him: he took the third, seventh and sixth notes of the eight-note sargam (Indian musical scale), Ga, Ni and Dha, which approximate to Gandhi's name. He flattened both Ni and Dha, and with the occasional use of the second note, Ri, a melodic theme developed and he began composing while tuning his sitar. When the radio announcer asked what piece he was about to play, he had to think quickly. His new raga had some resemblance to a popular traditional pentatonic raga called Malkauns, which has three notes flattened - Ga, Dha and Ni - and uses neither the fifth nor the second notes. "Gandhiji's full name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, so combining his first name with the similar raga Malkauns I arrived at the name Mohankauns."

The inauguration of Mohankauns must have been an extraordinarily stirring spur-of-the-moment performance, judging from a recording of it made by Shankar in 1981 and released on Deutsche Grammophon, in which I reimmersed myself while reading his new autobiography, Raga Mala. The final section of the piece, after the conventional three sections of slow, introspective alap followed by faster jor and jhala throughout which Shankar plays solo, consists of an impromptu question-and-answer passage between sitar and tabla (drum), which at last rises to a crescendo that powerfully, beautifully and cathartically symbolises the triumph of Gandhi's spirit over the forces of evil.

No wonder the former Beatle George Harrison, editor of this book, says of Shankar in his foreword: "There isn't anyone I've ever heard of, in the West at least, who has got such brilliant musicianship." While Yehudi Menuhin, Shankar's other close western patron, writes, in a magnificent afterword: "In many ways he is the greatest musician I have known. If you are going to compare West and East on one footing, then perhaps he would come after Enesco, my teacher, and Bartok - but a close third."

In 1982, the raga Mohankauns reappeared as part of the music for the film Gandhi -but now with much less impact. Shankar was asked by Richard Attenborough to score the film, "but there was a slightly discordant feeling from the outset". For Attenborough wanted Shankar to compose only some of the film's music, the Indian passages, leaving George Fenton, a gifted young film composer, to provide orchestral music that would be familiar to western viewers' ears. In other words, Attenborough was worried that too much Indian "twang twang" would turn the audience off. The result was an unsatisfactory compromise: some authentic Indian music and singing floating unanchored on a western substructure.

This episode could stand for so much in Shankar's long, eventful, "incredible" (Harrison's word) career. He, more than any other Indian - including perhaps more brilliant instrumentalists - has made Indian classical music accessible to the rest of the world: but to make that impact, he has been constantly tempted to simplify and distort the thing he most cares for. His autobiography, for all its winning celebration of love as the motive power of his life and music, is saturated with pain and suffering (his own and that of his intimates) caused, in the main, by Shankar's abiding desire to be "faithful to the music" in the face of a highly materialistic society. As he puts it, without exaggeration: "If I had wanted to become a billionaire, I would have had every chance by posing as an ochre-robed swami and a raga-rock king combined."

The tension is built into the very structure of the book. Rather than a single text written by Shankar, Raga Mala consists of chunks of Shankar, linked by passages written by Oliver Craske that drive the narrative forward interspersed with comments from those close to Shankar, such as Harrison, Menuhin, the composer Philip Glass, the conductor Zubin Mehta, the tabla player Zakir Hussain and Shankar's second wife, Sukanya. This dialectic, combined with Shankar's innate tendency to digress, reminds one of the mixture of rigid order and free improvisation in the music he is describing - and of the Bengali (for Shankar is of course a Bengali, though born outside Bengal) love of discursive conversation.

Thus Shankar on his first meeting with Harrison in 1966: "From the moment we met George was asking questions, and I felt he was genuinely interested in Indian music and religion. He appeared to be a sweet, straightforward young man. I said I had been told he had used the sitar, although I had not heard the song Norwegian Wood. He seemed quite embarrassed, and it transpired that he had only had a few sittings with an Indian chap who was in London (a student of the late Motiram, my disciple in Delhi) to see how the instrument should be held and to learn the basics of playing. Norwegian Wood was supposedly causing so much brouhaha, but when I eventually heard the song I thought it was a strange sound that had been produced on the sitar! As a result, though, young fans of The Beatles everywhere had become fascinated by the instrument."

On which Harrison comments: "The moment we started, the feelings I got were of his patience, compassion and humility. The fact that he could do one of his five-hour concerts, but at the same time he could sit down and teach somebody from scratch the very basics: how to hold the sitar, how to sit in the correct position, how to wear the pick on your finger, how to begin playing. We did that and he started me going on the scales. And he enjoyed it - he wasn't grudging at all, and he wasn't flash about it either."

No doubt Shankar was fully aware of the prestige attached to having a Beatle as a pupil, and no doubt it fed his vanity to some extent, yet Harrison's basic perception of Shankar's humility seems right. Not only are there many passages of quite severe self-criticism in the book, Shankar also offers clearly heartfelt respect to a string of fellow artists, such as Menuhin, Janis Joplin and his own guru, the legendary musician Allauddin Khan. Of Rabindranath Tagore, he writes: "Even after having seen so many remarkable people around the world throughout my life, I still have not come across such a personality as Tagore. It was like looking at the sun; he was so dazzling."

About Satyajit Ray, the only artist of post-Independence India to enjoy world fame comparable to Shankar's, he is more circumspect. He pays tribute to Ray as "a man of extraordinary versatility and culture", but he also mentions their differences. Shankar scored some passages of extremely fine music for five of Ray's early films, but later Ray decided to compose his own music. Mstislav Rostropovitch described Ray's music as being "not just an accompaniment of actions, but an expression of heroes' souls, of their moods". Some of Ray's songs are today as popular in Bengal as those of The Beatles in the West. While Shankar admits that people liked Ray's music, he is unwilling to recognise its originality and unique appropriateness to his films.

This is significant, because it returns us to the larger question of Indian classical music and the West. Ray, not being a performer, but being steeped in both Indian and western classical music, felt able to break away from Indian tradition without compunction. For Shankar, who is not as well versed in western classical music, there has always been an inner struggle in his own, numerous compositions outside the Indian classical tradition. As he is acutely aware, Indian critics have long harped upon his departures as "cheapening" classical music. His collaboration with western pop stars like Harrison, on top of his experiments with western orchestras (such as his sitar concerto commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra), have given added impetus to their charges.

Raga Mala teases out these fascinating cultural issues with uncompromising thoroughness, style and passion, aided by two CDs of recordings from 1957 to date; the latest piece was recorded in August 1997 at EMI's Abbey Road studios and contains a tender sitar duet between Shankar and his young daughter, Anoushka. The book is ravishingly produced, with copious unpublished photographs and memorabilia from Shankar's own collection, bound in Bangalore raw silk, packaged with a box of his favourite incense sticks (Tabla brand, "by appointment to H. H. the Maharaja of Mysore") and signed by Shankar. In due course, one hopes there will be a less expensive version. The present limited edition is a must for anyone who loves Indian classical music.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES.

Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar

Author - Ravi Shankar
ISBN - 0 904351 46 7
Publisher - Genesis Publications
Price - £195.00
Pages - 336

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