‘At Woodstock, who was listening to music? They were all stoned’
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Shekhar Gupta: You owe a lot to him (Ustad Allauddin Khan).
Pt Ravi Shankar: Absolutely. I would say everything because the depth of music...when we say music, there are different layers. But the music that I am talking about which includes been, surbahar, sitar, rabab, sarod and all that. And the whole training of Swami Haridas, Mian Tansen and the Beenkar gharana and Rababi gharana. People really have lost the complete sense of what it was all about. And that thing, Baba had. And I also met his guru — Uzar Khan Sahib's grandson Dabir Khan Sahib and others who still had that old taleem. And that was so connected to the spiritual side of the whole thing, not just music to please. Now music means speed. The virtuosity is the main attraction.
Shekhar Gupta: Like 20-20 cricket. Over in two hours.
Pt Ravi Shankar: It is very difficult to explain today the type of music I am talking about. And I have tried to maintain that. Our audiences were very small.The very word classical, what does it mean? It belonged to a class. The same thing happened with Beethoven and Mozart in the old days. But with us, it was a really very closed thing.
Shekhar Gupta: But you are, after all, our own Beethoven, Mozart.
Pt Ravi Shankar: No, no (laughs). And then after Independence, after the rajas, maharajas, those artistes were in trouble, because they weren't used to singing for such large audiences. Even on radio, they got chances.
Shekhar Gupta: And there was no patronage.
Pt Ravi Shankar: Then their sons and shagirds made it a little better. Things have changed gradually in a better way, so that we have larger audiences today and more people can appreciate it.
Shekhar Gupta: But I've heard that you get impatient when your audience doesn't have that same tehzeeb.
Pt Ravi Shankar: In the beginning, I had to go through a lot of problems because I started the whole performance style. How to drape the platform, place the carpet, fix the mic, the lights. This wasn't done before. Then time: the show is at 5, people trail in at 5.30, or when they please. Some walk out, some chat in the middle about business or whatever.
Shekhar Gupta: I know Kishori Amonkar has also acquired this reputation of ticking people off. She once ticked me off for sitting cross-legged.
Pt Ravi Shankar: (laughs) Bless her. But gradually things have become better. But this is the other side of it. I am talking about the musical side also, from the artiste's point of view. It is much better in a way for a large audience, to give them things that they can really take.
Shekhar Gupta: So you shortened the process. You made it more market-friendly.
Pt Ravi Shankar: It is editing, like in films. We love our Indian films, but why aren't they taking off in the West? They're too long, we need song and dance. It's the same with music. When it is completely foreign and if you go to hear an opera, you will have the same problem. I cannot go to a great Wagner opera because I think it is too long and too much for me to understand.
Shekhar Gupta: But when you first started this comprehensible format, there was a lot of criticism from old-fashioned people. They said you'd made it into western music.
Pt Ravi Shankar: Absolutely — this isn't pure Indian music, I had to take a lot of that. But you know, we play a single raga for three hours. But it's very difficult while you have one or two in the audience to understand, the others will start climbing walls.
Shekhar Gupta: So guruji, let me take you back now. You finish your training. The World War ends and then you come back as a sitar player. And then you become an international citizen.
Pt Ravi Shankar: This was also a combination of two things — my dada Uday Shankar who revolutionised the whole thing.
Shekhar Gupta: You say Dada — not many people realise that you're actually Bengali.
Pt Ravi Shankar: (laughs) Ami toh Bengali — Actually, how to present things — he typically said that if someone can eat 10 rotis, don't give him 10. Give him three to keep him hungry. Stage, lighting, presentation, punctuality... all these things he brought for the first time, it wasn't there earlier.
Shekhar Gupta: You have done so much in your life, people are aware of so little. How many people would know that you also composed the original Saare Jahan Se Achha?
Pt Ravi Shankar: See, this is what happens, there was so much plagiarism too.
Shekhar Gupta: But how did that happen, in 1945?
Pt Ravi Shankar: At that time I was with Indian People Theatre Association (IPTA). For one year I was a music director. And I did some ballet — 'India Immortal' — and many other things. Ahmad Abbas made Dharti Ke Lal and Chetan Anand made Neecha Nagar. I did the music for these two films. Let me tell you a story.
Shekhar Gupta: Tell me.
Pt Ravi Shankar: I feel ashamed to say it, because I am afraid it will be misunderstood. In the music of Neecha Nagar, there was a chorus. This poet, Vishwamitra Aadil, had written the songs, so it was a very communist theme — hum rukenge nahin, hum jhukenge bhi nahin. We were searching for a male voice. A musician brought a young fellow who just came from Lahore. Very nice looking, fair. And we asked him to give an audition. And I showed him the tune and the feeling. And he sang hum rukenge bhi nahin hum jhukenge bhi nahin in a classical tone. And I was like, please try to be more powerful. He tried, but it wasn't happening. He had a wonderful voice, so tuneful... Anyhow, we could not use him. That was Mohd Rafi.
Shekhar Gupta: So how did Saare Jahan Se Achha happen?
Pt Ravi Shankar: It happened then, someone made me hear the song (sings) Saare jahan se achha...That was the original tune, and I felt it sounded very sad. How to make it a song that you can walk to or you can feel more vibrant towards? So it came spontaneously. There is a blessing I have. What comes for the first time, that is the best. And I did the whole song and it came out very well. Unfortunately, it was not publicised or immediately recorded.
Shekhar Gupta: How did you compose it for the first time?
Pt Ravi Shankar: It was absolutely like what it is now. (Sings) Saare jahan se achha, Hindustan hamara hamara, saare jahan se achha... It goes on. But there is a beat and the words are very clear. It caught on and I am glad that it got so popular.
Shekhar Gupta: But it is so funny and unfair that over time even HMV started calling the tune 'traditional'.
Pt Ravi Shankar: That is their ignorance, and I am saying it openly.
Shekhar Gupta: You can say anything. Everybody has to bow to you. And then, the Apu Trilogy with Satyajit Ray.
Pt Ravi Shankar: Well, he was a great friend. He used to come to my concerts. He was one of my greatest admirers in Calcutta for years. Even in Bombay he came.
Shekhar Gupta: And you were an admirer of his as well?
Pt Ravi Shankar: Not at all. He was just a tall person. That's all.
Shekhar Gupta: I see.
Pt Ravi Shankar: It was way after that. I had attained a lot of fame in the early 50s. I heard he was trying to make a film but could not because of lack of funds. And when I went to Calcutta, he said that I would like you to see the film. If you think you'd like to do it, I would be very happy. And one summer afternoon in Bhavanipur, I saw the rushes, I held his hand and said, "My God, what have you done? I have to do this music." And I sang to him the theme song, which immediately came to my mind.
Shekhar Gupta: So your return to the global stage begins when?
Pt Ravi Shankar: Well, it happened gradually.
Shekhar Gupta: Yehudi Menuhin comes to India...
Pt Ravi Shankar: You know, Yehudi Menuhin was a great friend and with him I got the opportunity of playing at UNESCO and other different places in Europe, at Carnegie Hall etc. As a classical musician, I became very well-known but it was George Harrison's coming to me and starting to learn from me around 1966 that...
Shekhar Gupta: How was that first contact made?
Pt Ravi Shankar: It was at a common friend's house. All four (The Beatles) came and I did not know much about their music but I had heard they were very famous. All of them were very sweet but George was so special. He would corner me and ask me about the relation between spirituality and music, religion and music. He met me a few times and then I started teaching him. And that news spread all over. That did help me. When people say that George Harrison made me famous, that is true in a way.
Shekhar Gupta: Yes, because that caught the global imagination immediately.
Pt Ravi Shankar: Absolutely. Before that I was well known like a classical Western musician might be.
Shekhar Gupta: Because these were also the days of Beatlemania, spirituality, hippie cults.
Pt Ravi Shankar: Exactly. And then what happened was that I became a pop star all of a sudden. All young people, bearded, long hair, wearing beads and not normal. They would behave like Naga sanyasis if they were permitted. And I was not happy at all. I would tell George, "What have you done?" And I started speaking out. And then Montreal Pop Festival was the first place where I had this platform. They wanted me to play between The Who and another pop group. I said no, I am not going to play. Because I saw them kicking the instruments, burning the guitars and doing obscene things.
Shekhar Gupta: And that would offend you.
Pt Ravi Shankar: It was all drugs and nobody normal there — the audience or the people on stage. I said I was cancelling my programme. So they changed my number to an afternoon show, where there was no one before me or after me and that was fantastic. All the famous rock stars were there, including that guitar player Jimmy Hendrix. Anyway, that did change and that show was so successful. And then barely a year or so later, I was invited for the first Woodstock and I played there. Actually, I started the programme. Joan Baez sang and after that it started drizzling. So I said I won't play because my sitar will get wet. So they quickly tried to cover it with something and I performed. But that was the experience that changed my whole view, because there were half a million people. It was raining, there was mud all over. And who was listening to music? They were all stoned. Completely stoned. And they were enjoying it. Mujhe yaad aaya, hamare mulk mein bhains dekhte hai in muddy water... it reminded me of that and I said "This is it. I am not going to play."
Shekhar Gupta: Right. They were soaking in the atmosphere.
Pt Ravi Shankar: And I told my agent, and actually did not accept anything, which meant that I had no programmes. So it took me a year to start again. What I was not happy about was that though they gave me all the adoration and I was like a pop star and could become a multi-millionaire...
Shekhar Gupta: You led the life of a rockstar as well.
Pt Ravi Shankar: No, I did not. That's what I am saying. I did not want to have it. They wanted me to be a guru. They all would sit down and say, "Tell us guru." And I said, I am not your guru. You know it was a strange situation, at that time I found such talent but there were those dumb ones too. But they all were into drugs and that is what I objected to. They were beatniks, before hippies. And the San Francisco area was the headquarters. Such intellectuals. They were achievers. They were already famous. They were into drugs.
Shekhar Gupta: But you never tried?
Pt Ravi Shankar: No, never. Once a friend tried to give me marijuana but because I did not smoke, I could not take it in. I just had a big headache. That is all. I have taken bhang a few times in Benaras with friends but that was very mild. Laughed a lot, ate a lot. So that is what I was objecting to, you see. All the young people, who were flocking, admiring and loving me so much. I told them not to smoke and behave like this. And that is what kept my audience away for a few years. But I did not mind. I was back into my classical fold.
Shekhar Gupta: But George Harrison came back to you?
Pt Ravi Shankar: He was always there. He understood me because he was seeing through that haze of drugs and everything. And then his association with Maharishi Mahayogi for a little while and then Bhaktivedanta, the Krishna Consciousness, Prabhupada. So you know, he was slowly getting out of all that. He was an ardent fan of the Vedic philosophy.
Shekhar Gupta: It was difficult to hide him in India, isn't it? He tried to come secretly.
Pt Ravi Shankar: Absolutely. That was when he came for the first time. He was in the Taj and everybody was shouting Ravi, we want George. They thought that I am not letting him come out because I was teaching him.
Shekhar Gupta: But you could not keep his visit secret.
Pt Ravi Shankar: No, it got out. One of the liftboys in Taj, who was Christian and used to play the guitar, recognised him. Then I had to take him to Kashmir. We were on a houseboat for three weeks and that is where I taught him.
Shekhar Gupta: And 1971 was a big peak period in that, with the Bangladesh war going on.
Pt Ravi Shankar: The Bangladesh war was another big thing. We had a lot of relatives there and my father had come from there. So I was thinking of doing a performance which would raise $20,000 at the most. But George came to Los Angeles and stayed with me at that time. He said, "let's do it in a big way" and he immediately called Madison Square Garden, called Bob Dylan and all the big names and instead of one we had to give two shows. Then I asked bhai Ali Akbar (Ustad Ali Akbar Khan) and Alla Rakha bhai.
Shekhar Gupta: Do you have any Beatles favourites?
Pt Ravi Shankar: A number of them — Here Comes The Sun is there and some of George's and some of John's and, of course, some of Paul's. Paul is such a sweetheart. We meet quite often now.
Shekhar Gupta: Did you see the break-up coming?
Pt Ravi Shankar: Oh, yes. I saw that whole period. It was a very difficult period.
Shekhar Gupta: But they led tough lives. They led complicated lives.
Pt Ravi Shankar: Normal for them and many others in the West. Even now normal for many because I see a lot of things happening now, which happened then as far as drugs are concerned.
Shekhar Gupta: But you led a slightly colourful life as well. I mean not like Beatles but slightly colourful.
Pt Ravi Shankar: No, colourful I don't know. I have lived well. Good hotels, I had a lot of ladies as friends and you know, it was a normal thing and I was never a sort of a person who would go after the show to nightclubs or something. This is something I never did. And all artistes have to relieve themselves somehow and that is the life they like. But this was something I have never done. But I have enjoyed life absolutely. I had wonderful friends and I am very grateful. Since I have been married, I have been even happier with everything. This is my second official marriage.
Shekhar Gupta: And I like the way you say my second official marriage.
Pt Ravi Shankar: Yes, because I have lived with wonderful people, had some wonderful time and I am very grateful to them but you know, sadly, it broke up. But this is very, very happy.
Shekhar Gupta: And now your daughters are also performing together.
Pt Ravi Shankar: I am so lucky. Not one but two. They are so talented and so wonderful. And bless them.
Shekhar Gupta: Because we see a lot of Anoushka.
Pt Ravi Shankar: Bas mujhe yahi dar laga rehta hai ki nazar na lage. That typical Indian thing I still have (laughs).
Shekhar Gupta: Have you watched Norah's movie, My Blueberry Nights?
Pt Ravi Shankar: Haan. It was a very good film but with films you don't know what is going to be successful and what is not. And another thing. I know that director. What is his name...I am forgetting. He exploited her so well. She looked so beautiful, stunning absolutely.
Shekhar Gupta: Was there some tension between you and Norah?
Pt Ravi Shankar: That was because her mother and I parted very bitterly. It was a complicated affair. I was really crazy at that time. I did not know how to handle it. Norah was born here and then after two years Anoushka was born in London. And that was a very difficult time. I really was finding it very hard. And she got mad and wanted to completely cut off. For nearly six-seven years, I did not know anything about them: where they were and where they disappeared. I could not find out. But that seven-eight years was a difficult period and then would you believe, when Norah was 16, I got a message, and it was Sukanya who made this contact.
Shekhar Gupta: I see.
Pt Ravi Shankar: And she made it possible for Norah to come visit me in California .
Shekhar Gupta: And now you are so happy that everything is so relaxed now.
Pt Ravi Shankar: Oh, yes. I am so happy... I have burdened many people. I apologise to all.
Shekhar Gupta: You have given millions of people so much joy and happiness. You and Ustad Vilayat Khan have been famous rivals. Was that painful or inspirational?
Pt Ravi Shankar: You know, you will be surprised to know, the time I met him... he was six-seven years younger than me. In Delhi, we used to ride the bicycle together and go eat out here and there. In Calcutta also. But I don't know what happened. It is the people in between, always. But when I met him I never found any... He called me Rovu da and I called him Vilayat bhai and there was no problem at all. Unfortunately, yeh beech wale, they always want to make comparisons.
Shekhar Gupta: Because it also seems that of all the fine arts, music is the most secular. Because Hindus and Muslims have shared this tradition so closely and the Sikhs in India, the entire holy book has been written along the ragas.
Pt Ravi Shankar: True. I mean this is a thing which we have to admit, that conversions began, particularly after Akbar. You know about Tansen. He was a Brahmin and he converted. So if you see, forced conversions happened, gharanas kept being formed but that is something which we have to ignore. Ab Bismillah Khan sahib ko aap last dekhenge. Baba ko agar aap dekhte...
Shekhar Gupta: Bismillah Khan sahib bole ki humko mandir nahi jaane diya to hum peeche se aakar deewar ko haath laga dete the.
Pt Ravi Shankar: They were all these wonderful musicians who did not have these silly dogmas. People create that. I haven't faced anything. Competition is usual. But that competition can be between two Hindus and two Muslims also. That is a different thing. But this typical bitterness.
Shekhar Gupta: Do you listen to (A R) Rahman?
Pt Ravi Shankar: I do listen to him, though I don't think what he got the Academy award for was his best. But he has done fantastic stuff.
Shekhar Gupta: Do you have any regrets that you did not do more films?
Pt Ravi Shankar: That is the saddest thing. I am saying it myself, that I am as good a composer, if not better than any other. I have done some wonderful things which have not been known for. Look at Saare Jahaan — that is only one example. There are hundreds of compositions.
Shekhar Gupta: So if somebody came and offered, will you still do a film?
Pt Ravi Shankar: I will do it if I think I like the theme.
Transcribed by Suanshu Khurana.