Reminiscing On Ravi

You never forget your first musician interview—especially if it’s with Ravi Shankar.

Ravi Shankar In San Francisco

Very early in my journalism career, I made an important discovery: Once your meet someone who’s an idol not only to you but to the world, the odds of feeling nervous before future meetings with anyone else are slim to none.

It was on the first day of my first reporting internship that the paper’s pop music critic casually asked if I’d be interested in tagging along to his interview with Ravi Shankar. Yes, that Ravi Shankar, the sitarist who hypnotized crowds with the beauty of his playing at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, inspired the Beatles’ exploration of Indian music before taking George Harrison under his wing and who, years later, fathered singer/songwriter Norah Jones and fellow sitarist Anoushka Shankar. Did I want to meet him? You bet I did.

Two days later we were on our way to Shankar’s house. Then 91, Shankar wasn’t in the public eye much anymore, but he was still making it out to scheduled concert dates a few times each year, some of which were solo performances while others featured appearances by his daughter Anoushka and occasionally Kartik Seshadri, another of Shankar’s prominent mentees. Traveling with one of the paper’s photographers, our group of three pulled off the freeway and wove our way through suburban neighborhoods in Encinitas, Calif., until we reached a long driveway, at the end of which was an immaculate single-story house with an expansive white roof and a grassy front lawn. Shankar’s wife Sukanya invited us in and we walked down a short hallway to meet with the man himself.

Ravi Shankar Transmigration Macabre

Over the next couple of hours, what struck me most was how sharp Shankar’s mind remained and how much he enjoyed laughing. His skinny limbs moved slowly but independently, and the white puff of beard on his chin was a dignified callback to the long black beard he sported years earlier. He smiled easily, eager to answer our questions and recall times in his life that were long gone by. He thought carefully before giving each answer, his dark brown eyes occasionally narrowing as he combed through the vaults in his memory. I’d heard about Shankar’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival and voraciously watched the concert film released in 1968, but listening to Shankar describe the crowd’s reaction to his playing, their stunned awe as the beauty of his sitar performance held them transfixed, brought a new dimension to my understanding of the festival.

In 2011, Shankar was a living example of how powerful music could be when shared with the world in a positive way. At a time when national and social politics in the United States were fraught with tension, when citizens were at once eager for and afraid of change, rock musicians were pushing the envelope through sonic experimentation, watching their fans’ reactions carefully to find out where exactly the red line was located. It was the Beatles who thought elements of Indian music might help them continue in that vein, but it was Shankar who saw opportunity in the invitation to work with them—a chance to introduce new sounds and instruments into American music, and perhaps a new way of thinking along with it. Shankar recognized that there was room in the world for people to engage with modes of expression that were new to them; two styles of music or more could coexist in a space without one infringing upon the other, so long as each musician respected the others’ style. It could work. It did work.

Ravi Shankar Portrait of Genius

Nearly five decades later, Shankar was sitting on a fabric-covered sofa in his living room, watching us with kind eyes and a persistent smile. He was older then, much older; he knew the intention of our time together was to reflect on his life, ask the questions we’d always wondered, muse about the big-picture story of his place in history. Not many people impact the world in a way that spiderwebs out into music, culture and politics, but Shankar undoubtedly did.

At some point during the interview, Sukanya brought out lunch, a bowl for us each and one for Shankar, too. We ate our deliciously spicy meals amid light conversation, my mentor’s tape recorder still rolling as we entered the final portion of the interview. Finally, it was my turn to ask a few questions.

There were details I was curious to learn about Shankar’s perspective on Monterey Pop, his songwriting for films and plays, his experience with the Concert for Bangladesh…but as a music fanatic who’d grown up listening to the Beatles—as many of us rock ‘n’ roll diehards do—I was eager to learn what it was about Harrison that inspired Shankar to take him on as his pupil. Harrison was one of the most famous popular musicians in history who learned to play sitar so he could bring an extra–then largely unheard–element into “Norwegian Wood.” What made Harrison so special?

George Harrison and Ravi Shankar / Photo by Clive Arrowsmith, courtesy of the Harrison family

The mere mention of Harrison seemed to spark a light in Shankar’s eyes. He smiled again, seeming to reminisce for a moment before answering. “With George, it was something very special,” Shankar told me. “He was very much interested in our philosophy, spirituality and the old texts. I was very happy to see such a serious approach.”

It was Harrison’s genuine curiosity that humbled Shankar. A famous young musician who likely could have continued his career without coloring outside the lines chose to try something different—and Shankar was happy to meet him halfway.

My group left not long after, satisfied with the afternoon’s work and excited to have spent time with a musical legend. I’ve conducted countless musician interviews since—some of which felt truly remarkable in the moment—but I don’t expect I’ll get another experience quite like the day I met Ravi Shankar.

 

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