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To hear him tell it, at 92 years old, renowned Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar is just now entering his prime. It is, he says, the eternally rejuvenating power of the raga that keeps him alive and kicking.
Shankar has been an illustrious name since the mid-'60s largely through his association with George Harrison and the Beatles, whose music was profoundly influenced by Shankar's mastery of the Indian classical raga form; his appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival and at Woodstock in 1969 further spread the impact of Indian traditional music throughout the Western worlds of pop, rock and jazz. (He's equally famed these days as the father of singer Norah Jones and sitarist Anoushka Shankar.)
These days, to see Ravi Shankar onstage is to witness a young old soul in a very pure state of transformation. One wonders where his head, heart and soul are when he's in the midst of his art.
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"I feel the notes," he says from his home in Encinitas. "I can play with them, all the rhythmic varieties and the little ornamentations. Most of all, it's a joy to find out new things; it makes me happy to improvise, to try something I've never done before and do it successfully."
The raga is an ancient music that combines elaborate rhythmic and melodic structures with the individual improvisatory skills of players. There are morning ragas, afternoon ragas, evening ragas, all imparting a mood and, Shankar says, a "personality."
"In the beginning," he says, "my music is like a prayer, with a lot of that divine sort of feeling, that supreme feeling—or seeing a different world of colors and beauty." He laughs. "It's very difficult to describe."
But then comes the showing-off part.
"Like all musicians, we want to demonstrate the technical contest," he continues. "From the very beginning of this very simple song, we'll go fast and very fast. As with any other good music, it's the world of speed and variety and rhythmic fun."
Harrison called Shankar "the Godfather of World Music," a reputation that sprung from his almost single-handed PR work for his country's traditional music, starting with tours of Europe and America in the mid-'50s and collaborations with Western classical and contemporary musicians such as violinist Yehudi Menuhin, flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and composer Philip Glass. While his time spent with artists of the West indelibly marked the way he heard his own music, his experience at the Monterey Pop Festival presented a bit of culture shock.
"It was just the beginning of the hippies, with beards and beads and patchouli and things like that. I was charmed to see all these beautiful people, young people giving flowers and things—peace. But then there were the big rock groups, and I have a little problem with really loud sounds; sitting near the stage with the loudspeakers, it was affecting my heart!" he says, laughing at the memory. "I almost choked, crying, and I told them, 'I cannot perform here, I'm sorry, please!'"
But the promoters persuaded Shankar to stay and play at an afternoon performance two days later. "They fixed it for me specially so that there was no one before or after, and that performance happened to be so wonderful and so inspired," he recalls. "It was beautiful."
Shankar's presence at Monterey and at Woodstock a few months later wielded a major impact on many of the rock and pop musicians in attendance that day, as had Shankar's music and spiritual devotion deeply moved Harrison.
"George was a very good student," he says. "But he was involved with so many things that he didn't really have any time to sit and practice sitar. What he did was listen to me and my thoughts, my expressions; he got the spirit of ragas and our music. And he was so interested in our religion: He loved the old Vedic philosophies, the way we conceive God or whatever. But apart from that, he was the dearest friend; he was like a son, like my younger brother, friend, everything, and I miss him very much."
Shankar has a lot of living to do. Where is he going, and what will he find when he gets there?
He sighs in a restlessly contented way. "I'm 92, and my mind is not changed: I feel just as I did at 16," he says. "The body has its own issues, of course, but I'm writing as much as I can, and I still like to perform. I want to keep doing the really important things."
This article appeared in print as "Master at Work: Ravi Shankar wants to keep doing really important things."