For Ravi Shankar, There'll Always Be Sitars in the Sky

Indian sitar legend Ravi 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.)

To see and hear the 92-year-old Shankar perform is to witness a young old soul in a very pure state of transformation. It is, he says, the eternally rejuvenating power of the raga that keeps him alive and kicking. Herewith, Shankar discusses his life in music, and offers a tutorial in the nuts and bolts of his chosen form of expression, the raga.

OC Weekly: Can you explain what a raga is, exactly? What is its shape and structure?
Ravi Shankar: I'll try my best. [Laughs] I mean, you know Western music, don't you?

Yes. Well, a lot of it, anyway.

Oh, that's wonderful. Then you know about the seven scales of the Grecian mode. Then let us start from there. The ragas basically are melody forms based on scales, like the Grecian modes, but we have got a basic 72-note scale. There are ragas which have seven notes ascending and descending, then there are six notes ascending and descending, and then not less than five ascending and descending. So each of these ragas have their own ascending and descending scales. Some are just five notes ascending, five descending, or six or seven ascending and descending. Then there are combinations ­­-- five ascending-descending, six, seven -- and then we also have the black notes and the "sharp" notes. It can go on and on.

How many ragas are there?

There are supposed to be more than 6,000 ragas, but in practice we deal with 100 to 150. I can without any problem think of about 200 different ragas ­­-- but when I think about it I can think of even more ragas.

How can you possibly remember that many ragas?

After you "get" this critical form of the raga, then you, the performer, learn from your guru, for years. Because our learning is entirely person-to-person, it is not a written-down system. In the West you have this wonderful system of written-down music by great composers like Bach and Beethoven, and then what a musician does is practice on his instrument the notes that are written down maybe a hundred years, two hundred years before. We aren't lucky to have that. We memorize all the different structures of the ragas, then create something like songs within these ragas with all the basic compositions which are already traditional and old. It takes longer to learn our music because it is all done by hearing and memorizing hundreds of thousands of things.

If the performer feels a passion for the music, all that hard work shouldn't be a problem, then.

After all this study, along with the talent and also patience and a fierce desire to prove himself after many years of learning from his guru, he can start performing on his own.

Where does the raga come from?

We have two different sets of patterns of ragas in India. One is the North style called Hindustani, to which I belong; and there's a tremendous big operation of people in the South who play in the Carnatic style. Basically these systems are the same, but they separated 400 to 500 years ago. Because our music is very much based on songs with words, we have evolved within the Hindi world our own basic songs, and then in the South they're structuring their songs around the Telagu or Tamil or other languages.

Tell me more about the Hindustani raga form.

With the Hindustani system, all the ragas are connected with the time of the day, like early-morning raga, late-morning raga, early-afternoon, afternoon, early-evening and late-night. And then each raga is supposed to be like a certain person; they have personalities in the sense that they have their own special nature, or moods which we call rasa: Some are very sad, some are very happy, some are very melancholic and some are very loving ­­-- or angry. We instrumentalists have to maintain these rasa as much as possible. The performer makes associations with these moods and should or can interpret them. Of course an artist has the freedom to play a different rasa that goes by, if he is competent enough.

How much of what we hear you play is improvised?

The improvisation becomes the tremendous developing part of our music. And here it depends on authority, it depends on musician to musician, and somehow the ability to improvise from less; I have always been very, very interested in improvising, and when I perform, whatever you hear is 85 to 90 percent improvised, on the spot.

When I'm watching you perform, I wonder, Where is your mind when you are playing a raga? Or should I say, where is your heart, or your soul? Where are you?

It has to be completely affiliate to my own mind. I feel the notes, I can play with them, all the rhythmic varieties and the little ornamentations, and most of all it's a joy always to find out new things, try something which I've never done before and find that I can do it successfully.
My music, in the beginning it is always like a prayer, so here comes a lot of that divine sort of feeling. It's like praying ­­-- whatever religion you are, it doesn't matter ­­-- there is that supreme feeling like a prayer, like seeing a different world of colors and beauty.
And then comes the part of showing off a little -- like all musicians we are showing off what we can do, the speed, the technical contest, you know. And rhythm plays a very important part in our music. From the very beginning of this very simple song we can then go fast and very fast ­­-- like any other good music, it's the world of speed and variety and rhythmic fun, which everyone loves.

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