Entertainment & Arts

The Sunday Conversation: Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar, 91, India’s most famous classical musician in the West since his collaborations with Beatle George Harrison and violinist Yehudi Menuhin in the 1960s, makes an infrequent concert appearance when he performs at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach on March 25.

Tell me about your upcoming concert. What do you have planned?

I do my usual performance, the Indian classical music, playing on my sitar. And I have the usual accompaniment of drums and a drone instrument. Also, this is going to be a very interesting program because the first half is a short recital by someone who happens to be my sister-in-law, a very famous singer called Lakshmi Shankar. She’ll sing a few very interesting religious songs and things like that for the first 40 minutes, and I take over the second half. Apart from my drum and drone instrument, I’ve got three more instruments to list — a wonderful flute player, a sitar player who’s a student of mine and the third one playing a very interesting drum.

Will you be playing your own compositions?


Most of them are my own, but they’re all based on Indian classical ragas — melody forms, very ancient. We improvise on them and I compose also on them. It will be based on classical Indian music, but mostly my own compositions.

Your musical style is considered distinct from that of your peers. How is it distinct?

We have this classical format like you have your composers, like Bach, and people play exactly what they wrote. It’s the written-down music system. We don’t have that written-down system, but our system is very scientific. It follows ragas — melody forms — and one is free to play a raga maybe for three hours, but you can make it as short as 15 minutes, even 10 minutes, and these are all my way of presenting to the West. It’s like editing in films. So I give the whole gamut of our classical music, starting with the 13th century or so, which has been taught orally. It’s not written-down music, so we have the freedom to improvise. And each time it comes out as new. That’s why it’s always fresh. I never feel like I’ve been repeating myself.

How have collaborations with Western composers like Philip Glass affected your artistic development?


Before that I played with Yehudi Menuhin and Jean-Pierre Rampal. I compose pieces based on ragas and taught them and sometimes played along with them. The same thing I have done with Philip Glass, but with Philip Glass, it has been different. He gave me four lines of his composition, and I give him about four lines and he did whatever he wanted to do on the basis of the four lines that I gave him, and I did the same with his. That was more of an experimental thing. It cannot be classified as classical music of India. It was more of an innovation, an attempt to bring out something beautiful.

How long have you lived in Encinitas, and why did you settle in Southern California?

The main reason was I have been touring all my life, spending time in London, Paris, New York, but because of health reasons, I preferred California and especially this area. I fell in love with it here. It’s such a beautiful spot, and the climate is fantastic. We came to this place in ’92.

Do you still tour?

I don’t do as much as I did, but still 12 to 15 performances a year in the States, Europe and India. I love to do it, and there’s a demand for me, so as much as I can, I do it.

You were an organizer of last month’s Indian Music and Dance Festival in Delhi.

In our center, every year, we have a four-day festival for which I get young musicians and elder, established musicians. It started in memory of George’s birthday. We still keep that day, starting on Feb. 24. Every year we do that.

I miss him very much.


What do you remember most about him?

We became very, very dear to each other in the sense that it started with my teaching him sitar. And then gradually I saw his interest in Indian religion and more than religion, actually, philosophy and the old culture. And I helped him get many books to read, and that’s how it started. And he got so deep into it and he was so sincerely in love with India and the Indian religion, because he was more into the philosophical aspect of the old system. This plus music, we became such good friends. He became like part of me.

You’ve toured with your daughter, Anoushka, who also wrote a book about you.

I started teaching her how to play sitar from the time she was about 9 years old. By the time she was 13 or 14, she started sitting with me in concerts and gradually, we played so many concerts together. She’s my best student, I can say without any hesitation.

What is your relationship like with your other daughter, Norah Jones?

Wonderful. She’s on her own. I love her. These are like my two eyes, really.

Do you think you might ever perform with Norah?

I don’t know. I don’t think so because it’s completely a different world, what she does. She was born here, grew up here and her music is American music. It’s so beautiful, there’s no need to do that, just for the sake of sitting together. But maybe we’ll just fool around and do something together.


How many students do you currently have?

I have not taken students in quite a while, but I have two or three still. Many come to me, but I take only those with very special talent and the urge to work.

Do you think about the legacy you’d like to leave?

It sounds very big. I’d like to leave a legacy where some of my students — I won’t say all — have love and respect for our music. That’s a fundamental thing I’d like them to understand, not just a way of making a living or a lot of name, but go deep into music and keep it alive. To keep an age-old culture with its depth, its feeling, its whole aspect is not very easy. Because now especially the world has become so commercial — it is do it now as soon as you can, make a name, make a record. So whether it is classical Western or Indian, I think it has the same problem. It’s hard in these modern days to have students who have the love and respect for the tradition.