For me the the mark of a great artist is bringing a regional music out to the world to enjoy. Astor Piazzolla did it for tango. Segovia for Spanish guitar. Ravi did that for Indian music. Aside from the early soundtracks he did in Bombay, he taught John Coltrane Indian scales and George Harrison how to play the sitar (which the late Beatle first did on “Norwegian Wood” on 1965’s Rubber Soul.
There is a fascinating film documentary on Ravi’s life called Raga. It traces his artistic journey from being a dandy in his brother Uday Shankar’s dance company, travelling the world first class — on luxury liners like the S.S. Normandie and Ile de France— for impresario Sol Hurok alongside the Anna Akhmatova Russian Ballet company. Ravi was a young dandy. When his group sojourned in Paris in the 1930s, he spent lots of time with Luis Bunuel, Hemingway, Picasso, le tout Paris, the hip artistic milieu in the City of Light.
The film shows how everything changed when he returned to India. His music guru, Baba Allauddin Khan, told him he had to give everything up and do one thing well. Ravi got rid of his fancy clothes, moved into a cinderblock hut, and practiced 10 hours a day for eight years under the tutelage of his guru. Only then did he start performing ragas in public.
In one sequence, Ravi takes the train to return to his guru’s village. He is greeted by Khan, then over 100 years old, and falls prostrate to his music master’s feet. Such is discipleship in Indian music. There is now other music that has such a rigorous teacher-student relationship. In Indian music, complete surrender is required.
I interviewed Ravi many times after that. He became a friend of KCRW and always remembered us fondly. Ravi, we thank you for blessing us with your music and will remember you forever.
This is a picture of the very first interview from Summer, 1979. Ruth Seymour, KCRW’s General Manager is there with us. Ravi also had one of the most beautiful signatures I have ever seen. I asked him to sign my lp whenever he visited us. Ravi’s daughter Anoushka just made her debut on the same illustrious label, Deutsche Grammophon, with her brilliant Indian-Flamenco album Traveller. Like her dad, she’s experimenting and taking Indian music in new directions her pop must have been proud of.
I will close by mentioning a beautiful film documentary by Alan Kozlowski that is finally available. It’s called Raga. I found this trailer on youtube.com: