If you were to create a playlist of tracks that featured some kind of Indian sound, it would practically be endless. Take the sitar-rock combo alone — we have Norwegian Wood by The Beatles, Pretty Tied Up by Guns N’ Roses, Fancy by The Kinks, Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones; the list goes on. Of all the artists that come under the sub-genre of ‘Raga Rock’ (rock music with pronounced Indian influence/instruments like sitar or tabla), the one name that doesn’t show up as often as it should is the Indo-Funk maestro, Ananda Shankar.
It's America in the late 60s — counter-culture has taken over society, polygamy, feminism, the green movement and hippie culture are on the rise, the air is filled with the dank smell of Ganja, and the flower power generation is in full bloom. At the same time, a spiritual revolution is spreading across the nation that’s leading its musicians, artists and seekers to travel to the east. And when they return they bring Indian music with them which leads to a “sitar explosion” in the west.
Travelling through the west coast of America around the same time, was a young Ananda Shankar, the Nephew of the sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar and the son of popular Indian dancers, Uday and Amala Shankar. Having learnt sitar in his childhood and later with Dr Lalmani Misra at the Banaras Hindu University, he had already become an adept musician. So in America, he found himself right at the centre of the sitar explosion, performing at campuses, meeting mega musicians, playing with them, and with their music, like the Doors, among others.
Attending one of these gigs was the god of electric guitar, Jimi Hendrix himself. Hendrix was amazed at Ananda’s sound and reportedly asked him what he was high on, only to learn the young man didn’t do drugs. The two hit it off so well that Hendrix asked him to jam with him. And so for a couple of weeks in 1969, the two spent hours, turning into days, playing together in a plush Beverly Hills hotel room. Hendrix had booked an entire floor where the Indo-American duo made memorable and magical music together. Hendrix then suggested that they do an album, but Ananda declined as he later told an interviewer, “he was not sure what he was letting himself in for”. He wanted his first release to be a solo effort so he told Hendrix that they would work on a joint project only after he released something by himself.
And so he did. The jams with Jimi Hendrix had caught the attention of Reprise records which was founded by Frank Sinatra but later bought by Warner Brothers. With the label, Ananda Shankar released his first LP with an eponymous title in 1970. It featured sitar-infused cover versions of Jumping Jack Flash by The Rolling Stones and Light My Fire by The Doors with Paul Lewins on the Moog synthesizer, modulating the sounds. While the tracks, Snowflower and Mamata were a meditative, dreamy bliss with light melodies, Sagar was more aligned with classical compositions, in a deep, dark, immersive reflection of an ocean taking the listeners on a 13-minute odyssey. Ananda’s debut LP became a sensation in the US but in India, it turned into a lesser known cult classic.
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Returning to India in the early 1970s Ananda continued to experiment with music and in 1975 released his most critically acclaimed album, , a jazz-funk mix of Eastern sitar, tabla and mridangam, Western rock guitar, drums and Moog synthesizers which had a re-release in 2005 and is widely considered his magnum opus. Around this time, notable filmmaker Mrinal Sen also approached Shankar to make music for the second and third films in his Calcutta Trilogy series —Calcutta 71 and Padatik. Ananda continued to make records and toured with his band Mudavis which stood for music, dance and visuals gathering acclaim around the world.
In the nineties, Ananda’s music was rediscovered and started gaining popularity again. In England, a serious appreciation of his contribution to the music world emerged at club nights like Anokha in London’s East End where DJ, musician and producer Sam Zaman, AKA State Of Bengal, played a seven-hour vinyl tribute to the artist at one legendary session. Ananda even toured with State of Bengal in the late 90s working on an album called Walking On — a blend of Indian classical and British underground music, featuring his trademark sitar soundscapes mixed with eclectic breakbeat and hip hop with wild rhythmic patterns that are popular among bass heads. The album wasn’t released until 2000, a year after Ananda’s death.
Having been one of the original musicians from India who fused Indian and western sounds, Ananda Shankar always remained a cult classic never quite gaining the popularity of his western counterparts. His album was even criticized by the Indian journalist Indrajit Hazra for helping to perpetuate a cheapened cultural image of India; which seems to me like the direct symptom of the white supremacy syndrome because no one said that about George Harrison when he “revolutionized” rock music with sitar. A purist perspective like that has often been an impediment in the experimentation of styles of music or art. However, it skipped Ananda, who was a visionary, way ahead of his time. Fusion which has become an entire genre in the present music scene proves the same. His genius was only recognized and admired internationally and posthumously through the medium of rave music which has adapted his style into its ethos, creating a legacy of bringing different people, sounds and cultures together, which it definitely owes, in part to Ananda Shankar.