How Pandit Ravi Shankar’s Performance At Woodstock Changed Music Forever

How Pandit Ravi Shankar’s Performance At Woodstock Changed Music Forever

Starting as a counterculture movement in the West, the 1960s and 70s were the golden age of the hippie movement, one that was born mainly out of a disdain for the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement gaining larger ground and financial uncertainties that lead to an entire generation wanting to swim against the tide. The hippie movement in essence was radical, it believed in ideals of community and love, was equally influenced by concepts of eastern philosophy and spirituality and also believed in the power of the psychedelics to reach a spiritual calling.

It was in the pretext of the burgeoning hippie movement and its call for eastern spirituality that The Beatles made their highly publicized trip to Rishikesh in India in 1968 where George Harrison learnt to play the sitar from Pandit Ravi Shankar. With that a larger audience now knew about the Indian maestro.

In what was perhaps the most noted day of the hippie movement, over a million people congregated at a 600-acre farm close to New York on August 15, 1969. The three days celebrating the quintessential hippie lifestyle would go on to be remembered forever as a utopia that had come to life. With outdoor acts by legends like Jimi Hendrix, rock rebels Janice Joplin, and Joan Baez among others set to a background of acid-induced fervour and a call for ‘free love’ Woodstock embedded itself in the pages of history as a lasting icon of the counterculture hippie decade.

For those in India though, it was the hour-long performance by sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar at Woodstock that changed the trajectory and face of music at the global level. Among the psychedelic and rock performers was a man sitting with his sitar playing to a crowd that was in a haze, a trance of psychedelics, and drugs set to eastern tunes. Much of what we know of his performance there has been his first-hand documentation and contrary to what one would expect, he doesn’t think of it fondly.

For the sitarist born to a Bengali family who grew up playing in the strict disciplinary traditions of Hindustani classical music and believed that instruments were tools of divinity and hence sacred, the sight of Hendrix and The Who breaking their guitars and drums on stage while playing to a frenzied crowd was nothing short of horrifying. To add to the horror was the sight of drugs being consumed so openly.

Recounting the experience Pandit Ravi Shankar had said in an interview, “But that was the experience that changed my whole view, because there were half a million people. It was raining, there was mud all over. And who was listening to music? They were all stoned. Completely stoned. And they were enjoying it. Mujhe yaad aaya, hamare mulk mein bhains dekhte hai in muddy water (in our country, we see buffaloes in muddy water)... it reminded me of that and I said this is it, I am not going to play.”

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