“We’d recorded the Norwegian Wood backing track and it needed something. We would usually start looking through the cupboard to see if we could come up with something, a new sound, and I picked the sitar up - it was just lying around; I hadn’t really figured out what to do with it. It was quite spontaneous: I found the notes that played the lick. It fitted and it worked.” - George Harrison, The Beatles Anthologies.
The flirty twang of a ‘crummy’ sitar singing away on the widely popular Beatles’ track was paramount in perfectly chronicling John Lennon’s musical ode to an extramarital affair that had left its mark on the legend.
The sitar was a gift to Harrison, who, unsure of what to use it for, let it gather dust in his musical tool box of a cupboard. Little did he know that soon after his little experiment, the instrument, hailing from Kolkata, would be widely recognised as the first sitar used on a commercial recording by a Western rock band. Harrsion’s decision to open the door of his cupboard and draw out a sitar from his smorgasboard of instruments on the 12th of October, 1965, would spur a typhoon of music that is now referred to as Raga Rock.**
Despite the large acclaim the song received, one man in particular could not curb his disdain, and did not hold back when he told his dear friend, George Harrison, that he was rather unimpressed with his foray with the sitar. This was none other than the Maihar Gharana maestro, Ravi Shankar.
“I couldn’t believe it. It sounded so strange. Just imagine some Indian villager trying to play the violin when you know what it should sound like,” Shankar commented to Mark Tully in a BBC interview from the year 2000.
But Shankar was not the type of person to dish out criticism just to hear the recipient cringe. A year later he took Harrison to Delhi for training in the classical Indian instrument, and the first order of business was outfitting the rock-and-roll heartthrob with a sitar from the best craftsman he knew.
That prestigious preference went to Rikhi Ram and Sons, an Indian classical music instrument purveyor that has opened its doors on G-8, Connaught Place since (Rikhi Ram was first established in Lahore in the 1920s, but was relocated during Partition).
The Beatles would not only pick up a bevy of beautiful instruments from Rikhi Ram in 1966, but George would also go on to request a made-to-order sitar specifically for Peter Sellers to use in the 1968 feature film, ‘The Party’. Although the author of this piece personally has enjoyed many of Sellers’ roles, especially The Pink Panther series, this particular part he played was more than a tad racist. For example, Mike Myers’ Love Guru role is to a certainty partially based on Sellers’ character, Hrundi K. Bakshi, although somehow Myers manages to be more PC; that way the ‘60s were undeniably unrepenting.
Nevertheless, when Sellers’ starts finger-picking the specialmade Rikhi Ram sitar during the opening credits, one is at least slightly distracted from Sellers’ uncouth brown-face by the beauty and sonorous notes emanating from the string instrument.
Despite being a small shop on the Connaught Place’s Marine Arcade, Rikhi Ram sitars have been seen the world over, even if only by your Grandad’s generation. Shankar, Harrison, and Sellers, three names that still ring out with a fervour close to that of their heyday, made a concerted effort to offer their patronage to this little Delhi store. That kind of support from high-flying stars only makes the humble musical haven exponentially cooler.
The shop is still going strong, run by third generation owner Ajay Sharma. However, as parting words of advice, or better a plea, HG recommends that fans of The Beatles and Ravi Shankar, especially musicians, visit this mini-Mecca of music history for a pilgrimage. Supporting this slice of Indian music history would help prevent the place slowly fading into obscurity, eventually disappearing into the growing void of ‘institutions’ that once made up India’s mid 20th century music scene.
That may sound way too melodramatic, but younger generations have too long bore the disappointment of hearing tales of how great the live music scene was before. Stories, such as the joint (Slip Disc) in Mumbai where Jimmy Page and Robert Plant rocked the socks off the boozer’s bar flies; or feel gypped that The Simla Beat contest, a huge rock-and-roll catalyst for young Indian bands during the 60s and 70s, simply petered out in quite a ‘tease no please’ fashion. The list of badass, bygone music venues, recording studios, and supply shops that bit the dust far too soon still haunts many live music fans in India.
And although Rikhi Ram is obviously not about offering rock-and-roll wares, its history is irreversibly tied to rock-and-roll history, as well as the greater body of worldwide pop culture. Ravi Shankar, who was such a loyal patron he established a long and loving relationship with the Sharma family, turned many Westerners onto classical Indian music as well as introduced many Indians to rock-and-roll by his association with the figures of the genre. That widespread cross-cultural feat could only be accomplished by a certain kind of genius, which Guru Ji most definitely was.
So, in the most long-winded manner, the message is simple–visit Rikhi Ram if you fancy yourself a Beatles or a Ravi Shankar fan. That way you can give yourself a pat on the back and say, “Well, at least I supported the joint.” Who knows, you might even see a shabby, bearded writer in the corner of the store, still desperately trying to extract an interview from the current owner of the iconic instrument shop.
**[Note to readers–it must be mentioned that Heartful of Soul by The Yardbirds would have been the first to use a sitar while recording a Western rock track, however, the group opted to use Jeff Beck’s fuzz box to mimic the sound of a sitar, as it yielded a similar sound at a higher pitch, thus making it easier to properly record the sassy lick that elevates the composition of the song. If you care to listen to the absolutely bitchin’ tune click here].
If you liked this article, you should also read:
The Big, Bad Grandads Of Indian Rock N’ Roll
How India’s 1960s Rock Revolution Owes Simla Menthol Cigarettes
When Parsi Aunties Hosted Mumbai’s First Ever Rock Concert