Celebrated sitar virtuoso Pandit Ravi Shankar put Indian classical music on the global pedestal for recognition and appreciation, almost becoming a sort of hippie music icon after his collaboration with George Harrison, and the subsequent influence of his sitar-playing on the music composed by the Beatles. Lovingly called the ‘Godfather of world music’ by Harrison, their close relation gave Shankar, who was already a revered musician in India, stardom across the world. People were intrigued by the man who had captivated the Beatles, but who at times didn’t completely understand the style of music that he created. “I wonder how much can they understand, and where all this will lead to. There is so much in our music that goes back thousands of years,” commented Pt. Shankar in a 1971 documentary called Raga.
“When George Harrison came to me, I didn’t know what to think,” said Pt. Shankar. “But I found he really wanted to learn. I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion, that Indian music would suddenly appear on the pop scene,” he added.
In conversation with the Telegraph, Roger McGuinn, founder of the Byrds, commented that he introduced Harrison to music played by Pt. Shankar on the sitar at a party in 1965. “They were both on LSD at the time, he said, but the sound inspired Harrison and the Beatles to travel to India where they met Pt. Shankar and took sitar lessons from him. The influence was heard on their Rubber Soul, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Rubber Soul albums, and also inspired artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Stevie Wonder,” reads the report.
The Beatles came and went, but for Pt. Shankar, Harrison was special. “He would corner me and ask me about the relation between spirituality and music, religion and music. He met me a few times and then I started teaching him. And that news spread all over. That did help me,” says Pt. Shankar in Raga. But the international stardom accorded to him wasn’t fully welcomed, Pt. Shankar was suddenly a pop star. “All young people, bearded, long hair, wearing beads and not normal. They would behave like Naga sannyasis [cannabis-smoking holy men] if they were permitted. And I was not happy at all.” Surrounded by groups of ‘pot-smoking hippies, “I would tell George, ‘What have you done?” he said.
This was the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship between the two musicians, one that marked musical history as an intermingling of Indian classical and western pop music. We’ve posted below a clip of one of many of George Harrison’s sitar lesson with Pandit Ravi Shankar from the documentary Raga directed by Howard Worth.
Feature image courtesy of the Indian Express