Sitar guru

Music - Dermot Clinch on the man who taught Yehudi Menuhin a thing or two

Heartfelt tributes flooded in on the occasion of Pandit Ravi Shankar's 80th birthday on 7 April. On Radio 4, the actor and manufacturer of root vegetable crisps, Terence Stamp, offered considered insights into the "marriage of the esoteric East and the intellectual West", and recalled how it had been Marlon Brando who introduced him to the sitar maestro "at a gathering in LA" in the Sixties. George Harrison informed us that Shankar was a high-caste Brahmin - "and in India all the groovy people are Brahmins".

On the World Service, the BBC's former India correspondent, Mark Tully, interviewed the man himself, and gamely asked about his relationship with women, and whether Mahatma Gandhi would have approved of it. In response, Shankar reminded us that, although India gave us the Upanishads, it also produced the Kama Sutra. Tully then asked what Shankar had learned from his famous collaboration with Yehudi Menuhin in the Sixties, and was floored by a reply of stratospheric egotism. "Actually, nothing," answered Ravi-ji. "It was the other way round." Against the odds, Tully maintained that in Shankar he had met a paragon of humility.

The sitar maestro presents, in his 81st year, the image of a man in flight from his reputation. Curry houses Europe-wide are named after him, but the achievements that led to this singular honour appal their author. Did we know George Harrison made a really nasty sound when he first played the sitar, he asks, gleefully? Harrison and the Beatles were "the start of all the hullabaloo," he says. The audiences at Woodstock who lovingly applauded his tuning-up, and who were in part responsible for his global fame, were "weird-looking people with long hair and a strong smell of patchouli to hide what they were smoking."

Shankar shared a stage with Hendrix, calls him "Jimmy" even now, but condemns him all the same. He would like it both ways: to take a starring role in the Sixties, with no responsibility. In India, this went down poorly. Conservatives, but not only conservatives, were suspicious of the association with rock mayhem and even of the forays into Indian popular song and light music. The need to be adored was sometimes sniffed at in the West. Pierre Boulez, with his sensitive nose, smelled a rat about 30 years ago. Where once Shankar had been a sitar player, said the French modernist, these days he did little more than play "Neapolitan banjo music".

In the end, Tully's emphasis will perhaps be the right one: Shankar is "the most famous world musician alive today." Without his innovations, would today's routine experiments in world "fusion" be possible? A new Quintet for Sarod and String Quartet is released on a mainstream classical label this month. Performed by its young composer, sarod master Wajahat Khan, with the impeccably European Medici Quartet, the work represents the approach of a serious fusion music to some kind of maturity. Romantic titles - "Prayers of Love", "Monsoon Memories" - hide probing questions concerning form, texture and harmony, which, in seriousness and ambition, go beyond anything Shankar himself has attempted.

Shankar now wishes to shore up, above all, his reputation as a serious traditional Indian musician. Forget his Concerto for Sitar and Large Western Classical Orchestra, his Shanti Mantra for Western Choir, Mystic Flute, Tingling Triangle, his Passages: Original Music Composed by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass, with saxophones and French horns and all that jazz. The man behind the project of "uniting two versatile cultures within the international language of music"- the hope and words of Wajahat Khan in his new CD - would have us believe he was a purist all along. "The music itself I always kept basically Indian." Fusion music? Never inhaled.

Quintet for Sarod and String Quartet (Koch Classics) is on general release

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?