Indian Sun: Highlights from the Ravi Shankar Archive

5th March – 15th May. Archive Studio, Level 2, Royal Festival Hall, London.

“Ravi Shankar is probably the person who’s influenced my life the most”- George Harrison.

Woven into the Beatles story are numerous fascinating sub plots, perhaps none more intriguing than the relationship forged between George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, following their first meeting in July 1966. As well as being his sitar teacher, Ravi influenced George in a far more profound way, igniting in him a life long devotion to Eastern philosophy and religion. For Ravi, his friendship with George helped cement his reputation as one of the pioneers of world music, helping him gain access to new audiences around the globe. Their relationship was also, of course, the catalyst for the “Concert for Bangladesh”.

To commemorate the centenary of Ravi’s birth, the South Bank Centre in London, which houses the Royal Festival Hall, is currently hosting a series of events entitled “Shankar 100”, comprising workshops, talks, exhibits and a concert. This celebration of Ravi’s life was originally due to have taken place in 2020, however was postponed due to the pandemic. An ambitious project such as this of course requires financial backing and according to its promotional literature, “Shankar 100 is being generously supported by the  Material World Foundation”. This is the charity that George set up in 1973 and to which he donated in perpetuity royalties from his album recorded that year, “Living in the Material World”. Nearly half a century after their release, these songs still generate a sizeable income (£166k in 2020) and kudos to Olivia, Dhani and the other trustees of the charity for using these monies, together with other donations received, to support culturally significant events such as “Shankar 100” and indeed many other worthy causes.

I took the opportunity to visit one of the centrepiece attractions of “Shankar 100” at the end of March. This is  an exhibition  entitled “Indian Sun: Highlights from the Ravi Shankar Archive” featuring items chosen by Oliver Craske, Ravi’s biographer. The exhibit is situated in a quiet corner on the ground floor of the Festival Hall and all of the items on display are encased in glass. 

As a dyed in the wool Beatles fan, it was only natural that I began my visit by focusing on those artefacts that feature George. First up, a great photo of George and Ravi backstage at the Hollywood Bowl mingling with several eminent Indian musicians, following Ravi’s concert there in August 1967. Through his developing friendship with George, Ravi had begun to receive invitations to play at venues and events that had previously been the preserve of western popular music artists. Just two months prior to the Hollywood Bowl show, he had featured on the same bill as the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Otis Redding at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Fast forward seven years and another fab photo shows Ravi and George together with Peter Sellers on the 1974 “Dark Horse” tour, the three cheerful looking amigos having just disembarked from their chartered plane, the ubiquitous OM symbol clearly visible below the cockpit. Ravi and his orchestra of Indian musicians were the opening act for George throughout the entirety of a seven week trek across North America which took in 45 shows. 

My attention was then drawn to a letter from George to Ravi, dated 21/10/1966, and written in Delhi on the final day of a six week visit to India  undertaken with Pattie. George had spent his time  in India learning the sitar and this was a letter expressing his deep gratitude to Ravi for his patient tuition with George promising him that he would “try and learn as much as possible”. The letter is signed off “with much love from your disciple George”. Between 1965 and 1968, George assiduously applied himself to learning the sitar, practising for two to three hours per day .This was an astonishing level of dedication when you consider that at the same time he was also a fully functioning member of indisputably the greatest and probably hardest working band in the world. Whilst he was humble enough to acknowledge his limitations on the instrument, George credited the sitar for making him a better songwriter as the following quote from his autobiography “I Me Mine” reveals; … “it really did help me as far as writing strange melodies and also rhythmically it was the best assistance I could have had”.

As we all know, it was George’s friendship with Ravi which led to the staging of the “Concert for Bangladesh” in 1971. Whilst George himself composed the song “Bangladesh ” to highlight the famine and destruction taking place in Ravi’s father’s homeland and where many of his relatives still lived, Ravi himself wrote a song of unity addressed to the nation entitled “Joi Bangla”(” Victory to Bangladesh”). The archive features Ravi’s original handwritten lyrics for the song which was issued on Apple Records in August 1971, a month after George’s “Bangladesh” single release. “Joi Bangla” was in fact the title track of a 3 song EP which uniquely remains the only EP released by Apple Records. For all of you Apple completists out there, this rare piece of vinyl is likely to  set you back in excess of £100.

Ravi Shankar is universally regarded as the finest sitar player ever and undoubtedly one of the highlights of the archive was the opportunity to view his signature sitar, “Kanai Lal”, which was his principle instrument of choice from 1944, during his formative years as a musician, through to 1961. The instrument is a stunning piece of craftsmanship, although with its unusual shape,  personified by its neck which is three feet in length ,I can appreciate the challenges that it poses to musicians. Even the maestro himself ,Ravi, commentated that “it takes more than one lifetime to learn to play sitar properly.”

I will confess that prior to attending this exhibition I did not fully appreciate the sheer range and diversity of Ravi’s musical ventures and collaborations. The items on display illustrate why he has been lauded as the “Godfather of World Music”. I learnt that in 1956 he was courted by the cream of the New York jazz scene as evidenced by an article in “Life” magazine entitled “Sitar Jam Session”. He maintained a long and fruitful relationship with the world’s most renowned violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, who he first met in 1952. In 1966 ,they played Ravi’s compositions as a sitar/violin duet and the following year recorded an album appropriately entitled “East Meets West” which was a bestseller. Ravi also worked extensively with the pianist and minimalist composer Philip Glass.

If all this was not enough, he still found the time to open and manage the “Kinnara School of Music” in 1962, based in Bombay. In 1967 Ravi opened a second branch of the school in Los Angeles which was attended  by Robbie Krieger and John Densmore of the Doors and also Russ Titleman who would go on to produce the “George Harrison” album in 1979.

This archive features a marvellous selection  of curios and personal momentos, such as Ravi’s handwritten notebook of yoga exercises from 1964, an invitation to his 60th birthday party in 1982, his incense sticks and most poignantly of all, the stage costume that he wore at his final concert, which took place on 4/11/2012 , a month before he passed away. 

This is a wonderful exhibition paying homage to an incredible musician whom George revered so highly .Ravi’s influence continues to reverberate throughout the world music scene, not least through the work of his two daughters, Anoushkar Shankar and Norah Jones, whom he once described as being “like my two eyes”.

By Phil Wood.

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