(revised and updated October, 2020)
I knew nothing of Ravi Shankar before Woodstock. I imagine that I am not alone in that regard. Before we go on to his relationship to the other performers and the multitude who gathered to hear his music on the Age of Aquarius sacred grounds. Below, he is accompanied by his daughter, Anoushka, an accomplished sitarist in her own right. Ravi is 90 years old at this concert, just a little over a year before he died.
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Ravi Shankar at Woodstock
Ravi Shankar is not to be confused with spiritualist Sri Sri Ravishankar who is the guru, founder of the Art of Living Foundation. Ravi Shankar, or Pandit Ravi Shankar was Sitarist and composer from India.
Though being a small man, standing only 5 feet 3 inches, he is the giant of the sitarists.
Shankar was invited to Woodstock by his friend and apprentice, George Harrison of Beatles fame. He played 3 pieces lasting 40 minutes while rain poured down on the attentive crowd. Other groups had refused to play in the rain, fearing electrocution. The sitarist had no such fear. Many of these hippies were hearing a raga for the very first time. Some might have seen him at the Monterrey Pop Festival the year before.
In any case, soon after Woodstock his sitar could be heard on the streets on Height-Ashby and coming out of the doors of head shops around the USA. He became a pop star very quickly.
George Harrison was introduced to Shankar by the Byrds who recorded in the same studio as Ravi. Harrison met Shankar in London in June 1966 and visited India later that year for six weeks to study sitar under him in Srinagar. This was the beginning of a long and creative relationship. George gave the sitar a try in his recording Norwegian Wood, but the master was not enthused by the raga rock trend that followed. Ravi Shankar felt that the non-Indian sitarist did not spend long enough perfecting the instrument and produced an inferior sound.
Ravi Shankar Distanced Himself from Hippies
Despite the fact that one should not confuse Pandit Ravi Shankar with Sri Sri Shankar, the Pandit was himself a spiritualist and treated his music as a spiritual experience.
Shankar’s projected his deep, nature through the sitar. He expected his listeners to be reverent as well as appreciative when he played.
Not long after he performed at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969, he began to reject opportunities such as that. He did not like the drugs, sex and general non-meditative behavior of the hippies. He said in an interview with NPR, “So many times I had to walk out with the sitar and I had to explain them, please try to listen with a pure mind, because I assure you that our music has that power, that it can make you feel high.”
He experienced the meditative nature of the sounds from his sitar. “If you are already gone to – so spacey, you know, what you hear is not the real thing… later on I had to fight with my young friends, whom I loved very much, in the mid-’60s onward, the hippies.”
Quite different from what some would expect, Ravi Shankar and the hippies did not for a mutually appreciated bond. He did not see himself as a guru. The hippies did, but they did not act as a guru would expect of his disciples. “You know, almost same thing, because George was my student and I was the guru of George, it became like a cult sort of thing, you know. Along with the music, they took me as a guru, yeah. What happened, they came to my concert with the same spirit, being stoned, absolutely high on drugs, LSD or whatever, shouting, shrieking and misbehaving, doing all these sort of things that they should not do. So I had to tell them that, look, when you go to listen to Bach or Beethoven or Mozart, do behave like that? I’m sure they don’t go to listen to these people.”
Ravi Shankar and the hippies, at least the masses of them, met at concerts. First at the Monterey International Pop Festival and later at Woodstock. Ravi Shankar did not really enjoy Woodstock. He took his music seriously but felt the crowd was of another mind. “They were having fun. It was a fun place, picnic party. They were all stoned. It was raining. It was in mud. And as I said in my book, it reminded me of these water buffaloes we see in India who are, you know, they feel very hot and they sit there, get so – so dirty, but they enjoy it. So I mean that was the thing I felt. But because it was a contractual thing, I couldn’t get out of it. I had to go through it. But I was very unhappy.”
Here is the entire NPR Interview:
Concert for Bangladesh
On August 1, 1971 at Madison Square Garden in New York Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, ever a disciple, organized the Concert for Bangladesh to fund programs for refugees from East Pakistan after the Bangladesh Liberation War and genocide.
The event was the first-ever LARGE benefit concert. Ali Akbar Khan and Alla Rakha joined Shankar for his on-stage performance. He was followed by George Harrison played the second half, joined by other eminent musicians including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, and Leon Russell. George closed the concert with “Bangla Desh,” the special song he wrote for the occasion.
Chants for India
One of the later creative projects of Shankar was Chants for India.
These chantings are very old, from the Scriptures. Some I composed. “Mangalam” came to me while I was walking in Friar Park, George’s place, where we were recording. I was looking at the trees and the sky, and feeling very elated all of a sudden, wishing everything should be good for everyone, and it just came to me.”
The lyrics of one of songs included:
“O, Lord Ganesha of the curved trunk and massive body, the one whose splendour is equal to millions of Suns, please bless me so that I do not face any obstacles in my endeavours.”
Ravi Shankar was blessed with music that, in turned, continues to bless many of us.