If Ravi Shankar has one abiding memory of the Monterey pop festival — which took place in the heady summer of 1967, at the height of his notoriety as the sitar-playing guru to the stars — it is of unfortunate scheduling. Slated to appear before him were Jefferson Airplane, a band whose blues-inflected barrage of pulsating sound couldn’t have clashed more with his own karmic composure. And right after him was one Jimi Hendrix, then still a relative unknown, but with a growing reputation for ferocious, turbo-charged guitar solos.
“I thought he was fantastic, but so very loud,” Shankar says now, shaking his head. “And then he would do that thing with his instrument when he would open up a can of gasoline and burn his guitar. People went gaga for it; they loved it. But for me, the burning of the guitar was the greatest sacrilege possible. I just ran out of there. I told them that even if I had to pay some kind of compensation to get out of playing the festival, I just couldn’t do it.” The organizers’ solution was to give Shankar his own stage for an altogether more civilized afternoon performance of assorted ragas, during which Hendrix sat quietly in the front row.
This predicament highlights what has to be one of the most extraordinary and often bizarre career trajectories of any living musician. Now a venerable 88, Shankar was finally saying farewell to Europe with a tour that culminated at the Barbican in London last week, where he was to perform a selection of specially chosen ragas with his daughter, Anoushka, also a sitar player. Much of the tour had to be cancelled due to a stomach virus. “My mind, musically ... in every sense I feel much better than ever before,” he says. “But it is the body that sometimes lets me down.”
Meeting Shankar, it’s difficult to believe that this diminutive, deferential man has been such a counterculture luminary. His greeting comes in the form of a namaskar, a gracious supplicant bow, and his speech is pitched just above a gentle whisper.
“I really hope I can make a little sense for you,” he says, pleading jetlag brought on by the long journey from his adoptive home in southern California.
“I don’t adjust quite the way I used to.”
It is 50 years since Shankar, already celebrated in his native India, first traveled to Europe and the US, just as a mania for eastern philosophy was taking hold. John Cage was serving up Zen silence to bemused concertgoers, and hippie pioneer Timothy Leary was defending drug use by claiming membership of an obscure Hindu sect. Shankar found himself embraced by everyone from John Coltrane, who named a son after him, to the violinist Yehudi Menuhin; many of his disciples saw him as a sort of spiritual beacon. Most famously, Shankar became the guru who turned George Harrison — and, by extension, the Beatles — on to Indian music, culture and philosophy.
When he met Harrison, in 1966, Shankar knew very little of the Beatles’ music: he hadn’t heard Norwegian Wood, Harrison’s first attempt at composition on the sitar. But the two hit it off. “I loved George as a person,” Shankar says. “I gave him his first autobiography of a yogi and that was where his interest in Vedic culture and Indian-ness began. To me, he was something like a son.” At first, Shankar reveled in the attention that their association brought. “I was admired by all these hippies,” he says, “and it was wonderful playing at Monterey and Woodstock, performing for half a million people.”