If Woodstock was the coming together of the magical mystery of the counterculture of 1960s America, Pandit Ravi Shankar was right at the heart, weaving in the eastern strand on his sitar, somewhat bewildered, but very much at home in that summer of love.
The young were dropping out of society, questioning authority, the Vietnam War, and just about anything “establishment” and into it floated Ravi Shankar’s music alongside “If you are going to San Francisco, be sure to wear flowers in your hair.” Haight-Ashbury was the centre of the universe and a drug-fuelled reality, the new normal for thousands of young people looking for meaning. Or something.
It was a time of Abbie Hoffman calling himself “an orphan of America,” trying to talk about a revolution and throwing a fistful of dollars on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to create a pathetic scramble for cash. Political trials and witch hunts were the flavour of the decade. To escape on psychedelic wings and hash cookies was pursuit of happiness. On crutches of drugs, music was solace. Maybe music from the east would have answers.
Shankar was not comfortable, his tradition, his discipline coming into open collision with his utterly stoned audience. He had zoomed on to this exploding scene thanks to his friendship with George Harrison of The Beatles and the raga-rock of the 60s. There was “Norwegian Wood” and there was “Within You Without You” on the iconic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — both inspired by Shankar’s sitar lessons. Soon the Indian musical genius was playing with top rock stars of the times and doing four-hour sets at the Monterey Pop Music Festival. It was 1967 and the music of Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin and The Who got happily mixed up with Shankar’s ragas.
It was not a clash of cultures disparate as the two traditions were. In the search for meaning and brotherhood of mankind, all inputs were welcome. The disillusioned hippies were sponges, trying to soak in complex Indian arrangements along with Hendrix’s “Wild Thing.” At Monterey, Shankar watched aghast as Hendrix knelt over, poured lighter fluid on his guitar and set it aflame right there on the stage. “That was too much for me. In our culture, we have such respect for musical instruments, they are like part of God,” he said later to Rolling Stone magazine.
But some part of Shankar must have enjoyed the madness, the adulation, the thrall of being part of seminal musical tours and the charm of this brave new world. Even though he was “shocked to see people dressing so flamboyantly” and surprised to realise “they were all stoned,” he didn’t resign his ambassadorship to world music. He revelled in it. He loved the popular gaze of the far-out crowds, zoned out of one world trying to zone into another. He had become a one-man symbol of Indian classical music to the likes of John Coltrane, who named his son Ravi in his honour. What’s not to like about being on top of both worlds?
In August 1969, it all came together at Woodstock, that incredible cultural churning, that seminal event which the movie tries to capture but barely. Swami Sachidananda did the invocation and Ravi Shankar played Raga Puriya Dhanashri as it rained on 400,000 peaceniks gathered at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm. It was the most spectacular gathering of the kind known as the “be-in,” itself derived from the “sit-ins” of the civil rights movement.
At a time of military conflict abroad and racial conflict at home, a whole lot of young people had decided to go “back to the garden” to try to set their souls free in the immortal song by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The vibes were good. And for Shankar to have been a part of that history spoke to his special appeal and those special times.
But the crowning glory of the counterculture movement and Shankar’s role in it has to be the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, the first-ever benefit concert organised to help the millions of refugees. Moved by their plight, Shankar talked about it with his friend George Harrison over dinner and kept him informed over time of the atrocities and the deteriorating situation with newspaper clippings.
Shankar’s original aim was to raise a modest $25,000 with a solo concert, but as word spread, the idea grew bigger culminating in a star-studded show at Madison Square Garden in New York. Overnight, Bangladesh was etched on the western mind and donations poured in. Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, Alla Rakha on tabla and Shankar on the sitar led the show with a 45-minute set — a length clearly unbearable for the somewhat restless audience of 40,000 more familiar with the music of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Leon Russell who would follow. The concert raised more than $240, 000, which was given to UNICEF to distribute.
The true meaning of what happened in the 60s and 70s in America is still fragmented — after all it is not easy to explain Grateful Dead on the same stage as Ravi Shankar — and one can only guess to grasp how an Indian musical icon came to be in the mix. It would have been wise to document his thoughts more comprehensively. But sadly, his sunset years were controlled for the purpose of keeping the brand alive.