December 13, 2012

Ravi Shankar and Westerners in India


A Young Ravi Shankar

As much as I’d like to refrain from writing another post about a legendary musician’s passing, the sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar died yesterday at the age of 92.

Outside of those who truly appreciate Shankar’s music and influence, there are probably three cliche ways people in the West will go about remembering him: 1) in a cloud of incense and bong smoke 2) reading (or writing) a quick blog post in a news outlet with a title like the LA Times’  “Ravi Shankar got by with a little help from his friends,” or 3) reviving another endless discussion about the Beatles, how they broke up, and Ravi’s place in all that, etc.

I think it is important to remember, however, that not long after Shankar played Woodstock in 1969, he decided that the scene wasn’t for him. He did famously record with George Harrison and Phillip Glass, as well as mentor John Coltrane, and wanted to bring his music to the West, but he was frustrated when so many people showed up to his concerts stoned, stating they should be able to appreciate his music as an intoxicant on its own.

Shankar did, as the NY Daily News put it, “help connect the world through music,” but there have been troubling consequences to this “connection” ever since the Beatles embarked on their spiritual journey to India.

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Shankar was touring the West long before the Beatles visited India (an encounter described in With the Beatles, by Lewis Lapham), but the Beatles influence is largely responsible for the mass exodus of enlightenment-seekers who occasionally had a misguided understanding of what it was they sought.

I know because I was one of them — along with thirty other eager University of California students who — a generation later — were intrigued enough by Shankar and Eastern culture to study abroad in India.

India is beautiful and the experience was exhilarating, of course, but if you are looking for clear-minded insight into the messy interactions between India and the West, check out Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola for what spiritualism looks like when it is commoditized by Western “pilgrims.”

Unrelenting in her critique, Mehta condemns many of the gurus — Shankar included — for endorsing and often garnering sexual favors from the onrush of Westerners in the Beatles’ wake.

This is not to say a convergence between East and West is bad by default. In fact, Shankar was glad to have the stoners around after they’d grown up and put away the Mary-Jane. But now might be an appropriate time to once again explore the pure context of Shankar’s music, just as we might appreciate its power when taken in on its own terms.



Will Vincent is an intern at Melville House.