To commemorate what would have been Pandit Ravi Shankar’s 96th birthday, I thought I’d document another fascinating collaboration of Shankar’s that is in the same vein of East meets West as his collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin, which I have documented in another post. This work arose from a commission Shankar received to compose a work for sitar and an orchestra from the London Symphony Orchestra. Shankar was intrigued by composing in this way following those collaborations with Menuhin, especially since many of those recordings were improvised while this was to be composed in advance. Shankar blurred the lines by including bongo drums instead of the traditional tabla drum typically found in ragas as well as incorporating the call-and-response form that is typical of a concerto into the composition. There are many excellent recordings of Shankar performing more traditional ragas and today would be a good day to dive in, but I wanted to shine a light on this slightly off-beat record in his tremendous body of work. He was a master of the form and his influence on Western perception of Indian classical music and on music in general is difficult to overstate. His legacy lives on in these many recordings and the increased influence of raga forms on contemporary music and in more literal form through his daughter, Norah Jones. This recording, despite being so unorthodox, sold surprisingly well when it was released in 1971, leading one EMI executive to remark that it “sold like a pop record.” Somehow I find it hard to believe that this trend could be repeated, but one can dream.
This track comes off the second in a series featuring two virtuosos appropriately titled “East Meets West.” The first in the series was released in 1966 to much acclaim, becoming one of the top selling classical releases of the year and even had a place on the mainstream Billboard charts, perhaps as a result of the interest that American and British bands were showing in Indian classical music at the time. Menuhin had met Shankar in the 1950s, and the two became fast friends, with Menuhin making almost annual trips to India to, among other things, see Shankar. They recounted their meeting and friendship in an interview for the Independent. It makes for pretty interesting reading, as the two excitedly exchanged musical ideas.
SHANKAR: I remember once, in London in the early Fifties, that Yehudi was particularly excited about a composition by Wilhelm Furtwangler, who had written a piece based on an Indian melody in what we call a raga pattern a scientific, precise, subtle and aesthetic melodic form with its own peculiar ascending and descending movement. Yehudi talked to me about the piece, which he was anxious for me to play. I looked at it, and from a Western point of view the composition was very good; but as an Indian sitar player, I felt it was not proper for me to play because it was also, from an Indian point of view, quite childish. It was also written in Western notation which was difficult for me to read, so I asked one of my English students to translate it for me. Eventually, I decided that I would rewrite the piece but that I wouldn’t change the raga. There is a saying in Sanskrit, “Ranjayati iti Ragah” which means: “That which colours the mind is raga.”
The two played their first concert at the Bath Music Festival in 1966 and based on the success of those concerts agreed to record together. While the first two feature primarily Shankar and Menuhin, the third release incorporates other Indian and Western instruments such as the flute (played by Jean-Pierre Rampal) and the tanpura (played by Kamala Chakravarty). The drum on this track is an Indian instrument called a tabla and is played on this recording by Alla Rakha, who often accompanied Shankar and is considered quite accomplished on the instrument. Chakravarty and Rakha also accompanied Shankar at his concert at the Moneterey Pop Festival in 1967. Check out a video of their performance here. The third record features more improvised material and a vocal introduction by Menuhin describing the musical structure to the piece, which is pretty interesting if you’re like me and know nothing about Indian music. If anybody is interested in hearing that I can try to post it, so just leave a comment saying as much and I’ll try to get it up here.