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Life And Times

Raviji didn't need to be a pop star


GURU SHISHYAS: For McLaughlin (left below), Ravi Shankar's approval of his fusion work meant a lot. The sitar master with his other disciple, George Harrison (left)

Pandit Ravi Shankar introduced him to the joys of the Indian classical music and then went on to become his teacher, friend and lifelong creative influence. In an exclusive interview to TOI-Crest, guitarist John McLaughlin, 71, talks of those heady years when East-West fusion music took shape. Panditiji didn't need the West, he points out, it was the West that needed his positive musical energy.

You've had a long association with Indian classical music through Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti. You were also a good friend of Pandit Ravi Shankar. When did you first meet him and what were your impressions of him?

I heard early Wednesday morning of Raviji's passing and it was a difficult day for me. I felt such a sense of loss. You know, I was never really an official student of his. I had known him since 1972 when I presented to him my spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy, under whom I had been studying meditation. At that time I was an ex-curricular student of Dr S Ramanathan who taught south Indian music at the University of Wesleyan. Every time, Raviji came to New York, he would call me to the hotel and one fine day, out of the blue, he decided to teach me the south Indian rhythmic series. He took me under his wing though I never wanted to become an Indian classical musician. I'm a jazz musician. But I was attracted to the philosophy and spirituality of the Indian culture. And I was thrilled with the fact that Panditji took it upon himself to enlighten me. Through the years he became a dear, dear friend. We really cannot underestimate the impact that he's had on music. He was such a kind man, such a great human being. And that is what distinguishes him from other great musicians.

Panditji's association with George Harrsion and the Beatles made him a very popular figure. But he often complained about the pop star image that was thrust on him. Did you ever talk to him about it?

We have to keep things in perspective here. A good decade before Raviji became associated with George Harrison and The Beatles, he had already started building bridges with the West. By working with George, Raviji gained notoriety. And why not? Frankly speaking, Raviji didn't need George or The Beatles. He was a fantastic musician who was a star already. The '60s were an important time. We were all trying to answer big questions: Who are we? What is real? What is the meaning of life? The Beatles, The Beach Boys - people were looking East for inspiration. George was the most well-known of the musicians doing that, and he was much ahead of his time. It was marvelous what George did. I think it was a great positive because people were exposed to the virtuosity of Raviji, people who otherwise would never walk into a Ravi Shankar concert or buy a Ravi Shankar record. He didn't need to be a pop star, he was above all of us. George and I needed him, he didn't need us.

He was feted as Indian music's global ambassador but according to you, what was his biggest contribution to music?

Raviji showed the western world the beauty of Indian music and soul. That might sound hippy-like and poetic but he revealed to us the harmony and soul of Indian music and culture. Is there anything more than that? I don't know. He was able to touch the lives of millions through his music. They could, through Raviji's music, could see the grandeur and beauty of Indian culture, and that I think was a marvelous accomplishment.

Now when you look at your time spent with Panditji, is there any particular memory that stands out?

There were so many wonderful times spent with him. The most vivid memory is of him attending one of Shakti's concert at the Dr Peppers Central Park Music Festival in New York in 1976. It was the original lineup with L Shankar on violin, Zakir on tabla and Vikku Vinayakram (ghatam). We saw Raviji standing on the side and all of us were curious as to why he was there. We had a great show, but I once turned around and saw a puzzled expression on Raviji's face. Years later in 2000, Zakir and I organized a series of concerts in India with about 10-11 musicians that we wanted to play with. At one of them Raviji came and sat in the front row. The musicians, understandably, started freaking out. There was the great Panditji, what would he think? Anyway, we played and hoped that he would walk out during the break, but there he was sitting in the front row. It was during the second encore that suddenly Panditji came on stage, took the mic and said the most wonderful things about Shakti and all the musicians on stage. And I was reminded of that day in New York when he had been scowling. I finally felt like I had arrived.

You're mentioned as one of the greatest guitar players in the world and over the past four decades have always worked with Indian musicians. What

attracted you to this form of music?

There's some common ground, as most people know, between jazz music and Indian classical music. Improvisation is the most important common element. If jazz isn't spontaneous, it sounds shallow. I heard Indian music thanks to George, when he was already a student of Raviji and working on the beautiful song Within You Without You, you must've heard it too. And it was such beautiful music, not some wallpaper sitar music. That aspect, that dimension of Indian music was what attracted me to it. That fusion has been a part of my life since the 1970s. I really can't imagine my life without India or Indian music.

It's interesting you mention the word fusion. There's a school of thought that believes there's no scope for the two to meet.

(groans) You're talking about the purists. And purists are the bane of music. Zakir (Hussain), who has been a part of Shakti and someone I have known since the early '70s, has been heavily criticized by the Indian classical fraternity because of his association with me. I'm a jazz musician and I have had to face flak for my interest and association with Indian music through Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti. I'm not of that generation, of that school of thought. The fact remains that India, whether it is its culture, music or people, it's one of the most important elements of our life. Raviji was the spearhead of this movement, the Global Village movement. He knew that Western audiences would love Indian music. He was an intelligent man, very perceptive. Sure, some East-West fusion experiments that haven't been as successful. Thankfully, Shakti, is still going strong and next year we're going to record a studio album and we haven't done a studio album since 1977.

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