When I was 12 years old, I found a record of Ravi Shankar that my parents owned but had never played for me. I had heard sitar in the Beatles’ music so I was intrigued and put Ravi’s music onto the turntable. I remember the psychedelic album cover and each track, though I’ve since lost the vinyl. Ravi played “Raga Desh” and “Raga Abhogi,” and there was a magnificent tabla solo in jhaptal by the late great Ustad Allah Rakha, father of Zakir Hussain.
I remember closing my eyes and becoming immersed in the music. Though I had no understanding of what was happening technically, I had a truly transcendent experience that day. Listening to this music on big, late-’70s headphones with my eyes closed, I had the feeling of bathing under a waterfall of music. I had never listened to music with track lengths of 15-25 minutes, and this “otherworldly” music completely captivated this American kid.From that moment I was obsessed with sitar.
It wasn’t until I went to school in India at 15 that I was able to study sitar and tabla from my first teacher, Ajit Singh. Later, I attended college at the California Institute of the Arts, majoring in Indian music under Amiya Dasgupta, a direct 50-year disciple of Ravi Shankar. Amiyaji passed away in 1996, and I continued my studies with a leading sarod disciple of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Rajeev Taranath. Rajeev had come to Los Angeles to replace Amiya’s position at Cal Arts, and this led me to meet Ravi Shankar.
I was backstage at Ravi’s 75th birthday concert, produced by the Music Circle in Pasadena, and managed to introduce myself to him as a longtime student of Amiya’s. Ravi immediately looked me in the eyes and told me I was part of their family and invited me to his home in San Diego to continue my talim (studies) with him. When I told him that I had begun to learn from Rajeev, he, unbeknownst to me, respectfully asked Rajeev (a junior artist to Ravi who he had taught at several points) if it would be OK to teach me. This was the beginning of beautiful relationship with Guruji, and I had the great honor of accompanying him on several tours and learning from him over the next 15 years.
The masetro’s output of creative excellence across borders, traditions, and idioms have earned him perhaps his most appropriate title, christened by his close friend, the late George Harrison, as “the Godfather of World Music.”
Raviji’s mark has stood the test of time for a number of reasons. Apart from his innovations in music, his sitar playing, and a myriad of successful contemporary explorations, his dedication as a master performer and as a teacher of the ancient raga forms have always been at the forefront of his artistic vision. It is openly recognized by Indian classical musicians across a spectrum of gharanas (styles) that his ragdar (purity of raga) is of the highest caliber.
The fact that Ravi maintained the highest degree of classicism reflects his deep concern for the longevity and relevance of the music to the younger generation. The extraordinary achievement of his daughter, Anoushka Shankar, a brilliant artist in her own right, is an additional testament to this commitment. As a friend of Anoushka since she was a teenager, I will never forget the mental capacity and flawless, photographic musical memory she demonstrated in our lessons together as she would spit back complex taans (melodic runs) and intricate tehais (rhythmic cadences) after hearing them just once.
Aside from the accolades he has received throughout his life, I’m grateful for his generosity as a committed and exacting teacher of this living tradition. He has been an inspiration for me not only as a performer and composer, but also as a teacher of this music through which his presence, dynamism, and tenacity have led by example.
Ravi, an icon and an ambassador of Indian culture, turns 90 years young on April 7. To honor this, the Los Angeles-based Arohi Ensemble, an East-West Indian chamber group that I am a part of, is releasing the joyous Tilak Shyam. The release features a collaboration of virtuoso artists from India and America, and is based on a raga which Guruji created in 1954. The five-movement suite follows the traditional sequence of raga development through the stages of alaap (meditation), jor (pulse), madya laya (medium tempo), drut (fast laya) and jhala (climax).
The piece features new arrangements, orchestration, and improvisations by six artists; four of Ravi’s direct disciples, including sarod player Partho Sarothy, sitarist Paul Livingstone (me), bansuri player Pedro Eustache, and cellist Barry Phillips, along with two of the leading percussionists of India, Abhijit Banerjee on tabla and Somnath Roy on ghatum. Tilak Shyam is dedicated to the ongoing legacy of Guruji’s musical dialogue between East and West.
Aside from this music release, there will be a house concert in which I will perform Raviji’s ragas, accompanied by the masterful tabla of Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri.
Additionally, I will co-host a radio program with Carlos Niño that will be a retrospective of Raviji’s music.
Through the inspiration of Raviji, we have been empowered to take fresh approaches in composing and arranging new music, as well as honing the practice of improvisation, which sparks at the heart of our classical music. I am thankful for the opportunity to do my small part in this ocean of music.
Paul Z. Livingstone is an internationally performing artist, composer, educator, and community activist. His music is grounded in the rich aesthetics of Indian music and embraces diverse global elements to produce cross-cultural sounds that reflect his social, political, and spiritual values. For more information, go to www.tanpura.com.
Saturday, April 10, 5 p.m.; concert. 2219 Ben Lomond Drive, Los Angeles. $20. RSVP required: (626) 795-8055; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday April 11, 10 p.m.-12 a.m.; radio show. KPFK, 90.7 FM.