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Ravi Shankar's Documentary "Raga" on DVD

Review by Yogendra
(September 2011)

In the late 1960s sitar master and creative genius Ravi Shankar had reached the peak of his fame. The collaboration with George Harrison of the Beatles and his appearance at the legendary Woodstock festival had made him a world famous pop star. However, Ravi Shankar saw himself as a serious classical musician who was very critical about the flower-power philosophy and the drug trips of the hippie generation of that time. In order to make his deep roots in traditional Indian spirituality and the classical raga music more clear to the public, he published his first autobiography "My Music, My Life" in 1968, followed by the also highly autobiographical documentary film "Raga - A Film Journey into the Soul of India" in 1971. This unique historical document is now available on DVD from India Instruments.

"Raga" was filmed in 1967 and 1968 in the U.S. and India. However, due to financial and technical problems, it could be published in 1971. Director was Howard Worth, producer was Ravi Shankar himself, and the more experimental music parts were contributed by his student Collin Walcott, who later became world famous himself amongst friends of jazz and world music with his band Oregon. Throughout the film Ravi Shankar is featured in numerous concert sequences, with his then accompanist Alla Rakha on tabla.

The first half of the film is all about Ravi Shankar's deep roots in Indian culture - here the subtitle "Film Journey into the Soul of India" fits perfectly. It shows evocative images of Indian street life, birth and death in Varanasi, the dance theatre Kathakali from Kerala, a trip to his music guru Allauddin Khan in central Indian Maihar, a visit to his spiritual guru Tat Maharaj, the initiation ceremony of his student Shalil Shankar and his working with various Indian master students. Here, Ravi Shankar is staged as an orthodox traditionalist, mourns the bygone times and worries about a young generation alienated from its own roots.

The second half of the film features the innovative aspects of Ravi Shankar's artistic work and his perception by the West public, starting with a rehearsal scene for an orchestral composition with classical Indian musicians. We see his collaboration with the Western classical violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, his lessons for Beatle George Harrison and various groups of Western students, the initiation ceremony of Collin Walcott, the award ceremony of an honorary doctorate from the University of California and a private garden party. This part of the film culminates in a collage that reflects the distortions of the time - Indian music mixed with rock, hippies and drugs.

From today's perspective, with a distance of 40 years, "Raga" appears as an exciting historical document in several ways. On the one hand, the film provides insight into a traditional Indian culture, which was already in danger of disappearing even in those days of a slowly modernizing India (and which is even more seriously threatened today in the era of relentlessly raging globalization). On the other hand, it demonstrates the fascination, but also the strangeness and misunderstandings with which India was seen by the younger generation in the West in a time of breaking up of encrusted structures in the late 1960s. The film is also a beautiful document of Ravi Shankar's own ambivalence. It presents him as a selfless and highly spiritual musician, deeply rooted in ancient tradition who cares for the future of his cultural heritage.

But it also shows how much Ravi Shankar was fascinated by and attracted to a Western lifestyle, starting right from his youth with the dance company of his brother Uday in Paris in the 1930s. His impressive life's work as a bridge builder, who has probably achieved more than anybody else for the cause of global recognition of Indian music, can probably only be understood with this ambivalence in mind. And in a broader sense the biography of Ravi Shankar also reflects the fundamental conflicts of contemporary Indian classical music - those between tradition and modernity as well as between spirituality and show business.