In the masthead for the gar spot you’ll see the bottom part of my tabla sitting just above the keyboard. This is the instrument I actually ended up studying, and continue to study after over a quarter century. But my first Indian instrument, the first instrument I ever studied seriously, was the sitar.
I had two sources to introduce me to the world of Hindustani or North Indian classical music. One reinforced the other. The first was shortwave. Back in the day, in my teens, All India Radio’s General Overseas Service used to come in fairly well and regularly on the west coast of North America. When reception was really good, I could hear the music programs pretty clearly, as clearly as the fidelity of AM-based shortwave could provide. The second source for this music was my mother, who drifted into my room and heard me listening to sitar from far away India. “Oh, is that Ravi Shankar?” she asked. And she told me all about him and how she loved watching him on Dick Cavett. The seeds were planted.
During my sophomore year at UCLA I discovered that I really did not want to be an astronomer, at least not professionally. I also discovered that UCLA had very well developed workshops in all types of music from around the world, including India. So in the spring quarter, I enrolled in the Indian music class taught by Professor Nazir Jairazbhoy and his graduate student teaching assistants. That’s when I got my hands on a sitar for the very first time. I thought I had gone to heaven. Before I could play sitar, though, Prof. Jairazbhoy made us newbies play a bit of tabla first. He showed us some of the basic strokes, and we did our best to imitate them. I played what he played, and he stared at me in astonishment. I played the “na” stroke with a clear ring the first time. “No one ever does that!” he said. I should have realized then that the little drums were for me. But I’m a slow study.
Anyway, I played sitar that whole quarter, including in my tent at Mandela City while protesting apartheid. I went from astronomy to hippy student in a matter of weeks. Kinda cool.
But the real baptism came the following fall. Somewhere along the line, either from Prof. Jairazbhoy or someone in the class, I learned about The Music Circle, an organization based out of Occidental College that hosted Indian Music recitals. The first concert for their 1985-86 season was Pt. Ravi Shankar and Ud. Alla Rakha. Woohoo!! This from someone who never went to rock concert or clubs. I couldn’t wait for it.
I rode my puny, 50 cc scooter all the way from South Central LA to Occidental, taking an extremely circuitous route on surface streets since my vehicle was not freeway legal (it could go 35 down hill on a good day). I arrived a good hour early and was nearly first in line. Pandit Ravi ji was between highs in his career and the crowd, though sizable, did not overflow Herrick Chapel, where the Music Circle still holds their concerts to this day. Those who felt so inclined could sit directly in front of the stage on pillows on the floor. I was 20, and could still sit like that for long stretches. We had to take off our shoes, of course. I remember fidgeting, trying my best not to display the soles of my feet towards the stage — something considered very disrespectful.
When the artists came on the stage, I looked at them in awe. I could not believe that I was sitting so close to such master musicians. I was so scared, you’d think I was about to perform. But I was afraid of doing anything that might be construed as inappropriate or disrespectful. Then, Pandit ji started his alap on the first rag of the night and the atmosphere mellowed. I realized I had nothing to worry about; just open up the ears and listen. Pandit ji’s son, Shubho Shankar, accompanied him that evening, as he did during many of the concerts at that time. He sadly passed away in 1992.
During intermission, I wanted to meet the maestros in person, but I was too shy. I remember standing just a few feet away from Pandit ji, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I would, though, eventually meet Alla Rakha, or Abba ji. A few years later, I moved to the Bay Area and began studying tabla with his son, the great maestro Ud. Zakir Hussain. Abba ji visited our summer classes twice.
After intermission, Alla Rakha performed a short tabla solo in Rupak tal (7 beats). He rocked the stage platform, literally, which Ravi ji reacted to with mock surprise. They were both great showmen as well as great masters of the art. Indeed, they kept playing and we kept listening until 1 am. Traditional classical Indian music recitals can literally go all night, with the performance ending at sunrise with an appropriate morning raga. The Music Circle encouraged the performers and audiences to go as long as they wanted, though this concert’s record ending time has never been beaten, at least not at any recital I’ve been to since.
The last time I saw Pandit Ravi ji perform was about five years ago at Zellerbach in Berkeley. His daughter Anoushka Shankar was to perform with him, but she had hurt her shoulder and couldn’t play. So the 87 year old master played alone with tabla accompaniment. Aged musicians are frail up to the point they get on the stage, then they lose a minimum of 20 years and work it. I’ve heard this said about the great Dave Brubeck, another from the great class of 1920 who passed away just last week. It was certainly true of Ravi Shankar. He lit up the stage with his ageless smile and the music he so cherished all of his long years.
In his book, “My Music, My Life,” released in the late 1960s during the height of the “raga-rock” era, he said this about his own remarkable guru, Baba Ustad Allauddin Khan-Saheb:
“He belongs to a school that seems so far removed from our modern industrial era, and yet, in every way, he has been ahead of his time. . .”
These words can easily describe Pandit Ravi Shankar himself.
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