Remembering Ravi Shankar

- December 20, 2012

"Sharing a meal with Ravi Shankar..."

The passing of Ravi Shankar, the Indian master of the sitar, this past week at age 92, brought me back to a quiet after-concert supper we shared in my simple kitchen in the mid-70s. I had produced Shankar in a concert at a university in Oklahoma, and he and I had hidden away from all the well-wishers from the Indian community who had wanted to celebrate his concert with a lavish evening of Indian food. His choice was a quiet meal and conversation. Most performers would prefer this to the lavish, long post-concert receptions in their honor. They have already given us so much, why is it that we want even more of them?

There is rather rude term for people who want to be close to “stars" that I can’t repeat here, but speaks more about their needs than the artists they are trying to honor. For me, both as a working musician and even as a producer, it has always been about trying to bring myself up to the highest level of support I could muster to perform with or present a high-caliber artist.

So it was that evening. The party planned by the Indian community was well meant—an opportunity to honor one of their own, but the predominant mood was to get as close as possible to the artists. Shankar’s percussionist, Alla Rahka, being a very ebullient, outgoing individual, was all in his element—sitting like a charming Buddha in my living room, while Shankar and I, at his request, stole away to the kitchen. There we sat at the wooden picnic table we used for a breakfast area in the English Tudor house I could hardly fill with furniture on a symphony orchestra musician’s salary. It was just fine with him, actually more than fine. We quietly ate the traditional food provided by the community and talked of his music, its influence in the West and my recent time in India and the Indian holy woman I followed, while there.

Being a percussionist, one would think that all of my attention would have been focused on Ustad Alla Rakha Khan, Shankar’s legendary tabla player. But, from the moment I met him, Shankar became the focus of the two days I spent with him. Of course there was all the busyness of concert production—the airport pick up, hotel check in, the theater visit to be sure his needs were met and so much more.  Concert producers always have to deal with the dreaded contract “rider” and fulfilling the rider can, sometimes, be more time-consuming and expensive than the contract itself. I once produced a concert with Blood, Sweat and Tears and the 28-page rider cost a fortune and even designated what brands of liquor and what vintages of wines needed to be in the dressing rooms. Shankar’s needs were certainly a lot less demanding. He needed a great sound system and sound engineer, a clean dressing room, tea and water for himself, his tabla (Indian drum) player and tambura (drone string instrument) master and a fine Oriental rug. The rug proved to be the most difficult item on the list to fulfill, but I finally talked a wealthy patron of my concert series out of one. The rest was easy. Shankar wanted only a quiet time until the three of them took the stage.

Shankar was born in Varanasi in 1920 and spent his youth touring Europe and India with the dance group of his brother Uday Shankar before he began to tour Europe and the Americas in 1956, playing northern Indian classical music. He increased the popularity of this ancient musical tradition in the 1960s through teaching, performance and his association with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Beatle George Harrison.

Though Shankar’s extraordinary musical presence is no longer with us in person, the musical dynasty that continues after him is evident in the careers of his daughter, Anoushka and percussionist, Alla Rahka’s son Zakir Hussain a tabla player, musical producer, film actor and composer. Both Anoushka Shankar and Zakir Hussain have performed here in Santa Fe at the Lensic.

I don’t remember much about the concert that May evening, except the feeling of the music washing over me as soon as Shankar, Alla Rahka and tambura player Nodu Mullick took the stage. However, I will never forget the quiet time I spent in the presence of this simple master—it was a kind of satsang—being humble and present was all.