The most popular exports of Indian classical music instruments are the sitar and the tabla. Their versatility instruments and the mystical charm around them drew the western world in.
The turmoil filled 60s saw the west turn to Indian culture in search of peace, brotherhood and kindness. Sporting long flowing India inspired robes, developing a profound interest in culture and listening to Indian classical music became ‘fashionable’.
It would have been strange and even confusing to see the interest the west suddenly developed in the culture of a third world country. Initially musicians started adding Indian instruments just for its novelty factor but soon they got immersed in it.
Pandit Ravi Shankar’s influence
One of the musicians to be credited, in a way, for the upsurge of the sitar is David Crosby. The Byrds frontman introduced George Harrison to the sitar and works of Pandit Ravi Shankar when Harrison was on a US tour with The Beatles.
Harrison was so enamoured of it that he soon bought a sitar and started learning it religiously. He sought tutelage under Ravi Shankar, who was initially not convinced, and learnt the nuances.
“It is strange to see pop musicians with sitars. I was confused at first. It had so little to do with our classical music. When George Harrison came to me, I didn’t know what to think,” said Pandit Ravi Shankar in ‘Raga‘, a 1971 documentary.
Harrison went on to compose many a song on the sitar and even the tambura. He is widely credited for the ‘sitar explosion’ in the west. Though he was not the pioneer and neither were The Beatles the only band to use it.
Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones used the sitar in the band’s epic song, Paint It Black. The Kinks’ 65 release ‘See My Friends’, ‘Heart Full of Soul’ by The Yardbirds, ‘Why’ by The Byrds also featured the sitar. In 1967 a seventeen year old Stevie Wonder used the electric sitar on ‘I Was Made to Love Her’ while The Moody Blues released the album ‘In Search of the Lost Chord’ with a track titled ‘Om’ also featuring the sitar.
The popularity of the instrument was at its zenith when Pandit Ravi Shankar performed before a packed Woodstock crowd in 69. If the guru was spearheading the ‘sitar explosion’ his protégé Harihar Rao was lending support in his own way.
After experimenting with Indian and western music in multiple fusion forms, Rao formed the ‘Hindustani Jazz Sextet’ with trumpeter Don Ellis. They would combine classical Indian rhythms with jazz. A 1966 album ‘Raga Rock’ by the ‘Folkswingers featuring Harihar Rao’ covered some of the popular songs of the era.
The Ananda Shankar legacy
Notching the fusion of west and east a step higher was the brilliant, somehow lesser known, Ananda Shankar. Nephew of Ravi Shankar, the sitar player travelled to the US during the peak to the ‘flower child’ movement. His jams with guitar maestro Jimi Hendrix inspired the LP Ananda Shankar. The LP featured cover versions of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ and The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’ and the record attained a cult status.
On his return to India, Ananda continued his fusion music journey. His album ‘Ananda Shankar And His Music’ features two epic songs, ‘Streets Of Calcutta’ and ‘Dancing Drums’. These can be mistaken for music of recent years. It was this freshness in his sound that inspired the drum n bass lovers in the early 90s. Anokha, a night club in London, held a seven hour long tribute to Ananda by State of Bengal. This was the ignition for a new album featuring Ananda and State of Bengal tilted ‘Walking On’.
The other DJ to rule the roost of the London underground scene was Talvin Singh. A classical tabla player, producer, composer and electronica exponent Singh had worked with everyone from Madonna to Massive Attack, joined hands with Niladri Kumar, a classically trained sitar player who also invented the zitar, a mix of sitar and guitar. The duo explored common influences ranging from rock to Indian classical styles.
While Indian musicians like Anoushka Shankar and Hidayat Khan are defying genre within the contemporary-classical realm, American Josh Feinberg and British sitar player Jonathan Mayer are composing Indian music in their own style. The sitar has been taken out of the classical arena and introduced to genres as vivid as heavy metal by youngster Rishabh Seen. The younger lot of maestros like Purbayan Chatterjee are busy shaping its sound for future generations.
Naysayers shall lament about sitar’s future but it seems to be sun lit. Purists shall disagree to the new generation’s interpretation of the sitar but to carry on an instrument’s legacy one has to move with the time. The sitar has long been on a journey spanning borders and does not look like it shall tire soon.