Sunday, April 17, 2011

“Raga: A Film Journey Into The Soul Of India” (East Meets West Music)

This is the DVD release of a 1971 documentary on Ravi Shankar, originally released by Apple Films under the auspices of George Harrison. It has, in a sense, been superseded by a number of other documentaries which have brought the artist’s story up-to-date. Nevertheless, this is s splendid portrait of a unique historical period, a time when it looked as if Indian and Western culture would blend together in new and - we thought - permanent ways. Alas, it never quite happened in the way many of us who watched the 1960’s unfold hoped it would. And the answer as to why the anticipated fusion of East and West never fully materialized may be found right here in this film, in the images of director Howard Worth and the words of Ravi Shankar himself.

Watching this film with 40 years of hindsight available to us, it is fascinating to see what has changed in the bi-cultural world which Ravi Shankar occupied, and what has not. A number of scenes of Indian culture which are not directly related to Ravi Shankar and/or the Hindustani classical arts typified by the musical phenomenon known as the “raga” are included, to give us an idea of a traditional way of life in India which Shankar felt was dying. To be sure, urban India has been altered irrevocably by Western-influenced, technology-driven modernization, but the traditional culture has not fully disappeared by any means. Western culture, as represented here by the “hippie” subculture which embraced Ravi Shankar’s music, even though most its members failed to understand what that music was really all about, has changed, and some of us mourn those changes. Our tolerance for “outsiders” has dwindled. Our eagerness to embrace the new, the spiritual, the transcendant is no longer as strong an impulse as it once was. Our understanding of how the arts function as a vital part of a rational life is under constant assault. In an odd way, it is the scenes of America, focusing on Ravi Shankar’s visit to his school of Indian music in California, that look dated to us now, not the scenes of life in India.

In essence, this is - and always has been - a movie about music and a very special musician, and in that sense it succeeds admirably. The performances by Ravi Shankar and his long-time tabla player Alla Rakha (who is very much the film’s co-star), excerpted throughout the film, are substantial and satisfying. At one point, we even get to see the two friends delighting students by chanting the bols, the mnemonic, rhythmically-recited syllables used as a learning device by Indian percussionists, which have now become a performance art in their own right.

We also get to see Ravi Shankar in teaching mode, passing on his wisdom to hopeful young Hindustani musicians-in-training through the time-honored method of oral transmission, favored for centuries in India over our reading-off-the-page method of music education. We also see a rehearsal, in which Shankar prepares an orchestra for a Bombay recording session (film soundtrack?), The ensemble consists of both Western and Hindustani instruments, including violins, flutes, sitars, tabla, and such less rarely encountered (by Western devotees of Hindustani music, at least) as the santoor (a hammered dulcimer) and jal-tarang (a series of ceramic bowls tuned with varying amounts of water and struck with wooden sticks). We also see Shankar and his great friend, the American-born, English-based classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, rehearsing and performing onstage one of their “West Meets East” collaborations. Other traditional musicians are heard on the soundtrack, as well as Vedic chanters. So there is a great deal to listen to and absorb over the course of an hour-and-a-half-plus.

There is also a lot to see. The scenes of India are beautifully shot, whether during a train journey, in the midst of big-city bustle, or along the Ganges. The visuals are so well-done that portions of this film could be used for travelog purposes, while the footage of American rock festivals could fit into historical documentaries of the late 60’s/early 70’s. The film ends with Shankar walking along a rocky coastline - presumably in California? - that is quite stunning.

But the narration by Shankar is what makes the most significant impression on the viewer by the end of the film. He tells us how it was his hope since the days of his youth, spent as a dancer/musician with his brother Uday’s internationally touring dance troupe, to introduce the beauties of Indian classical music to audiences in the West. His reception by Western audiences, beginning tentatively in the 1950’s and accelerating throughout the 1960’s, seemed to be the culmination of his dreams - “To be received like this in a foreign land; my God, it is overwhelming”. But then disillusionment began to set in. The object of his desire was to broach the gap between Western and Eastern classical music forms. The interest in his music engendered in the world of pop music, thanks largely to George Harrison - this film is the source of now-Youtube-famous clip of the sitar lesson which Shankar gives to Harrison - was not something Shankar could have predicted. However, the use of the sitar and other Indian elements in the pop/rock world in the late 1960’s proved to be superficial at best, exotic sounds inserted into rock hits with no real understanding or attempt to truly bring together the two musical worlds. (Some of Harrison’s work being the closest exceptions.)

Perhaps even more disheartening was the fact that Americans who did claim to be serious about learning Indian music proved to be far too impatient, unwilling to devote themselves to years of study under one teacher. Indian music takes years of hard, serious work to master. Shankar describes the arduous process of learning from a musical guru, and the amount of devotion the student must lavish on his/her musical studies. It was not something that could be absorbed quickly. Too many of his American acolytes were “in such a hurry” to become instant geniuses, as it were. In a field in which years of concentrated study were not a luxury, but a necessity, Shankar found that many of his American students would “learn a few scales, and in a few weeks they want to play a raga completely. They have to demand more of themselves.” He adds, “You cannot simply pick up a sitar and call it Indian music. It is so much more.” Director Worth tries to illustrate Shankar’s disillusionment and confusion, coupled with Americans’ misunderstandings and impatience, by constructing a quick-cut, speeded-up collage metaphorically depicting the clash of Indian and American cultures. It may have been exciting to watch forty years ago, in the pre-MTV era. But to me, Shankar’s words carry far more impact than Worth’s rather gimmicky, ultimately pointless, pseudo-psychedelic collage.

As history has shown us, Shankar would soon retreat from the world of rock festivals, the company of people who felt that the consumption of illicit drugs was a vital part of the process of enlightenment, the hustle and bustle of the popular music scene. He has devoted the years since the initial release of this film to composition (including film scores and orchestral works), performances before sympathetic audiences, teaching in universities and selected students such as his daughter and eventual musical successor, Anoushka Shankar, and overseeing the establishment of Ravi Shankar Foundation, which is dedicated to continuing his mission of preserving and disseminating Indian music to the world. (The East Meets West Music label which issued this DVD is a division of the Foundation.)

As a bonus, the package includes a download card for a CD’s worth of mp3’s of the film’s soundtrack. Unlike some such cards packaged with CD’s or DVD’s, I had no problem at all obtaining this material. It should be noted that, while most of the music has been scored or performed by Ravi Shankar, the closing credits include a listing for “additional music and score by Collin Walcott”. Walcott, who died in 1984, was one of Shankar’s more serious American students. One of his most notable accomplishments was helping to expand the use of the sitar and tablas long after the “craze” was over, in his work with the Paul Winter Consort and the pioneering world-jazz quartet Oregon. It should be noted that the other members of Oregon are also listed among the participating musicians in the film. The soundtrack mp3’s include most of the film’s music, plus a couple spoken comments on the nature of Indian music by Ravi Shankar.

Anyone interested in Ravi Shankar will most definitely want/need to see this important film, which is far more than simply a relic of a particular place and time. It will also appeal greatly to anyone who wants to better understand the psychedelic era and its flirtation with Eastern cultures. The East Meets West label is distributed by Harmonia Mundi, and should not be difficult to find.