The death of the Indian sitar maestro, Ravi Shankar (and the illegitimate dad of singer Norah Jones) earlier this week at the ripe age of 92 is no doubt a huge loss for the Woodstock generation. But to Shankar that generation was dead a long time ago. He might have been an icon of the sixties hippies – for whom his ragas were like marijuana set to music – but his austere spiritualism had no use for them. In fact, Mick Brown points out in the Guardian, he regarded them as a somewhat repulsive and wretched lot whose adulation he didn’t much relish (although, I’m sure, the moolah they lavished on him was just fine). Writes Brown:
Shankar could be a fastidious man. The rock audiences who came to pay homage he haughtily dismissed in his autobiography as “these strange young weirdos”; while his appearances at the Monterey and Woodstock festivals – the great quasi-religious gatherings of the alternative society – were apparently painful ordeals, where the audiences were “shrieking, shouting, smoking, masturbating and copulating – all in a drug-crazed state… I used to tell them, 'You don’t behave like that when you go to hear a Bach, Beethoven or Mozart concert.’” Quite.
For Ravi Shankar, for whom playing the sitar was a spiritual calling as well as a musical one, it was a cause of evident unhappiness to find the instrument he loved in lesser hands, and played in a bastardised form as a lazy musical shorthand for a wigged-out psychedelic experience. So distressed was he by the way his music was – as he saw it – misunderstood by pop audiences that after Woodstock he decided to “cleanse” himself by performing only in concert halls.
George Harrison should have realized he needed to hide his love away.
(My two cents: He might have been misunderstood–but he wasn’t overrated–by them hippies. He truly was a great sitar player.)