Pandit Ravi Shankar Meets George Harrison

Anithya Balachandran | October 7, 2021 | Heritage

“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,” says Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitar maestro, in Raga, a 1971 documentary about the sitarist. It was a union that would create thunderous ripples as two musical stalwarts one from the East, and another from the West came together.

On the surface they appear to be vastly dissimilar as Ravi Shankar’s musical background was rooted more in the Classical Indian heritage whereas, George Harrison’s music was from an alternate English pop universe. However, when they met their combined love and passion to produce music from the soul couldn’t keep them apart. Something to take notice of here is the stark social backgrounds they both hailed from. Harrison was the son of a bus conductor father and a shop assistant mother, Shankar belonged to an affluent Bengali Brahmin family. Their musical union is a notable one as they overcame and even blurred all these social differences.

With Beatlemania in full swing and the legend of Ravi Shankar etched in minds of millions of music lovers, this summit of Indian classical and pop music would create tectonic shifts in the swinging 60s and much after. Appositely enough, Harrison had first laid his hands on a sitar in 1965, while he was shooting a scene in an Indian restaurant for his upcoming movie, ‘Help’. As the musical strings tugged to his heart, Harrison bought his own sitar from a shop in Oxford, London shortly after.

As events unfolded, in 1966 George Harrison finally met Ravi Shankar in Bath. Although with some trepidation at the beginning, Ravi Shankar began giving sitar lessons to Harrison. It was to be the beginning of an exceptional blossoming. A grand melange of the classic and the contemporary. This great synthesis reached its apex with Harrison’s song “Within you without you”. The spiritual message of India blended with Harrison’s trademark into song.

The two remained in constant touch after that and, in less than three months after their first meeting they had reworked their busy schedules to travel together across India for a month and a half. Apprehensive about Harrison’s dedication to the craft at first, Shankar grew fond of the long haired pop star. “From the moment we met, George was asking questions, and I felt he was genuinely interested in Indian music and religion.

He appeared to be a sweet, straightforward young man. I said I had been told he had used the sitar, although I had not heard the song ‘Norwegian Wood’. He seemed quite embarrassed, and it transpired that he had only had a few sittings with an Indian chap who was in London to see how the instrument should be held and to learn the basics of playing. ‘Norwegian Wood’ was supposedly causing so much brouhaha, but when I eventually heard the song I thought it was a strange sound that had been produced on the sitar” Shankar recounted.

With the boiling refugee crisis in Bangladesh in 1971, Shankar and Harrison came together once again. This meeting once again spelt musical decadence with roaring success for a noble cause.

In October 2010, a four-disc compilation box set ‘Collaborations’ was released. It compiled three studio albums originally issued on that label – the long-unavailable ‘Shankar Family and Friends’ (1974) and ‘Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival From India’ (1976) and ‘Chants of India’. All three albums were originally Shankar’s releases, in which Harrison played the role of music producer and guest musician, both Shankar and Harrison are credited as artists on the box set.

There are many amusing anecdotes from their time together as mentor and student. One such laughter inducing story is Harrison stepped over his sitar to answer the phone and was swiftly whacked by Shankar on the leg for the lack of respect he had displayed towards his instrument. It is amusing to think of how two men who were at the pinnacle of success were nothing in comparison to the power of music. I personally believe it is this power that they both worshipped and tried so hard throughout their individual careers to attain and cherish.

The enchanted fusion of two prolific geniuses, reaffirmed the magic and power of music. Reminding many of the flight of a bird. Unhinged by boundaries. Breaking all barriers and borders. Leaving us with an impressive array of soul stirring music, the coming together of Ravi Shankar and George Harrison was both a spiritual and creative union. A legendary homecoming for two musical masterminds.

One thought on “Pandit Ravi Shankar Meets George Harrison

  1. So subtly expressed, this piece by Anithya is as mystic as the two personalities described in the article.It not only details events in their lives but the discreet feelings of music and amalgation of two cultures, East and West.

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