Ravi Shankar gets help from Beatle friend

By Adam Tanner

WASHINGTON, May 16, 1996 (Reuter) - Thirty years after Beatle George Harrison journeyed to India seeking sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar, the former pupil has become the Indian master's foremost patron.

When Shankar, 76, returns to the recording studio this summer, Harrison will be be looking over his shoulder as the album's producer, as he was for a four-CD Shankar retrospective released earlier this year. The British guitarist and songwriter will also edit and provide an introduction for a book of memoirs by the man who has spent a lifetime popularising Indian music around the the world.

The flurry of support from the most reclusive of the remaining Beatles is again putting the limelight on Shankar, whose status as sitar raga king of the 1960s counter-culture faded with the decade. "I was not very much in circulation in the popular sense, but it seems that they got me back," Shankar told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"It is like the Beatles themselves, for instance. I think they are very much in the picture now in the last year or year and a half. It does help in many ways because people get more interested when they see George Harrison's name being associated (with me)," he added.

Shankar was already a well-regarded master of the sitar -- a long-necked instrument with seven strings echoed by 11 sympathetic strings under the elevated frets -- when Harrison's 1966 pilgrimage to Bombay to learn the exotic instrument made Shankar the world's best-known guru. His star soared in the West and he performed at some of the decade's most famous rock festivals including Woodstock in 1969 and the Monterey Pop festival in 1967.

Shankar says he misses the mass adoration today but is glad he no longer has to contend with the hippies who made sitar ragas -- India's classical music -- the soundtrack of the 1960s drug culture. "I had to make them understand that this music is a serious music, and you know, you have to listen with respect, with the same attitude as you go to listen to Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. It's not a pop music that you can, you know, have Coke and beer and make it out with your girlfriend at the same time."

After the breakup of the Beatles, Harrison performed with Shankar at a charity Concert for Bangladesh and the two toured together in 1974. But the tour was poorly received and they curtailed their professional collaborations, even as their friendship remained strong, Shankar said.

"He regards me as his father, I regard him as my son and I love him and it is a very special relationship," he said. "We are the greatest of friends and he has tremendous admiration for me which I can't explain."

Shankar's 75th birthday last year rekindled their professional union with "In Celebration", a four-CD retrospective and booklet chronicling Shankar's mastery of the sitar and career as a composer who has experimented with fusing Eastern and Western music. In July, Shankar plans to travel to England where Harrison will produce his latest album, which he said is based on Indian chants and is "very soothing, very spiritual, very meditative."

After a career of public performances dating back to 1930, Shankar has reduced the number of his concert performances after having twice undergone heart surgery in recent years. He spends most of his year in Encinitas, California, near San Diego, with his second wife Sukanya, 45, and teenage daughter Anoushka, who has become his leading sitar student.

Still, he has no plans to retire and stop recording music because, he said, new ideas are continuously flooding his immagination. "There's new things, new ideas all the time in my head and I try to bring it out through, you know, the medium of music. At times the mind goes farther and faster and fingers sometimes ... don't follow but that is the whole excitement of it: you know we try to catch up with our mind."

Although his lightning-speed playing on the sitar has dazzled audiences for generations, Shankar said he still has not completely mastered the instrument. "No, no, no, absolutely not," he said. "One lifetime is not enough."

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