I can squarely blame my early bias against Ravi Shankar on my mother. She has a loose grip over classical grammar. But having been born in a musically plugged-in family that at times hosted Allauddin Khan and his son Ali Akbar, among others, at their Calcutta house, she has a keen ear. I was told at an early age — when I was way more interested in RD Burman and the Beatles than in anything classical — that when it came to the sitar, one should follow Vilayat Khan and Nikhil Banerjee. To some, it could be like saying VVS Laxman is more elegant than Sachin Tendulkar. Beyond a point it could just be camp warfare. But at home there was only one musical camp. And Ravi Shankar's sitar didn't feature in it.
So it took me some time to place Shankar in the musical galaxy. As one learned more about his warm reception abroad, one figured that he was like another nonagenarian Indian artist — Maqbool Fida Husain. Seen from home, they are certainly not the brightest stars up there. But both of them have made incomparable contributions to taking Indian art abroad, initiating dialogues that others have carried on.
Shankar's collaborations with peer Yehudi Menuhin stayed more on the traditional side of the musical border. But for the works produced by his student George Harrison, Shankar crossed several lines. He played with harmonies that aren't found in the Indian classical vocabulary, he composed 'ballets' with raags, he conducted large orchestras of classical musicians.
So though this column is strictly not about classical music, when 'Collaborations' came out, it felt that it belonged here.
When you get beyond the cheesy cover that features guru and shishya under the same shawl, and the 'certificate of authenticity' that claims you are a unique recipient of the producers' fancy, you get to the set. It comprises 2 1970s' CDs by 'Shankar, family and friends', a DVD of the 1974 Royal Albert Hall concert by the troupe, and a 1992 production, 'Chants of India'. They come with a hardbound book that introduces the albums, music, musicians and instruments — all with glossy, full-tone images.
So yes, you get production value for the 5,000 bucks you need to spend for the set. But is the music worth it?
Even with all the contextual information, the musical ballistics remain aimed at the West. You get some glints of gold from the younger musicians — an electric sarangi by Sultan Khan and genre-shifting flute by Hariprasad Chaurasia. Even a certain Hari Georgeson features on the crew (who else but...?). But then, it's sobered down by things such as a bhajan titled 'I am missing you' by Lakshmi Shankar and other Iskcon-esque compositions.
Don't buy this set if you are not minded as a collector. One brilliant result of Shankar's influence on the West is available for free. Patrick Moutal is a French musicologist and radio producer who got into Indian classical via Shankar's music. His vast collection of various artists is at tinyurl.com/27xvdcm. Shankar's presence there is relatively small. Maybe my mother was right.