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Raga Mala: An Autobiography by Ravi Shankar

As the great maestro turns 80, his story is an intensely personal and candid account of a long and colorful life.

By Phil Catalfo

Welcome Rain Publishers

Sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar became the embodiment of Indian music to a whole generation of Western music lovers in the 1960s. He played at the historic Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969, and taught then-Beatle George Harrison to play sitar. But by that point he had already been a globe-trotting ambassador of Indian music and culture for decades.

Born in Benares in 1920, by age 10 he joined a family performing troupe based in Paris and led by his brother Uday, an acclaimed dancer; during the 1930s, they toured the United States four times. As a teenager he began studying music with the legendary Ustad "Baba" Allaudin Khan, father of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, whose sister Annapurna became Shankar's first wife. In the 1940s Shankar performed for All-India Radio, formed a national orchestra, and began recording albums. In the 1950s he scored soundtracks for several films directed by the great Satyajit Ray, and began a long friendship with the American violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin (who later wrote the foreword to B.K.S. Iyengar's classic, Light on Yoga), which would yield historic recordings pioneering the fusion of Eastern and Western music.

So by the time he played for stoned-out hippies in the United States, he had already devoted a lifetime to the highest expression of his native culture. He was attracted to many forms of music, including jazz and folk, but completely turned off by what he saw as the moral dissolution of the Sixties Generation and its expropriation of his nation's art and disciplines. He writes that, on a visit to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury after performing at Monterey, "I felt offended and shocked to see India being regarded so superficially and its great culture being exploited. Yoga, Tantra, mantra, kundalini, ganja, hashish, Kama Sutra?they all became part of a cocktail that everyone seemed to be lapping up!"

Shankar himself was no angel (nor does he pretend to be), and Raga Mala ("Garland of Ragas") is an intensely personal and surprisingly candid account of his long and colorful life, including many love affairs and marriages. Indeed, the book's power stems in part from the fact that it reveals this great musician as a fully dimensional human; we don't have to like everything he does or agree with everything he says in order to appreciate the prodigious gifts he has given us. Unlike his earlier, slimmer autobiography, My Music, My Life (first published in 1969, and now out of print in the United States), which was issued in the middle of his career, Raga Mala surveys the entire arc of his life and work.

When originally published in a limited British edition in 1997, it was bound in Indian silk and packaged with two CDs and a packet of Shankar's favorite incense, and it cost more than $400; Welcome Rain published this, the first U.S. edition (sans silk, incense, and CDs), late in 1999.

Now, as the great maestro turns 80, his autobiography enables us to see his career as a bridge between India as it existed before independence and India as it rushes headlong into the twenty-first century?and to feel gratitude that he, Ali Akbar Khan, and others preserved their rich musical heritage for all the world to enjoy. "[When] I become attuned to my sitar," he writes, "that is the route for me to touch the heart and the God within myself, and within my millions of listeners over the years." What a blessing that we've been able to experience his attunement.

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