Ravi Shankar On Life And The Basics Of Indian Classical Music For more than 50 years, Ravi Shankar has been the man responsible for bringing Indian classical music to the West. Hear Shankar, in conversation, as he reminisces on his life and explains the basics of Indian classical music with help from his daughter Anoushka and radio host Fred Child.
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Ravi Shankar On Life And The Basics Of Indian Classical Music

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FRED CHILD, HOST:

It's my great pleasure to have as our guest here in NPR Studio 4A the man who, for 50 years now, more than any other by far, has been responsible for bringing Indian classical music to the West - a great master of the sitar. Ravi Shankar is joining us here at NPR. Mr. Shankar, thank you so much for joining us.

RAVI SHANKAR: I'm so happy to be here.

CHILD: And we'll have some music, as well. Your daughter Anoushka Shankar is here to play the sitar, and Tonmoy Bose will be playing tabla. We'll have some music a little bit later. But first, the world knows you as a great master of the sitar, but your artistic life began as a dancer. When you were 10 years old, you moved with your brother's dance troupe to Paris.

R. SHANKAR: That's right. That's right. I started as a dancer, and I was fiddling with all the instruments without being trained at all. But being in the group of my brother - it was fantastic. I was raised in the whole atmosphere of dance and music.

CHILD: And I've seen pictures of you dancing as a young man. You were quite a promising young dancer. Not only a dancer - you were doing some of your own choreography, as well.

R. SHANKAR: That was when I was about 16. I did my first choreography for solo dance. And we toured all over the world, and four times we came to States between 1932 and '38.

CHILD: The first time you got a review in The New York Times was 1932, and it was for being a 12-year-old dancer.

R. SHANKAR: And that's right. But I was also, you know, playing the sitar and the board instrument called esraj and flute, also, along with dancing.

CHILD: And what was the catalyst that made you think you wanted to leave dance behind and really seriously study the sitar?

R. SHANKAR: That was when my big and my good work surely - the great musician Baba, as Allauddin Khan - he joined my brother's group as a sarod player. Sarod is, you know, like sitar - maybe the next popular instrument from India - northern India. And he was the greatest musician of that - his time. And he joined as a soloist just for one year. He traveled all along with us in Europe.

And his presence, his music - everything, you know, had such a great effect on me that I was thinking of really taking music seriously. And he started teaching me, also, but he always rebuked me because I was interested in so many different things. And he said, if you want to learn from me, you have to leave everything and, you know, give your time and whole energy to music.

CHILD: You were living what I imagine would be almost a teenage boy's dream life. You had this artistic life. You were touring around the world, going to all the great cities of the world, getting lots of attention everywhere you go.

R. SHANKAR: And having lot of fun, also.

CHILD: (Laughter).

R. SHANKAR: Yeah. That's true. And that's what he didn't like, you know? And after one year, he left. But he - what he said really stayed in my mind. And I was still continuing, having lot of success. And I started playing more of sitar. I used to play sarod, also, before. But somehow, I was not too happy. I wanted to go and learn from him. And then came the war - 1938 - so my brother had to stop touring. And that gave me the full chance of, you know, going to Baba, as I called him. Baba means father. And that's how I spent 7 1/2 years, mostly, with him just in the old style.

CHILD: And that's a very different style of teacher-student relationship than we're used to in the West.

R. SHANKAR: Absolutely. You can't imagine what a different style that is of, you know, leaving everything, not doing anything else but music, mainly, and, you know, eating and sleeping. And that's the principal thing, and that's the life. I spent most of the time there and practicing for many hours every day.

CHILD: And I don't know if people realize how much you gave up for that. I mean, as I said, you were part of this dance troupe. You were playing music, travelling the world, used to staying in the best hotels, eating at the best restaurants.

R. SHANKAR: That's exactly what many people don't realize - that, you know, it was so difficult for me, but no one told me to do it. I did it myself. In fact, my brother thought I would go to my - go to - for six months, learn a little and come back and join him and help him with his institution and all that. But I took it really seriously, and it was so difficult for me the first year or so - the difference, as you said just now, from the life I was leading before. But I had that strength of mind, and I did it.

CHILD: What was the most difficult obstacle for you that first year?

R. SHANKAR: Well, as you said, starting from five-star hotel to a room with just a cot and, you know, very rough bed with cockroaches, mosquitoes, flies and snakes sometime going through the room and, in the night, wolves all around. And, you know, it was such a difficult time for me. And being alone - that's something which I was not used to, you know, being always surrounded by so many people and touring. But I really got over it.

CHILD: And music meant enough to you that...

R. SHANKAR: Absolutely.

CHILD: ...It was worth giving up...

R. SHANKAR: Absolutely. Yeah.

CHILD: ...Everything for that. I'm curious to know more about the guru-disciple relationship because it's so different from what we do in the West, where - and you're not reading music. You're learning this oral tradition of music. How is it passed to you as a student?

R. SHANKAR: Well, exactly as you said. It's the oral tradition. But, you know, it is the aura of the guru which is very important - in the old style, that is. And we used to always be conscious of not only practicing, but thinking about music, listening to music and very little entertainment or anything. It was just, you know, practicing and revising all the things that we have learned, getting up very early morning - I want to say almost middle of the (laughter) night, around 4 o'clock or so. And it was, you know - in three parts or four parts, it amounted to almost 12 to 14 hours of practice.

CHILD: Every single day from age 18 to age 25?

R. SHANKAR: No, I wouldn't say that continuously. First, it was much less, but then, gradually.

CHILD: Oh, OK.

R. SHANKAR: And then I took it easy because I got married also after some time and had my first son. And it was difficult to practice 14 hours (laughter) or 12 hours, but I kept an average of eight hours at least, eight to 10 hours.

CHILD: Well, there's so much more I want to ask you about your own life and your own background. But now, one of your own students is your daughter, Anoushka, who's also here with us in NPR Studio 4A. I've talked with some parents and children who learn from their parent's music. But in the West, usually at a certain point, the child goes off and studies with someone else. And I'm curious to hear about this relationship. How has it been teaching your daughter to play the sitar?

R. SHANKAR: It has been very different. It cannot be the same as it used to be, you know, and especially because of our relationship - and also big difference that she was born in London, raised in London. And it was - she was about 8, 8 and a half, and it was actually her mother, Sukanya. She told me to start teaching her because I was waiting that she should be interested really genuinely, and then only I would like to teach her. But then I started. And the moment I started, I found her to be so talented. And, you know, that really inspired me, and that's how we started.

CHILD: And then she began playing concerts with you when she was 13?

R. SHANKAR: Yes. The first concert that was on my 75th birthday, that's when she started - the first concert.

CHILD: So now it's been about 10 years that she's been playing concerts with you, and the teaching continues even during the concerts.

R. SHANKAR: That continues all the time because anything new that happens - a new idea, a new concept or even new raga - it just continues, and same like I did with my guru till the last day of his life.

CHILD: The difference might be you're not making her sleep on a cot with snakes and cockroaches...

R. SHANKAR: (Laughter) No.

CHILD: ...Underfoot and (laughter)...

R. SHANKAR: She has much more comfort (laughter).

CHILD: Well, we're going to hear some music. But before we hear some music, let's talk about what we're going to hear. In Indian classical music - well, in Western classical music, the main elements are rhythm and melody and harmony. But in Indian classical music, no harmony. The key never changes. It's all about melody and rhythm. And let's talk about these a little bit. There's a certain kind of melodic form called the raga. How does that work?

R. SHANKAR: Well, a raga is the most important thing, which we call melodic form, and it is not just a scale. First of all, we have got 72 parent scales, and each scale has got hundreds of ragas. So you can imagine the thousands and thousands of different ragas. And they can be pentatonic - five notes - or hexatonic - six notes - or full scale - seven notes - and then permutation, combination of ascending five notes, descending six. And it goes on, all the combinations.

CHILD: I wonder if we could get Anoushka to demonstrate just a simple raag, going up and down the sitar?

R. SHANKAR: Yeah. And a raga always have a ascending and descending structure - for instance, raag Khamaj.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: You see, it goes ni, sa, ga, ma. We have solfeggios...

CHILD: Like we have do...

R. SHANKAR: Do, re, mi, fa, sol...

CHILD: Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do.

R. SHANKAR: ...La, ti, do. We have sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, sa.

CHILD: (Laughter).

R. SHANKAR: So it goes, (singing) ni, sa, ga, ma, pa, ni, sa.

ANOUSHKA SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Sa, ni. The ni changes. It becomes flat.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: And this is the basic structure. But then there are characteristic - the passage is, (singing) dha, ma, pa, dha, ni, ma, pa.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Ma, pa, dha, ga, ma, ga.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Dha, pa, ma, ga, ma, sa.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: Then also we have words for these strokes. With the right hand, what we wear, the plectrum, the mizrab, on the forefinger. (Singing) Dha, deer, dha, dha.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Dha, deer, dha, dha.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Dha, dha, deer, deer, dha, dha, dha.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Deer, deer, dha, dhra, dha. Deer, deer, dha, dhra, dha.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Deer, deer, dha, dhra dha.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Dhra.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Dha, ma, va.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Dha, ma, va, neh, yah, bhat.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Dha, ma, ve, na, ba, lep.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Ma, ma, ma, da, boh, na, got.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Nah, ni. Ni, sa.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Dha, ni, sa.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Dha, dha.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: Et cetera. I mean, this is how one teaches, from very slow to fast passages.

CHILD: This is fascinating, seeing you with your daughter. You're singing the passage, and then she's playing it right back to you.

R. SHANKAR: Exactly. Exactly. That's how we teach. Many times, the certain spirit of the raga, you have to really sing. And when you play, it is like singing. You know, especially when you pull the strings, bend the strings. Like, you can get five notes from the one note. (Singing) Sa, ri, ga, ma, pa.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: You see? She's just pulling the strings. (Singing) Sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, ma, pa, ri, ga, ma, sa.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Sa, ri, ga, ma, ga, deh, sa.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Dha, dha, dha.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Dha, Dha.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: (Singing) Dha, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ah.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

R. SHANKAR: And we don't have staccato notes. You know? We use each note with a little - it is not a bending, just bending, but it has - it takes years to really get it right. And then having these notes, some of them flat, some of them sharp. And different ragas cannot, should not be mistaken as modes. Because modal structure, we have in many countries, even in Eastern Europe, Middle East, Far East, everywhere. But ragas are much more developed. First of all, we must go back, you know, starting from our - Vedic hymns started our music, actually.

CHILD: Thousands of years ago.

R. SHANKAR: Just three note - using three-note chantings. And gradually, that goes to four, five, six, seven notes. And it began performing art. But the oral tradition remained, you see? And because of that, along with all the beauty and entertainment part, there has remained that spiritual quality which was very important and is still very important in our music. And that is being felt even by listeners in the West. And then the whole association. Because temples were the venues where the music was performed.

So from morning to night, in different light, different atmosphere, there evolved this association of different timing of ragas - like, morning ragas, early morning, late morning, early afternoon, et cetera, till the night, late night. And for centuries, this has been going on. So it has become, like, so much association of idea that we cannot - you know, we don't like to play a morning raga in the night or a night raga in the morning or afternoon raga at different times. So these are very important factors.

And in India, we have got two principal forms of all styles of music, one in North Hindustani style, to which I belong, and in the South, it's the Carnatic system. In the Carnatic system, they have done away with this time theory because they were very intelligent in the sense that they knew that the concert times are going to be limited. You know, can't be before 4 o'clock in the afternoon, or not later than 11 or so. So they don't observe the time theory. But in North, we still do. And we can't help it. It's part of us, you know? And sometimes I take liberty, you know, when I perform in the West, to give idea of a morning raga sometimes, but very, really.

CHILD: So a raga is so much more than a scale, as you say. It's not just the notes. For one thing, it's a - one pattern going up might be a different pattern coming down.

R. SHANKAR: Exactly.

CHILD: Each one inhabits its own emotional world. Each one is associated with a particular time of day. And each one has a spiritual meaning...

R. SHANKAR: Exactly.

CHILD: ...As well.

R. SHANKAR: And also a raga is the form that different compositions can be done for singing. There are songs for instrumental music that have different compositions. And there's nothing like five-minute raga or 10 minutes of raga. You know, a raga can be extended to three hours, four hours, in hand of masters who can really just play from very, very slow and sitting to playful, and very joyous and very exciting, and including playing for the gallery type, you know, entertainment, fully. It touches all these rasas, which is the important part in our music. Rasas are the moods or emotions. Principally, there are nine rasas. And it is meant mostly for drama, or even singing because singing has literature, you can express the different feelings to the words. But instrumental music, we have great difficulty in doing that. But still, there is shanta rasa, or the tranquil, which is the beginning of all our music. We always start with very tranquil, meditative mood so that the listeners also feel the same way. And then it develops into different moods.

There are sad moments, like wanting to reach the highest attainment, or whatever, and not being able to. That sadness is there. Or the feeling missing the lover. Whatever interpretation you want to give. Then there's the mood of very serene and, you know, brave. And then the moment of romance, love, even eroticism. Everything has different rasas we can express through our music. You know, of course, the anger part and the funny part also can be done in very different ways. It is easier for Western music because of the orchestration and things like that. But with our - instrumental music is difficult. It is possible for the singers where they had the literature to help them.

So along with the rasas and the whole starting from slow, to medium, to fast to very fast, we touch all the bases of different emotions. And that's why our music can be felt by public, also - the listener - what we are trying to express.

CHILD: Even if you don't know the details, the technical details behind the music, it still can have that immediate emotional impact.

R. SHANKAR: It can. And it also depends upon musicians. I mean, some can express it a little more, some less. Some - and there comes another problem, sometimes. You know, when performing for a foreign audience, it is a question of many of our musicians, great musicians, really, they intend to give out the real tradition and perform in the same way as they would do back home for the connoisseurs. And that becomes difficult here for the audience who have never heard to have a long - it can be very boring. You know?

And that's one thing that I learned. I was lucky, being in my childhood in the West, knowing exactly. And my brother was a great master in the old day. You know, showmanship. And to give exactly, as much as that one can take.

CHILD: He knew how much a Western audience could absorb...

R. SHANKAR: Yeah. Exactly.

CHILD: ...Before the eyes glazed over.

R. SHANKAR: Yeah.

CHILD: (Laughter).

R. SHANKAR: Climbing the walls.

CHILD: Yeah (laughter).

R. SHANKAR: And that's what helped me when I started about 50 years ago. You know, I had that knowledge, luckily. And that's why I was successful from the very beginning. I had no problem.

CHILD: We talked about the melodic form, the raag. The other important aspect of this music...

R. SHANKAR: Tala.

CHILD: Tala, the rhythmic structure. The rhythmic cycles. How does that work?

R. SHANKAR: We have gone so far. I can, without hesitation - no one can even imagine the rhythmically calculation. Like a computer, you know? Our old masters, they were so great in creating all these new conception in rhythmic structures and patterns, and then rhythmic cycles, which we call tala, ranging from three-beat cycles to a 108-beat cycle. And you can imagine starting a song or a piece which has, say, 51 beats. And it takes a lot of intellect and a lot of years of practice and control to have that cycle in mind and then improvise on it. As long as you sing a fixed thing, it's OK. But this is something wonderful. I would like you to hear a few of the popular talas.

Tanmoy?

CHILD: Tanmoy Bose, one of the great tabla...

R. SHANKAR: Tanmoy Bose.

CHILD: One of the great tabla players in the world.

R. SHANKAR: He's a fabulous tabla player. He's been touring with me for the last many years. And tabla is the right-hand drum.

TANMOY BOSE: (Playing the tabla).

R. SHANKAR: And this is a different sound. Ta.

BOSE: (Playing the tabla).

R. SHANKAR: Tin.

BOSE: (Playing the tabla).

R. SHANKAR: Na.

BOSE: (Playing the tabla).

R. SHANKAR: Dit.

BOSE: (Playing the tabla).

R. SHANKAR: Dee dot.

BOSE: (Playing the tabla).

R. SHANKAR: Now the left-hand drum, bayan, is open sound. Geh.

BOSE: (Playing the tabla).

R. SHANKAR: Geh, geh, geh, geh, geh, geh.

BOSE: (Playing the tabla).

R. SHANKAR: He, by pressing, he can get different tones.

CHILD: This is, like, kind of like the timpani.

R. SHANKAR: Yeah.

CHILD: You change the tension of the timpani. But he's doing this just with his left hand alone.

R. SHANKAR: Yeah. And then both hands together, ta.

BOSE: (Playing the tabla).

R. SHANKAR: Din. (Singing in foreign language). Now play with me. One, two, three and (singing foreign language). This composition, all compositions - so, you know, you can speak anything. That's how, after the student learns all the correct hand position and he's adept, the guru doesn't (speaking in foreign language) anymore. He just speaks out all these compositions, and the students learns, like we do with the sitar - same way.

CHILD: So again, the oral tradition - you're not learning...

R. SHANKAR: Absolutely.

CHILD: You're not learning from reading music. You don't take your...

R. SHANKAR: Not at all.

CHILD: ...Book of scales home with you and practice. You sit with your guru.

R. SHANKAR: Writing down is possible. We can write in our own system, but it is only for keeping record or remembering - or, you know, in the modern days, we are having music for films or anything - composition music - musicians do have to write, and that can be possible. But in the classical field, that's not done.

CHILD: A full classical performance of a piece will begin with a tranquil opening.

R. SHANKAR: Yeah.

CHILD: And the soloist will introduce the raga.

R. SHANKAR: That's known as the alap, which is very slow, very, you know - just introducing the main points of the raga. And you have to give lot of feeling to it, and that feeling is the original feeling of shanta rasa - the tranquil and the meditative one. That's always the beginning. Then it develops gradually into faster - without the rhythm - and then - which - just beat four beats - one, two, three, four - in that - what we call jor. And they're also section - slow, medium, fast - and then different section - and then joins the tabla. That's where - what we call gat. And it can be slow gat. It can be medium gat. It can be fast gat in different - whatever talas we choose. It can be teental, which has 16 beats, or it can be rupak - seven beats - or it can be jhaptal - 10 - or - it goes on, you know - 12 beats, 14 beats or whatever.

CHILD: So the soloist introduces the raga, beginning slowly and then increasing the energy.

R. SHANKAR: Yeah.

CHILD: Then the tabla player comes in with the rhythm. And you have, as you say, the gat, which is the composed section.

R. SHANKAR: Yeah.

CHILD: And then improvisation.

R. SHANKAR: Right. And this gat can be different gats in different, you know - very slow or medium, fast, anything.

CHILD: So as - it sounds like an analogy as, in a way, playing a jazz tune where you have a gat. You have the head. You have the tune that you play.

R. SHANKAR: Yeah.

CHILD: And then you improvise around that.

R. SHANKAR: That's what most people think - that it resembles jazz, which is true - the improvisation part - with the difference that the jazz improvises mostly using the chords - harmony, as well. And it improvises on a team that it takes. And it can do anything it wants. It can touch any note out of it or launch if it wants to. And the - I have heard great jazz musicians. I've been very lucky - starting from Duke Ellington to Satchmo and all of them. And I was - that's my favorite, really. Jazz - I love jazz, especially the old jazz. And - but the difference here is that we have to maintain the raga and raga's whole scientific form of ascending, descending. You cannot use anything - but within that, to be able to - you know, sky is the limit - is very difficult.

CHILD: And within that, the soloists will play, and the tabla player will also - the - will answer with rhythms. And they'll pay attention to what the other person's doing...

R. SHANKAR: Yeah.

CHILD: ...And hear and respond to each other.

R. SHANKAR: The basic responsibility of tabla plays to keep this cycle - the whole form of the 16 or 12 intact. And then the musician - the sitar player all settle there, or even the vocalist - they improvise. And in between, sometimes they play little pieces - I mean, short pieces - the tabla player. But in hands of great master say, no, tabla has become - and I don't like to say it myself, but I have been responsible in giving lot much more chance to tabla players to play solos in between. And now the tabla players have got much, much more scope in performing than before.

CHILD: It used to be mainly accompaniment...

R. SHANKAR: Yeah.

CHILD: ...And it's become...

R. SHANKAR: Yeah.

CHILD: ...Virtuosic - so an...

R. SHANKAR: Right. Right.

CHILD: ...Instrument in its own right. Well, with that background, I would love to hear some music now.

R. SHANKAR: At last.

(LAUGHTER)

CHILD: So we need to know what is the rug. And what is the taal? What is the melodic form? And what will be the rhythmic cycle?

R. SHANKAR: She's going to play "Pancham Se Gara" in six. Six with dadra. Dadra is the rythmic cycle. And first she will play that. And then after that, she'll play tintal, which will be 16 with cycle and gats are the main gats, and then improvise on that.

CHILD: And this will all begin with the introduction of the raag by Anoushka Shankar.

R. SHANKAR: Yeah, just a short introduction and then she will start.

CHILD: Can we - so we know what to listen for, can we hear those rhythmic cycles first, so we can - so we know what's coming up?

R. SHANKAR: Yeah. Dadra - first you play it on me. It's six with cycle in two parts - three, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: One, two, three, four, five, six. One, two, three, one, two, three. One, two, three, one, two, three. Very waltz-y.

CHILD: (Laughter).

R. SHANKAR: And tintal is (vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, one, two, three, four.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: And one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: And one. Vayo (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: One, two.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: One, nine, one. (Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: (Vocalizing). One. Ah (laughter).

CHILD: So within that 16-beat pattern, there can be tremendous amount of variation and improvisation.

R. SHANKAR: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

CHILD: But you come back and emphasize the one.

R. SHANKAR: The one is important.

CHILD: The beginning of the rhythmic cycle.

R. SHANKAR: Yeah.

CHILD: Well, let's hear this raag with a slow introduction by Anoushka Shankar. Should we talk about the sitar before we - we've had so much talking (laughing)...

R. SHANKAR: Yeah, yeah.

CHILD: ...Introduction. But let's do a little introduction of the sitar.

R. SHANKAR: The sitar has been there, you know, for almost 800 years. But it has changed a lot in shape and size. But the ones that you see now - this type of sitar - it has been more popular since last about - less than a hundred years. And it is all descendent of the ancient instrument veena. And main string is tuned to the fourth. And we play them on the main string. And the other strings are tuned in to main string, Ma.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: And then next string is Sa, the...

CHILD: The tonic note.

R. SHANKAR: Tonic note.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: And these are - yeah. And the frets are almost, you know, half notes. But we have some gaps in between, like starting from...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: These are the frets. And the main thing about sitar is that you can bend the strings, pull the strings sidewise and get five notes, as you have done - you have heard it before. Important thing, also, in sitar is the sympathetic strings, you know, like you heard in some viola de gamba and viola d'amore. These strings - the sympathetic strings - are very important because they resonate when you strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: You see that? That buzz?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: You see?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SHANKAR: This is the very important thing about sitar, makes it really special.

CHILD: That high, shimmering sound...

R. SHANKAR: Yeah, exactly.

CHILD: ...Of the sitar comes from those sympathetic strings, yeah. You don't necessarily pluck it.

R. SHANKAR: No.

CHILD: But even when you just pluck the main string...

R. SHANKAR: They resonate. They resonate.

CHILD: They resonate. But you do sometimes strum those sympathetic strings.

R. SHANKAR: Yeah. And just before starting, we tune to the raga that we are going to start.

CHILD: And they can also be used as a kind of rhythmic interjection.

R. SHANKAR: Sometimes. Sometimes, yeah.

CHILD: Sometimes they will.

R. SHANKAR: I do a lot of special effects with that. OK. Shall we start now?

CHILD: I'd love to hear this. And tell us once again - what is the raag?

R. SHANKAR: The raga is "Pancham Se Gara" - sounds like 5-cent cigara (ph), but.

CHILD: (Laughter).

R. SHANKAR: "Pancham Se Gara." And it is going to be in dadra first of six beats. First, little introduction, then dadra six beats, and then tintal in different tempo - medium, fast, very fast.

CHILD: Let's hear this performance here in NPR studio for a Ravi Shankar, our guide through the music, and our performers, Anoushka Shankar, playing the sitar; Tanmoy Bose, playing the tabla - the hand drums; and on the tanpura - the drone instrument - Nick Able (ph) is playing.

A. SHANKAR: (Playing sitar).

BOSE: (Playing tabla).

NICK ABLE: (Playing tanpura).

R. SHANKAR: That's all, folks.

CHILD: (Laughter) A performance here in the NPR studios - Indian classical music played for us by Anoushka Shankar on the sitar, Tanmoy Bose playing the tabla - the hand drums - and Nick Abel was joining in on the tanpura - the drone instrument - and Ravi Shankar acting as our guide through the world of Indian classical music.

Anoushka, thank you very much. Thank you for that performance.

A. SHANKAR: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

CHILD: And Tanmoy Bose, playing the tabla.

BOSE: Thank you, sir.

CHILD: Thank you very much.

R. SHANKAR: Very good.

CHILD: Anoushka, we heard from your father about working with his guru, about learning from his master. Times have changed. It's a little bit different. You're not spending seven years of your life living on a hard cot with cockroaches and snakes underfoot. But how has it been having your father as your teacher?

A. SHANKAR: I mean, from my perspective, it's been wonderful because I end up having a relationship with him that most people don't get to have with a parent. And I also get a closeness to him that most people don't have with a guru.

So on both sides, it's been very beautiful. And I would say the difficulty definitely would have come more for him in having to adjust to that difference. But, really, from my case, it's been wonderful.

CHILD: Have there been adjustments for you?

R. SHANKAR: Oh, definitely. It had to be because, you know, I have had students also who were living with me. And I was teaching them in the old style, but I had to compromise quite a bit even with them. They didn't have to go through the cockroaches...

CHILD: (Laughter).

R. SHANKAR: ...and scorpions (laughter). But with Anoushka, it was completely different. It was a father-daughter relationship. And, you know - and I had to adjust completely to it. It took me some time. It was a bit difficult in the beginning, but then it was beautiful.

CHILD: Anoushka, I wonder if there were any roadblocks you had to face - or difficulties or tensions - when your father is saying, no, that's not how it goes. Do it like this. And that can be very difficult in any teacher-student relationship. And I wonder if it's even harder when it's your father.

A. SHANKAR: It was in a way. I think what came early on was learning to differentiate between which roles we were playing at what times. And there was definitely a slightly different outward behavior towards each other when we were, maybe, sitting and having breakfast or watching TV together where it was delineated. Now I could be familiar. Now we were joking. Now I could, for example, argue back if I wanted to. But then once we're in the music room and we've got our instruments with us, then it's a different role that we're both playing. And he's there to teach me, and I'm there to learn.

CHILD: So you're more deferential in that setting.

A. SHANKAR: Yes. Not even just on purpose but genuinely, you know, that's a different position that I'm in. I'm there to learn, so it's - I wouldn't even think of doing the same thing, you Know? (Laughter).

CHILD: And the teaching continues on stage, too. And I happened to see you a couple of nights ago in concert. And at the end of the evening as the energy was building and the tempos were getting faster and faster, it seemed like your father was sort of throwing challenges out for you. Here; I'm going to play something tricky. See if you can do it, too.

A. SHANKAR: A lot of the times, it's seeing if you can do it too, or if you can respond because if he's improvising, then he'll play different phrases. And I have to find things to match, which is very on the spot. And it can be very difficult to - without anticipating to know what to play next and have it still work musically. And it is definitely a real challenge. And he always ends up doing very different things at every show, so there's a lot to learn from.

CHILD: Does there come a moment in your life as the student when you want to establish your own voice as a musician?

A. SHANKAR: Yeah. I think I started going through that probably a couple of years ago - because you start, at first, trying to absorb as much as you can. And you run the risk of being clone-like at that point because you are just trying to imitate. That's how you learn and have it become your own. And then you have to distance a little bit in order to find what you are within that.

And I definitely went through that. And I'm still going through that because when you - I'm still in this position to learn as much as I can. I play a different role when I'm with him than when I'm alone. And when I'm, for example, doing solo concerts, it's a lot more about my own ideas and seeing where I would go without him there, you know?

CHILD: And you're also experimenting with different styles of music. You have the classical music - which you just played a small example of that for us, and you play that with your father - and your own classical concerts. But your new album has a very different sound.

A. SHANKAR: (Laughter) This is true (laughter). It's a lot of other things that I've loved for many years. And I think, as a musician, there comes a point, like you were saying, where you want to discover yourself on a deeper level. And outside of this box that I've existed in for a long time, what would I create? What would it sound like? I wanted to find out.

CHILD: So there's some electronic keyboards. There's some electronic percussion.

A. SHANKAR: There's didgeridoo. There's (laughter) flamenco. There's a lot of things that I love, really, but that I found had the potential to go together in a very interesting way.

CHILD: And do those work? Do those different musical streams work with your classical training?

A. SHANKAR: It's kind of like putting yourself in a different mindset because it depends on context. If I'm thinking very much in a raga format, then no, it wouldn't work - and not because of the instrument but because of the style that that artist comes from. That would clash. But when you're trying to find a common ground, then you're both sort of stepping outside of those norms. And then you can find some interesting spaces where you connect.

CHILD: And I wonder how as the teacher and father - or maybe I should ask those questions separately...

(LAUGHTER)

CHILD: ...because maybe you have different reactions as the father and the teacher. How does it feel to have your daughter not only playing with you on stage but going off and doing her own music as well?

R. SHANKAR: Well, I did the same thing in my younger days. I'm sure it was the same feeling that my guru must have been having. He was himself very, very creative. He always did a lot of new ideas, new things. But when I started experimenting with, you know, symphony orchestra and doing music for films, I introduced a lot of new things, new ideas, which was not done before. But I kept as much as possible within the classical format. But the ideas were - melodically or sound of instrument within our own instruments or folk instruments, I tried a lot of things which I was criticized for, you know?

CHILD: You were combining north and south Indian music styles.

R. SHANKAR: North Indian and south Indian. I even, you know, started using violins and Western instruments, which was not in the - originally, I did not do that. For many years, I had experimented only with Indian instruments. But then I changed over, you know, trying all - even jazz instruments.

But the one thing which I have not been able to do, which she is doing, is the electronic things and the later things, you know? I tried one record - if you have heard, I don't know - "Tana Mana." In that, I used some emulator and synthesizer just for fun of it.

CHILD: (Laughter).

R. SHANKAR: And some of the things turned out to be interesting. It was liked by people, but I have not gone deeper into that.

CHILD: So now your daughter is doing the same thing. She's going off on her own. And how does that feel as the teacher?

R. SHANKAR: I have always been very open in this respect, you know? And these experimentations - I have been very, very pleased. I love this new album of hers, and I'm really happy that she's doing new experimentation. And let us see how far it goes. I'm looking forward to it.

CHILD: Now, that was quite a smile you got from your daughter when you said that (laughter).

A. SHANKAR: I have never heard him say that before.

(LAUGHTER)

CHILD: Ravi Shankar, it's been a real pleasure and honor speaking with you. Thank you very much.

R. SHANKAR: Fred, you have been wonderful, really.

CHILD: Anoushka Shankar, thank you very much for our conversation and for the performance.

A. SHANKAR: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

CHILD: And Tanmoy Bose, one of the great tabla virtuosos in the world, thank you very much for being here.

BOSE: Thank you. Thanks, Fred.

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