Friday, October 1, 2010

In review--Raga!

Ravi Shankar
Raga (A Film Journey into the Soul of India)
Archival DVD 1971/2010
East Meets West Music/Harmonia Mundi

When you think about it, times haven’t changed all that much since the late 1960s. Sure, the 1960s and 70s were littered with drugs, drop-out mentality and multimedia distractions in contrast to today’s distractions including the Internet, I-Pads and other digital devices, the same problem remains which is the lack of attention spans and impatience. Traditions that were revived in the 1950s and 60s through the return to cultural roots re-emerged with world music, but again we are faced with the digital distractions, including drum machines and synthetic instruments wedded to more traditional acoustic ones.

One of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s regrets from the 1960s, portrayed in the 1971 documentary Raga (A Film Journey into the Soul of India) was the distractions and impatience found in people from the West. But even in India, he laments about one of his Indian disciples who he claims will never learn the music tradition in the old way through no fault of his own, but changing times had left a mark on the younger generation. So in a way, the re-emergence of this documentary now reminds us that our own digital technology might have destroyed several generations in that they will never have the patience or focus to commit to any real disciplines or endeavors. And certainly, they’ll never possess the patience to learn a tradition such as Indian classical music which takes years to master, total dedication to the guru (music teacher), and total focus. We have moved too far from active hearing and performing to passive listening via the I-Pod stuffed into ears. This latter part is my own interpretation.

While Shankar’s documentary focuses mainly on the relationship between the guru and the disciple, he treats us to some spellbinding classical Indian music performances, montages of pop culture’s commercial transformation of Indian traditions (see montage sequence), and he brings up some thorny issues about west meets east, and preserving musical/spiritual traditions. I’m embarrassed American watching this documentary because of the footage of wannabe music students, the American sense of entitlement, and our superficial views about music, culture, and spirituality. Though the footage of the jugalbandi with French classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin offers reverential moments between Shankar and the European classically trained musician.

In the US, we are a society raised on sound bites and glimpses of the “American dream,” which for most of us is out of reach anyway. We’ve bought into the rags to riches story and our entire culture is based on making a profit rather than enriching the world with our talents. This 1971 DVD brings this message home even in this new millennium. Could Indian ragas act as our antidote to the mad rush we call our daily lives? (Incidentally when I look at what yoga has turned into, a money-making industry in the West, I feel saddened by the loss of yoga’s roots. Now you just see ads for glamorous yoga wear and pricy classes taught at trendy studios. Where is the peace and acceptance found in this fashionable yoga?)

But in the 1971 documentary, Shankar’s narration comes across as a long sigh when he shares his doubts about taking his traditional music to the West. He watched Indian music enter the western pop realm, (it had already appeared on Bollywood soundtracks), and speaking of movies, one of the most enchanting moments in the documentary revolves around Shankar conducting an Indian orchestra for a movie soundtrack. I’m guessing this was one of Satyajit Ray’s movies, in which Shankar composed the music.

If it’s any comfort to the master sitarist, every culture on this earth has been commercialized or marginalized by the West. Nothing is sacred any longer, and any tradition can easily be glossed over and made palatable to the marketplace. The United States in general looks outward for validation and for Americans who can and do look inward, there are all the Americans looking for the next big trend which they eventually discard for the next fix. Berries from Brazil’s Amazon Rain Forest? Percussive grooves from Botswana?

Or perhaps there’s another way of gazing at this situation and that is the desire to explore the world and connect with other cultures even if on a superficial level. That’s still a better path than closing the door on other cultures and becoming too insular. Perhaps as Americans who have lost our own cultural roots, adopting other cultures (and making them our own) is the best we have to offer. Some Americans have adopted other cultures as their own on an authentic and respectful level. I’ve met quite a few of them.

Shankar celebrated his 90th birthday last spring and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down, still out in the world performing his beguiling ragas, still building bridges between cultures, and still a musical force to be reckoned. His label East Meets West Music continues to release archival CDs and DVDs. And as we look back, we also see the present staring us in the face. Can we step back, slow down, and pay attention to this moment? In the end it’s all we have and then it’s gone. Perhaps Shankar will show us the road back to ourselves and our inner sanctum. In the meantime, listening to ragas might heal us of our attention span problem. and and

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