How Ravi Shankar’s sitar changed George Harrison and The Beatles forever
We’re taking a look back at an iconic moment in pop music history, the time that Ravi Shankar, the legendary Indian musician, taught The Beatles member George Harrison how to play the traditional Indian instrument, the sitar.
It may seem just another moment in a long and illustrious career for Harrison but what transpired was a rich and fruitful partnership between the pair which would not only see Harrison promote both Shankar and Indian music through his various channels with The Beatles. But it would also see Shankar become a deeply respected musician in the Western world on his own merit.
Shankar, the father of folk singer Norah Jones, became widely known for his collaborations with The Beatles, among other western musicians, and brought the intricacy and beauty of classical Indian music to the masses in doing so. While Shankar’s own efforts cannot be underestimated, Harrison’s connection with the sitar player undoubtedly opened doors for him.
During the 1950s, Shankar was on the road trying to enlighten those he met with his soulful and smoky sounds of the sitar. He didn’t just keep to his own comfortable surroundings either, Shankar was determined to open up India to the world through music. It meant he visited countries such as the Soviet Union, Western Europe and even over to the US — one can only imagine the reception his traditional dress and sound could have received during the decade. In 1966 things would change.
Shankar would cross paths with one of the world’s biggest rock stars and likely one of the most well-known faces on the planet during that time —the late, great George Harrison. As a member of The Beatles, Harrison had reached the height of fame and fortune and it was at this height in 1966 that he turned his attention inwards and went to India in search of spiritual balancing.
A fan of the sitar already, when Harrison met Shankar he seized his opportunity to learn the instrument from a master and realising himself at the same time.
What followed was an intense and friendly relationship full of trading talent and shared goals. Harrison travelled to India and spent weeks with Shankar both learning the sitar and engaging with his own spirituality. In turn, Shankar would be almost instantaneously catapulted into the limelight as a friend and confidant of the Quiet Beatle.
Harrison’s penchant for classical Indian music can be heard across The Beatles back catalogue as Harrison brought Eastern philosophy to the heart of the Western world’s pop darlings. After Harrison and Shankar met, the Fab Four started to use a lot of his techniques.
His association with Harrison and The Beatles ensured he was sought after artist for any festival or late-night TV show as the ultimate guest. He performed at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (which you can see below) and even brought traditional Indian music to the American masses when he appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in the same year (below).
It’s an opportunity he would likely have not to be afforded without Harrison. Gracing the stage of festivals and operating on America’s favourite late night television shows was a large step for Shankar and his mission to bring the beauty of classical Indian music to the people.
Soon Shankar’s association with The Beatles and the ‘hippie’ culture which surrounded the Fab Four among many others became a problem in his homeland. Despite Shankar’s dislike of the “flower and bead” brigade, the image of Shankar as a drug-taking hippie deeply hurt the sitarist.
Later in 1971, Harrison and Shankar would again work together and this time on far nobler causes. George Harrison had arranged, with the help of Shankar, a benefit concert for the people of Bangladesh who, at the time, were struggling with suaves of famine and war affecting the country. The concert would feature an all-star line up of Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, Badfinger, and, of course, Ravi Shankar.
It began a long tradition of benefit concerts and would likely have remained one of the purer moments of both Shankar and Harrison’s careers. Shankar was inspirational when it came to ‘The Concert for Bangladesh’, when asked by a reporter as to why Harrison should put on a gig for the aid of Bangladesh he replied: “Because I was asked by a friend if I would help, you know, that’s all”.
The duo also shared what would end up being George Harrison’s final performance on VH1 in 1997 as Shankar accompanied the guitarist on a few songs. It proves that what they shared not only affected Harrison nor just The Beatles but arguably the world.
A long-lasting friendship George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, from such separate places in the world, would come together to not only enjoy one another but to help those less fortunate—and it all happened because of a sitar lesson.
Watch Ravi Shankar giving George Harrison a sitar lesson from a documentary below.