For Ravi Shankar, America might as well have been a different planet. When he first visited New York in 1932, he was just 12 years old. This was by no means his first experience of life outside India. At the age of ten, he’d travelled to Paris with a dance group of his brother, choreographer Uday Shanka. Still, there was something exceptional about America’s grandeur. Speaking to Rolling Stone, Shankar recalled the feeling the newly-unveiled Empire State Building evoked in him: “Coming to New York on a boat in the morning mist and fog, and slowly you see these giant buildings. It was magic.”
By the 1950s, Shankar was attracting huge audiences and started performing in some of America’s most illustrious venues. Despite finally cementing himself in the States, it wasn’t until the 1960s and his mentorship of Beatles guitarist George Harrison that he achieved worldwide notoriety. For Shankar, the hippie age was a time of both incredible artistic achievement and utter sacrilege. His view of the period is summed up by his comments about one of the countercultural age’s most iconic figures, Jimi Hendrix.
Opening up about his experience of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Shanker recalled: “I was shocked to see people dressing so flamboyantly. They were all stoned. To me, it was a new world. I liked Otis Redding; the Mamas and the Papas; Peter, Paul and Mary, because they were very soothing. Then I saw Jimi Hendrix. I saw how wonderful he was at the guitar, and I was really admiring him, and then he started his antics. Making love to the guitar. And then, as if that was not enough, he burned the guitar. That was too much for me. In our culture we have such respect for musical instruments, they are like part of God.”
Shankar is one of the most fascinating figureheads of the countercultural age precisely because he rejected most of what the hippies held dear. Just as he had little time for Hendrix’s onstage antics, he shunned the hippie image of India as the land of “Kamasutra and hash and all that.” On numerous occasions, he was forced to take a stand against audience members coming to his performances high on hallucinogens, arguing that his music was transcendent enough. Hendrix’s various affronts to his instrument also stood in stark contrast to Shankar’s understanding of music. As a devout Hindu, Shankar regarded music as an essential part of worship. In the secular American world, he found musicianship reduced to an exercise in provocation and commercialism, whereas he’d been taught to regard it as a method of enhancing one’s devotion.
The contrast between Hendrix and Shankar’s attitudes toward their instruments reminds us that the 1960s was a period of exploration in which artists were trying to work out what purpose their music could serve. While Shankar’s faith remained unweakened, many young Americans felt the old world order had led only to death and destruction. Hendrix’s burning guitar is such an iconic image because it was the perfect symbol of a society attempting to self-destruct to build itself anew. What for Shankar was an act of destruction was for Hendrix an act of invention.