Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ravi Shankar and George Harrison: Their obscure, late-career masterpiece

Two friends, captured decades apart: Ravi Shankar and George Harrison

I have written of my atheism on this blog several times in the past, but I wouldn't want people to get the impression that I think I have the universe figured out or that I'm not awed by nature. On the contrary, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the beauty and complexity of this world and of what lies beyond it. 

Some of my favorite art has been created in service of religions to which I do not subscribe, and sometimes this very art -- particularly music -- makes me wish that I were a believer, too. That's the experience I had when listening to the little-known album Chants of India (1997). 

I didn't go out looking for this album. I'd never heard of it until I (more or less) accidentally found it through a YouTube search, and even then I didn't know exactly what it was. I just wanted some relaxing music to listen to while I worked, and I prefer longer videos because they're more practical for such purposes. (I didn't want to go looking for new clips every four or five minutes.) I saw a YouTube video of something called Chants of India that ran for 1 hour and 3 minutes, so I clicked on it and went to work. Soon, however, I began to notice how truly beautiful this music was and stopped what I was doing to investigate.

As it happens, Chants of India was recorded by world-renowned sitarist Ravi Shankar (1920-2012), the most famous Indian musician of the last century. A great deal of his popularity outside India was due to the fact that his music was strongly advocated by the Beatles, particularly George Harrison. Shankar and Harrison formed a long-time friendship, and the two organized the famed Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Over a quarter-century later, George produced and sang on Shankar's Chants of India LP. 

Despite the participation of a Beatle, the album is not currently in print as far as I can tell. At the time of this album's appearance, George had not put out a studio album under his own name in ten years; he died only four years after Chants of India's under-the-radar release. Shankar would live another 15 years, but Chants was his last major professional collaboration with the ex-Beatle. Why it's not instantly available on iTunes in 2013 is beyond me. Still in all, one track in particular stands out: "Prabhujee," a devotional hymn whose lyrics translate as:
Oh Master, show some compassion to me. 
Please come and dwell in my heart.
Because without you, it is painfully lonely.
Fill this empty pot with the nectar of love.
I do not know any Tantra, Mantra or ritualistic worship.
I know and believe only in you.
I have been searching for you all over all the world.
Please come and hold my hand now.
When I first heard the song, I didn't know any of that because the lyrics are all in Hindi. I didn't even know who had recorded it. My thoughts during that first listen were of a traveler who had spanned a great distance, crossing a vast ocean, and had arrived safely at the shore. I felt that this journey was a metaphor for life itself and that the shore was the afterlife or one's ultimate destiny. 

Knowing that George's own life was nearly over when this was recorded gives the song a special significance, as does the line about hand-holding, since it beautifully (if unintentionally) echoes the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and gives that up-tempo Lennon-McCartney rock number an unexpected religious significance. 

I was also struck by the fact that "Prabhujee," while not tied to any particular era in music, was so similar to the music being made by contemporary bands. Specifically, the song combines the slow, sweeping grandeur of Sigur Ros with the keen melodicism of Arcade Fire. In fact, if I were describing this song to someone who'd never heard it (as I am doing now), I would say, "Imagine Sigur Ros covering an Arcade Fire ballad and stretching it waaaaaaaay out."

Here is the song that so impressed me. I hope it impresses you as well.