REMEMBERING RAVI SHANKAR (and the sweet smell of George Harrison)

Like most people who grew up having their pop culture sensibilities influenced by the Beatles, I first became familiar with Ravi Shankar as the man that taught George Harrison to play the sitar and popularized “raga rock” to the world in the 60’s. I was first introduced to his work on The Concert for Bangladesh album recorded live at Madison Square Garden, a legendary concert that he organized with George Harrison. Later that event would serve as the blueprint for the Live Aid movement and other concerts to ease global suffering. Prior to that he performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in ’67 and Woodstock in ’69. He was at the epicenter of music at that time and his influence shaped the sound of countless legendary performers. The list of major awards he accumulated in his lifetime is very impressive, he won two Grammysposthumously this year and is nominated for another in 2014. To a new generation of fans he is best known as the father of Norah Jones.

I was commissioned to photograph Ravi Shankar at his home in Encinitas, California and was welcomed by his wife Sukanya and daughter Anoushka. I was told that he wasn’t feeling particularly well but still wanted to do the shoot and would join us after his meditation. We had planned to do the entire shoot outside on the grounds of his home but the heat proved too oppressive for both his comfort and that of his valuable sitar so after the first set-up we moved inside his spacious home.

While I found Ravi to be gracious and welcoming, he was a thoughtful and quiet man and chose his words carefully. By the time we moved inside the mood became more casual and to my delight he started to share some wonderful stories and we had a good laugh. The conversation naturally moved to George Harrison as he had just recently passed away. I had the good fortune to hang out with George through mutual friends on a few occasions and we started sharing stories. Shortly before his passing George had been staying in their home and Ravi told me that the room he stayed in still smelled of the oil that he wore. When Ravi took a break I was led upstairs by Sukanya where we stood for a moment in front of a closed door. She ceremoniously opened the door, we each took one step inside the room that was kept just as George had left it and took a deep breath, after a moment we stepped out and she closed the door to preserve George’s scent. It was a very touching act.

When I met Anoushka she was quiet and dressed in white traditional Indian attire. She doted on her father and was very mindful of his comfort. When we were done shooting and started wrapping the gear she changed into a t-shirt and jeans and became the quintessential California girl, smart, down-to-earth and a great sense of humor. She released her most recent album just a few months ago entitled “Traces of You.”

I became an immediate fan of Anoushka and started to follow her career. She’s attractive and charismatic and her skills on the sitar have made her the heir apparent to her father’s legacy (she began accompanying him on tour at the age of 14). While waiting for her father to join us for a portrait of the two of them, she and I were talking and I found myself holding her father’s sitar. We started discussing the instrument and she informed me of it’s priceless nature and that it was one of only six like it ever produced, sort of the “Stradivarius” of sitars. As I very carefully and slowly set it down as if it were rigged to explode, I asked if she knew the whereabouts of the other five, assuming they were in the hands of the world’s most celebrated sitar players. As it turned out they were…Ravi owned them all.

On December 11, 2012 Ravi Shankar died aged 92 after undergoing heart surgery.