For those of us whose teendom coincided with the Beatles—from the seeming innocence of “I Saw Her Standing There” in 1963 to the scream of “Helter Skelter” in 1968 as cities burned and each assassination snuffed another youthful candle of naive hope to the all-but-adult resignation of “Let It Be” as the decade closed—we barely noticed the sitar in “Norwegian Wood.” But with “Love to You” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Revolver and “Within You Without You” on Sgt. Pepper the sitar became the sound not of exotic escape in some Hollywood flick but of a kind of spiritual hope, a transcendental realm to counterweigh the reality of reality with its array of invitations to despair. If the Maharishi would later come to seem silly and Transcendental Meditation more a pop commodity than a revelation, still in 1967 as we first became aware of the incredible richness of Ravi Shankar’s music (however well or ill we understood it), we listened with reverence hoping to be transported to something, to somewhere. And if we were apt to filter Shankar through our faith in Beatle George, still we understood that Shankar was a master who spoke a language that we heard as if it were timeless. And at least, for a time, we listened.
Ken Hunt’s All Music Guide entry offers a brief overview of Ravi Shankar’s career.
Ravi Shankar’s recordings from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s on the World Pacific label are still relatively easy to find as CD reissues on EMI/Angel. The initial era of his discovery by young rock fans is documented on two 1967 recordings, In San Francisco and Live at the Monterey Pop Festival, 1967 (most recently available on CD on BGO).
This YouTube clip, titled “Sitar & Tabla Legends: Ravi Shankar & All Rakha: Live: London : 1978,” suggests what I remember seeing and hearing in naive and wide-eyed wonder (though I remember the concert hall as darkened with the three musicians in a pool of light on the stage).