HOW WE MET: YEHUDI MENUHIN AND RAVI SHANKAR
Sir Yehudi Menuhin, 79, is one of the world's greatest violinists. A Goodwill Ambassador for Unesco, he lives between London, Gstaad and Mykonos with his wife, Diana. They have three sons and one daughter. The Indian musician Ravi Shankar, 75, was born in Benares. The most famous exponent of sitar-playing in the West, he lives between New Delhi and California with his family
Sunday 01 October 1995
We met Ravi when he was invited to play for us at the house of a friend. He told me he had heard that I was interested in yoga. As a form of exercise, it appealed to me because musicians who are always on the run need to unwind. Unlike swimming, yoga doesn't have to be done in a special place. It was something I could do anywhere and, most importantly, in a hotel room, safely near to my violin. Unlike tennis, I didn't need to make arrangements with any other person in order to do it. It was perfect.
Because of my experience of getting to know the Romanian composer and violinist Georges Enesco, whom I had met recently, I was psychologically prepared for a meeting of minds with a man such as Ravi Shankar, who is an immensely dedicated man of the greatest integrity. As a teacher, I know of no better. His total commitment to his art goes far beyond pure music making. For Ravi, all human activity eating, dancing, doing exercise is imbued with a symbolic value beyond approach, and therefore it is all, in its own way, like some divine offering. I have learnt from him something which I always instinctively felt that music is beyond human essence. When we are working together, we always burn incense, as an offering.
For a while we managed to go back to India every year, and one of the high points of our trip would always be the chance to be with Ravi. He is especially close to Diana and has a true Indian understanding of women which goes far deeper than any Western attitude. To Ravi, there is something sacred in the feminine presence. It is a joy now to see him, with his wife, Sukanya, and his daughter, Anoushka, living in a quiet, serene environment in Encinitas, California.
Anoushka is a hugely talented musician and it is with enormous pride that Ravi introduces her when she takes part in his concerts. Unlike some people who may think that it is a terrible responsibility to live up to a father who has such a phenomenal reputation, to me it is the greatest privilege that she has had Ravi's guidance.
I remember once, in India, just before we were due to have dinner with Pandit Nehru, showing Ravi what I knew (which in those days was not a great deal), and standing quite awkwardly after getting into one of the positions. Ravi then said he would show me a head-stand. Quite effortlessly, he stood on his head most elegantly just as someone came in to announce: "Mr Prime Minister, dinner is served." Over the years, Ravi has explained and taught me a great deal about the deep breathing techniques and concentration which are so important if you are to do yoga properly.
I was hesitant the first time that Ravi said: "You must play music with me," but I finally took the plunge and we locked ourselves away while he gave me lessons in the basic formation of the music patterns. I was extremely nervous at the thought of performing with him. The only time I have ever been as nervous was one Christmas when a BBC producer called to tell me that I would be playing jazz violin with Stephane Grappelli. "You love him," he said. "I do," I answered, "but I just don't know how to play jazz." Then I thought, well, maybe there is just one thing I could play the tango tune, "Jealousy". And that's what I chose. It was the start of one of the two great adventures in my life the other was with Ravi. I remember New York in 1965, when Ravi and I were locked in a room together working day and night for four days, preparing for a concert. I have been at concerts with Ravi when he has been on stage until three o'clock in the morning.
To be a great sitar player like Ravi requires enormous intellectual gifts as well as musical ones. It is perfectly possible for someone who I might describe as having no brain at all to sing so beautifully that whoever listens is utterly enthralled, but it is quite impossible for an idiot to play beautiful Indian music. An untalented sitar player has absolutely nothing to convey to an audience and so the sound he makes is totally boring.
In the 43 years of our friendship, Ravi and I have never had an argument. Certainly, there have been many exchanges of ideas, but there is simply no room in either of our lives for an argument. It saddens me greatly that since his recent bypass surgery, each time I see him he seems to look a little more fragile. But I'd never say to him, "My friend, you are working too hard." That would be impossible for Ravi, work is his life.
RAVI SHANKAR: In January 1952, Yehudi Menuhin and his wife Diana came to India. Together with other well-known Indian musicians, I was invited to Delhi to the house of the director-general of India Radio, to play for Menuhin. Of course, I knew about him and was familiar with his music. In fact, we had already met in Paris when he was 17 and I was 13. At the time I was living in Paris with my brother, Uday, who was 20 years older than me. His company of Hindu musicians and dancers was based in Paris and we used to go back to India every second year. One day, Yehudi and his sister Hephzibah came to visit our house. Hephzibah accompanied her brother at the piano and even though I was still very young, I was overwhelmed by the sound he made. Yehudi couldn't possibly remember me from all those years ago, but I've never forgotten his playing. In those days, in the Thirties, he came quite often to my brother's home. It was a period in his life when Yehudi was very influenced by the composer Georges Enesco, who had become a kind of guru for him.
It was during that visit to India in 1952, when I was asked to play for him, that we were formally introduced. He was extremely interested in Indian music and from the moment we met, we clicked, both as musicians and as human beings. It was the beginning of not only a very great friendship but a learning and sharing of each other's work. After that first visit, Yehudi became more and more interested in Indian culture. He came back with Diana on many more visits to India in order to learn, absorb and understand our music. I know that he calls me his guru, but, to be honest, I find that quite embarrassing.
I remember once, in London in the early Fifties, that Yehudi was particularly excited about a composition by Wilhelm Furtwangler, who had written a piece based on an Indian melody in what we call a raga pattern a scientific, precise, subtle and aesthetic melodic form with its own peculiar ascending and descending movement. Yehudi talked to me about the piece, which he was anxious for me to play. I looked at it, and from a Western point of view the composition was very good; but as an Indian sitar player, I felt it was not proper for me to play because it was also, from an Indian point of view, quite childish. It was also written in Western notation which was difficult for me to read, so I asked one of my English students to translate it for me. Eventually, I decided that I would rewrite the piece but that I wouldn't change the raga. There is a saying in Sanskrit, "Ranjayati iti Ragah" which means: "That which colours the mind is raga." Through the rich melodies of our music, every human emotion, every subtle feeling in man and nature can be musically expressed and experienced. This is what Yehudi and I have shared over many years with our concerts and recordings together.
For him, just as it is for me, there is always the excitement of wanting to discover more about the past. "Where did this music come from?" is a question which interests both of us. This year we have experienced a most fascinating journey learning about the origins of gypsy music together.
Although our cultures and our music are so different, I have never found it a strain to be with him. Not even at the beginning. From that very first meeting, I realised that Yehudi was quite different from almost any other Western musician I knew. This is not a criticism, but many Western musicians are very uptight because Western music is very precise. It's not something you play, as it were, bet-ween the lines. Of course, confidence is extremely important for a performer but with a lot of musicians it is their ego, not just their confidence which stands out. Yehudi's humility is quite extraordinary. It's one of the things which has always impressed me about him.
For the first few minutes whenever we are together usually after a much too lengthy absence there are tears in my eyes and also in his. The whole world knows Yehudi as a very special human being, but to me he is just my dearest friend. Recently, though, he has been looking old and quite frail, but he is still driven like the devil. Actually, as far as work is concerned, my nature is the same as his, but I've had a couple of heart attacks and have had to slow down. If my wife didn't look after me the way she does, I would probably have dropped dead in the middle of a performance. I look at Yehudi's schedule and it's scary. He'll go to a meeting in Brussels during the day and perform in Paris that same evening. The following day he's off to Vienna, or the Gstaad Festival, or even South America. To me, it's ex-tremely frightening and I don't know how he does it. Diana, his wife is a wonderful person but even she can't change him, and that worries me. !
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