QUESTION: When and how did the sitar boom of the midsixties come about?
RAVI SHANKAR: What I term the great sitar explosion began in early 1966. At least, that is when I became aware of it, when I went to England. All the big publicity came about when the Rolling Stones and the Beatles used it in some of their records.
QUESTION: How did you come to meet the Beatles?
SHANKAR: I must tell you I never actually heard any records by those groups, but I suppose I vaguely knew they were immensely popular young musicians from the west. Then, in June 1966, I met Paul McCartney and George Harrison at a friend's home in London. I found them to be very charming and polite young men, not at all what I expected.
QUESTION: And what about George Harrison?
SHANKAR: He told me how very impressed he was with the instrument and my playing. I then asked him if he would show me what he'd learned on the sitar and he very humbly told me it was "not very much." I was struck both by his sincerity and his deep humility. Tapping into his knowledge of the guitar, he had experimented a bit of his own but expressed the desire to properly learn to play.
QUESTION: But surely learning to play the sitar "properly" is a lifelong process. It seems doubtful that a young pop star could ever muster devotion necessary for such a high ideal.
SHANKAR: Of course I explained all this to him, making sure he understood that before even a single note is played one must spend years learning all the basics. He said he understood and so I invited him and his sweet wife Pattie to India to spend some time with us. Before he left, however, I joined him at his home in Esher where I gave him his very first lesson. Actually, I invited Mr. Harrison once more before returning home and played privately for the other Beatles.
QUESTION: And how did the two of you finally get together in India?
SHANKAR: After I returned to India, George wrote and said he would be able to come and spend six weeks with me. I wrote back telling him to grow a mustache and cut his hair a bit so he would not be recognized. When we went to pick up George and Pattie in September, we found that trick had worked and no one recognized either him or Pattie although there had been a lot of publicity about their visit in the press. They registered for a suite at the Taj Mahal Hotel under a false name, but as it turned out, a bellboy happened to spot them and within twenty-four hours, all of Bombay came to know that one of the Beatles was there.
QUESTION: One images it rather quickly became complete chaos.
SHANKAR: Huge crowds of teenagers gathered in front of the hotel, headlines appeared in the papers about George's arrival, and my telephone started to ring nonstop. One caller even pretended to be "Mrs. Shankar" and demanded to talk to George. She changed her mind when I took the telephone myself. I couldn't believe it when I saw this mad frenzy of young people, mostly girls from about twelve to seventeen. I would have believed it in London or Tokyo or New York - but in India!