Ravi Shankar and Me

“Ravi who?”

My face twisted into a quizzical look as I posed the question to my friend, Jane who was jumping up and down. Her shiny black hair danced in the sun with each bounce.

“Ravi SHANKAR!” She screamed.

In the 1960s, Jane was the first in my group of teenage friends to discover Pandit, as Shankar became known. At that time, I was not quite sure what to make of him or his long-necked, funny-looking guitar. We Jersey girls all loved Motown, Elvis and The Beatles. Only Jane with her Mensa IQ knew about this fancy Eastern stuff.

Jane’s father was a prominent orthopedic surgeon and not exactly thrilled that his only daughter was hanging out with us wild girls who the politicians bused from a place 10 miles away to the high school that was in their exclusive, bucolic town. Jane’s father especially didn’t like us after I convinced her and a few others to cut class and go on American Bandstand, which had not yet left Philadelphia. Who knew her grandmother would be watching the show as we danced the Mashed Potato across her black-and-white television screen?

A few years later, around the time I started burning incense, wearing Patchouli oil and thinking about what it would be like to live in a peaceful world without wars and hatred, I began to take Pandit's music seriously. It became the Eastern thread that wove its way into the tapestry of my tie-dyed universe.

I’m not sure exactly what lured me to listen again to Shankar’s music. Maybe it was watching the small, wiry man on the television. Or, maybe it was just the idea that the music was something my parents wouldn’t understand that placed it high on my list of priorities.

I can still recall watching Pandit teach George Harrison how to play the sitar. I had never seen such a patient teacher in my life. In my ethnic community, I was more used to temper tantrums and things becoming airborne when one’s patience ran out. But, there he sat, calmly going over the lesson until he was sure Harrison understood.

It was these thoughts that drifted through my mind as I attended Ravi Shankar’s memorial service in Encinitas, California on a warm, sunny Thursday in December. I thought back to Jane’s excitement after she bought one of his thirty-three-and-a-third-RPM vinyl records and my attempt to redeem myself with her parents so that I could listen to the album.

Shankar’s music played throughout the service, and with each tune another memory from my youth marched across my mind: hanging out in the Haight Ashbury after leaving the East Coast for San Francisco; my crazy life in Berkeley; living in a commune; and finally, discovering the self that I never thought I would find. It all passed in front of me as I stared at the picture of the elegant, elderly man whose music once accompanied me as I zoned out of one world and into another.

At the Self-Realization Fellowship where the memorial was held, one person after another paid tribute to this talented man of peace whose humility and sense of humor touched so many. Just when I thought I could not cry another tear, his son-in-law, film director, Joe Write brought some levity to the crowd by recalling his first meeting with his future father-in-law.

“He asked me if I washed every day,” Write said drawing laughter from the crowd. Then he went on to talk about Shankar’s further questioning on whether Write washed “only his face and hands, or everything.” Write called this first meeting, “Page One: Personal Hygiene.”

Write went on to describe a time when Shankar faced a risky medical procedure. He described the scene where he saw Shankar’s fingers moving as if he held an invisible sitar while the doctors wheeled him away.

“I never at any moment saw his fingers not playing, not beating a rhythm,” Write said.

The tears came again.

The moving tribute left me with a renewed appreciation for the real treasures in life. When we must bid farewell to an important piece of our autobiographical puzzle, we come to realize that the once familiar picture will be missing something that can only be filled with memories.

Ravi Shankar will live forever through his music, and for me, he will always be the brightest color on the canvas that is my life.

I am sure Jane would agree.

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