Ravi Shankar was still a relatively young man when director Howard Worth traveled with him for Raga: A Film Journey into the Heart of India, but he was already a master musician acclaimed in his homeland and recognized around the world. The 1971 film, out now on DVD, is a great example of documentary filmmaking in the age before everyone with a digital camera could point at a topic and claim to be a documentary filmmaker. Rendered in splendid full color and edited in rhythm with its subject, Raga unfolds at a leisurely pace as Shankar goes from stage to stage and narrates a journey—on foot and by rail—through India.
Shots of Western counterculture audiences at Shankar concerts are fascinating to behold. Many of the people stare slack-jawed, as if convinced that raga is cool if only because the Beatles say so. Others seem transfixed and transported, even though some study is required to fathom the depths of the Indian classical tradition. Shankar is unfailingly gracious, yet in scenes of him teaching sitar to George Harrison, his voiceover admits: “It is strange to see pop musicians with sitars.” He seems more at home with classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, whom he regards as a colleague.
In an emotional scene, Shankar visits his beloved baba, the man who taught him to master the sitar, by then nearly 100 years old. “In this life you must do one thing and one thing persistently,” baba insisted. It’s a lesson to be relearned in our multi-tasking society.
Much of Raga’s narration is a lament about the toxic effect of modernity as Shankar rues its corrosive effect not only on India’s traditional music and dance but also of the historical values with which me made sense of the world. The rootless, shallow indifference Shankar worried about in 1971 have only worsened since; nowadays superficial knowledge of everything, including raga, is available at the touch of a few keys, yet understanding seems more elusive than ever.