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Indrajit Hazra is a writer and journalist. His latest book is 'Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata' (Aleph)

The Sexified Sitar: Hits & misses that came After Ravi

f there's one person who was responsible for me developing an interest in western pop and rock music, it's the chap who lived opposite our house in Calcutta. Interestingly, he was also solely responsible for me being unable to digest the sound of the sitar.

Every Sunday morning, the sound of super-cheesy jingle-jangle sitar accompanied by a hyperactive rhythm section blasted out of his mezzanine floor room. It was as cringe-worthy as it was seductive. The music, I would tell myself years later while still remembering it like a bad hostel experience, was the perfect soundtrack for a scene in which Bappi Lahiri is frantically dancing in an apsara costume.

"I have had a dream to try to combine Western and Indian music into a new form, a music which has no particular name but is melodious and touching, and which combines the most modern electronic devices with the old traditional instrument, the sitar." This manifesto, I would later learn, was scrawled on the cover of the record that my young neighbour would play full volume every Sunday. It's not right to speak ill of the dead, but the music was from Ananda Shankar's eponymous 1970 album and it was certainly 'touching' — but in a way that would put an old man in a children's park away in jail for life.

Ananda Shankar, as some of you may recall, was Ravi Shankar's sitar-twanging, Sanjay Gandhi-looking nephew whose renditions of the Rolling Stones' Jumpin' Jack Flash and the Doors' Light My Fire could have led to Keith Richards' death and probably did lead Jim Morrison's to his. With the death of his more famous and far more talented uncle on Wednesday, I tried to think of my favourite Ravi Shankar tunes and moments, but Ananda's jhankars came tumbling out until I had them repressed.

Shankar Sr's compositions for Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), Aporajito (The Unvanquished) and Apur Shangshar (The World of Apu) are magical even to my untrained ears. The scene in Pather Panchali in which Sarbajaya gets a letter from her husband in Calcutta saying that his fortunes have turned and things will get better is followed by a sequence with glorious music depicting the coming of monsoons. Shankar's music simultaneously captures and expands on the joy that Sarbajaya had felt a scene earlier. In what is, to my mind, one of the finest music videos – considering that Ray thought up the scene only after the music had already been composed by Shankar – we are sonically taken into a zone of unbridled happiness marked by a world suddenly brimming with life.

The other piece that's soldered into my head is the haunting Doordarshan signature tune he composed for shehnai with Ustad Ali Ahmed Hussain in 1974. For me, along with his music for Ray's Apu trilogy, Shankar's ability to turn the classical form into a giant collective aural memory through the Doordarshan tune marks much of his genius.

The problem, though, is what the cat dragged in. By the late-60s in the West, he was no longer the master musician breaking into new territories with jazz artists such as flautist Paul Horn or guitarist Gabor Szabo or with classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin. He had become the 'groovy' poster boy for 'sitar' pop, a role model for bands who wanted to twang away in their 'kaftan kool'.

I've had the displeasure of actually knowing Indians who not only liked that kind of deeply embarrassing sitar pap, but actually possessed vinyls of bad pop music passed through a sitar machine.

ather strangely, one casualty of all that Ananda Shankar-type drivel was a British sitarist named Clem Alford and his band Sagram – the real name was 'Sargam' (as in the seven notes in the musical scale in Hindi) but it was unfortunately misspelt on the album cover.

Going by the Sagram album Pop Explosion Sitar Style, Alford was quite good. But despite having a rather arresting cover depicting what's supposed to be an Indian alpha-male in a red bathrobe in front of a hookah surrounded by three naked chicks (one mandatory 'Indian'), this 1972 album bombed. 'The Universal Form' from the album, for instance, is a lovely sitar track but totally lacks the mandatory 'Austin Powers-ishness' that turned on the hippie set.

So once this strangely packaged but rather nice album vanished without a trace, Alford formed the Magic Carpet, which did follow the moronic 'Have-sitar-will-play' philosophy. Do You Hear the Words from Magic Carpet's eponymous 1972 album, despite decent sitar-playing again, is straight from Club Fusion-Freak.

So Ravi Shankar, great musician that he was, leaves behind a smear of 'funky sitar music' and 'Indian groove', a trail taken by jokers and very bad musicians who are likely to mention poor Ravi as their inspiration. And if you want a taste of multi-stringed 'India-inspired' horror, do check out Akasa's 1989 hit, One Night of My Life, with Alford on sitar and (former Channel V VJ) Sophia Haque on, er, vocals. But why go so far. There's always soul-destroying Ananda Shankar, who never seemed to ask himself why no one ever tried to play Gangnam Style on the cello.

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