When I grew up on the western edge of Lugano, life in the old country was not very mobile and people tended to spend their life at audible distance from the church bells they heard at birth. The most exotic person you could come across was that wiry old man in a tattered white suit hiking in the woods of Collina d'Oro that was Hermann Hesse, often carrying a drafting book and a box of water colors, totally absorbed in his thoughts.
With this, when Ravi Shankar came to town for a concert sponsored by Migros, it was like a little prince coming from an other planet. Indeed, he and his daughter were wearing traditional Indian clothing, something that had never been seen before on the streets of Lugano. I had the chance to spend a full day and an evening chatting with him, while conducting an interview for the youth radio and helping setting up the recording equipment for the concert.
I was amazed by the difference in personality between him and his daughter. The latter was distant and exotic, but Ravi Shankar was immediate and approachable. It was easy to talk casually with him. I had never seen a sitar before and started to talk with him about the complexity of the instrument. Since he was classically educated, I asked him how long it had taken him to become a master, compared to the piano or the violin. He countered he was not a master at all. When I noted his total command of the sitar and how he appeared to be one with it—even citing Jimi Hendrix and his electric guitar—he rebutted that he was just an apprentice. He continued that the sitar is an instrument that takes a whole life to learn to play, and it is only after reincarnation that one can play it as a master. He pointed out, that when performing on a complex instrument, total mental concentration was necessary and mastery of the sitar takes two lifetimes.
During the concert, I was at the left side of the first row and soon noticed that he was not only in constant musical contact with the other players, but he was also conversing with me through his eyes. Indeed, his protocol was to fixate a member in the audience he thought had an interesting posture, then fixate me, return to the first person to guide my gaze, and when I followed his gaze and looked at that person, he acknowledged with the hint of a smile. While Herman Hesse was totally absorbed in his thoughts, Ravi Shakar was involved concomitantly in three conversations—with the sitar, the orchestra, and the audience—meaning he had full awareness of his surrounding while he was also fully absorbed in the music.
Yesterday Ravi Shankar reached the end of his apprenticeship and today—12/12/12—he is a master sitar player.