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The Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet

Guitarist John McLaughlin slams Ukraine invasion

‘This is one man’s war and he is using Russian resources to fulfil his mad dreams of grandeur’

Debraj Mitra | Published 25.01.23, 07:03 AM
(From left) Arunabha Deb, V Selvaganesh, John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussian, Ganesh Rajagopalan and Shankar Mahadevan at a session at Kolkata Literary Meet on Tuesday.

(From left) Arunabha Deb, V Selvaganesh, John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussian, Ganesh Rajagopalan and Shankar Mahadevan at a session at Kolkata Literary Meet on Tuesday.

Picture by Sanat Kr Sinha

The Ukraine invasion is the result of one man’s delusion of grandeur, guitarist John McLaughlin told a musician from Russia on Wednesday. 

The remark came in response to a young man’s question from the audience at the Victoria Memorial. The questioner was from Russia and he learnt to play the tabla in Kolkata. He said he was inspired by Pandit Ravi Shankar and the likes of Ustad Zakir Hussain, who had a “huge impact” on many Russian musicians.

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“Do you remember your performance in Russia many years ago? What was your experience?” the man asked.

McLaughlin did not mince his words.

“I have had only wonderful experiences in Russia. It is breaking my heart to see what’s going on at the moment. Because this is not the Russian people’s war, the invasion of Ukraine. This is one man’s war and he is using Russian resources to fulfil his mad dreams of grandeur.”

McLaughlin and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, founding members of the Indo-jazz band, Shakti, were part of a session on Day Four of the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet, in association with the Victoria Memorial Hall and The Telegraph, on Tuesday. 

“We have been to western Russia, Siberia and other places.... Fantastic, cultured people, aware musically. So, my experience is the same whether I am in India, America, Germany, Russia, everywhere. We human beings are all the same with music. It is a language we all know, we all speak,” said McLaughlin, who has taught Jimmy Page, played with the likes of Miles Davis and Ginger Baker and is also the creator of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

John McLaughlin, 81, and Hussain, 71, are the only original members of Shakti who still remain. The two first met in Greenwich Village in New York in 1969 and jammed together for the first time at the home of Ali Akbar Khan, the sarod virtuoso. Shakti was formed two years later. 

The current line-up includes vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan and kanjira player V. Selvaganesh, all of whom were part of the panel.

The session was one of the most anticipated in the 11th edition of the literary meet. The question-and-answer segment produced some delectable nuggets on music and life.  A man in the audience said whenever he saw Hussain or McLaughlin play, he felt the instruments were an extension of the artistes.  “My father (legendary tabla player Ustad Allah Rakha Qureshi) told me, when I was learning from him, that every instrument has a spirit, a living, breathing spirit inside of it. Half the battle in terms of learning music is to be able to have that spirit accept you, befriend you and bring you in. If that happens, the connection with the instrument is almost like a re-attachment of an umbilical cord; you become one body, one thought, one soul, one expression,” Hussain said.  

When a woman asked why the band was named Shakti, McLaughlin said he was not an Indian and prodded Hussain to take the question.  “Actually, he (McLaughlin) is more Indian than any one of us,” Hussain said. “I sometimes want to introduce him as Pandit McLaughlin or Ustad John. He did not grow up sitting cross-legged and doing riyaz for hours. But here he is. He sits on stage for two-and-a-half hours. He plays like an Indian musician, and dresses like an Indian musician. He thinks like an Indian musician. He honoured our tradition by actually taking the time to learn the tradition, the sargams, the raga structures.”

On the name, McLaughlin said Shakti embodied the “creative energy of the universe”.

“Yes. both Yin and Yang. Male and female energies. They are coming together in a unified power. Shakti in some ways embodies that. You can feel that when you watch the band play,” said Hussain. 

Shakti is touring India as part of its 50th anniversary India tour. On Tuesday evening, the band performed at the CC&FC club.

Arunabha Deb, lawyer, music aficionado and moderator of the session at the Victoria, summed up the band’s“ethos” at the outset.

“For several generations of music lovers, Shakti of course embodies the highest form of music, unprecedented music. But it also, and equally, embodies love, generosity and open-mindedness. It is that legacy that we are celebrating today,” he said.

Last updated on 25.01.23, 04:29 PM
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