In 1973, sitarist Harihar Rao was on a campus tour with his mentor and good friend, sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, when they came upon the Herrick Chapel of Occidental College in southern California. Its tall windows, through which sunlight made intricate floor patterns, appeared ideal for a concert. This inspired Rao and Ravi Shankar to start The Music Circle, an organisation that would work towards introducing Indian classical music performers to the West. In its 45th year, it still draws appreciative audiences.

The Music Circle was a part of the key role Rao played in introducing and popularising Indian music in the West. While Rao’s talent as a sitarist was exceptional, it was as a teacher and educator that his influence was most pronounced. The American composer Michael Robinson, who was one of Rao’s students, described him as an “elegant, aristocratic gentleman with a fine sense of humour”.

Rao held positions at various universities, including the University of California at Los Angeles, California State University (Los Angeles and Long Beach), California Institute of the Arts (Valencia) and the California Institute of Technology (Pasadena). As a musician, his range was diverse. He played the sitar besides several other traditional Indian percussion instruments. Along with jazz musician Don Ellis, Rao co-founded the Hindustani Jazz Sextet, a band that pioneered the fusion of Hindustani classical beats and instruments to jazz. He was also widely regarded as one of most acclaimed exponents of the raga rock genre. Several of Rao’s students went on to become acclaimed musicians in their own right.

Pandit Ravi Shankar (left) with Harihar Rao. Image courtesy: Paula Rao/The Music Circle.

Musical beginnings

Rao was born in 1927 in Mangalore, Karnataka, into a family known for its musical talent. His older brother, Taranath Rao, was a sought-after percussionist and Rao followed in his footsteps.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Rao said he met Ravi Shankar in late 1940s when the latter worked with the All India Radio. Starting off as his protégé, Rao would go on to tutor the sitar maestro’s students, and in time become his collaborator and confidant. Their association lasted over 60 years till Ravi Shankar’s death in December 2012. Rao died a month later.

As part of an Indian government-sponsored exchange programme, Rao toured Afghanistan in 1956 and Japan in 1958, performing with other Indian classical musicians. Around the same time, he was also teaching in a leading music and dance school in Delhi, where he was exposed to western music and jazz. In 1961, Rao was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach music and study jazz in the US. Rao had two options – Rochester in New York and the University of California at Los Angeles.He opted for the latter, because, as he later said, he preferred warm weather to cold.

An image from the George Harrison-Ravi Shankar concert in 1974. Harihar Rao, playing the percussion, is on the far right. Photo credit: tony morelli/via Flickr [CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic].

The ethnomusicology department at UCLA had been established around 1960, by the innovative music scholar, Mantle Hood, who had trained in Indonesia’s gamelan form of musical performance. As part of the UCLA’s Indian studies programme, Rao would, following Hood’s method, instruct students on Indian music theory and teach them to play the sitar and tabla.

Rao taught at UCLA for five years. During that time, he met and married Paula Turner, a teacher in the Pasadena school district system. Turner often played the tanpura during Rao’s sitar recitals. He would preface every performance by explaining to the audience the sitar’s intricacies and the metres and rhythms of ragas – a habit that made him the ideal writer to explain Indian classical music to students and general readers. In 1967, Rao wrote Introduction to Sitar for the music publisher Peer Southern, complete with diagrams and exercises. Within months, it had gone into its fourth print.

Rao’s students included the likes of Brian Jones, Ellis, Ry Cooder, Paul Beaver (who experimented with the Moog synthesiser), Ted Lucas, Robinson and several others, including a few bandmates from the Sextet. Collin Walcott, who died young, learned the sitar under both Ravi Shankar and Rao. He was an exceptional sitar player himself, his talent evident in the albums he recorded with his band Oregon.

'Fire Night' from the album 'Improvisations'.

The first of Rao’s many collaborations with Ravi Shankar had him playing the dholak for the album Improvisations, produced under the World Pacific label (1962). The album began with the theme composed by Ravi Shankar for Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, with Bud Shank’s extended solos on the flute. Dennis Budimir and Hans Ellis played the guitar for a few other pieces – they would collaborate with Rao on his later experimental albums.

Rao was part of the Ravi Shankar and Harrison’s Dark Horse tour of the US in 1974. He played a range of percussion instruments for Ravi Shankar’s radically experimental album Tana Mana in 1983. And in 1987, he was part of the album India in Kremlin, his mentor’s compositions to mark the end of the Festival in India cultural meet in Moscow.

Hindustani Jazz Sextet

The UCLA marked the beginning of Rao’s friendship with musician-composer Ellis. Ellis, who was already familiar with eastern folk metres, was fascinated by the unusual time signatures and rhythm patterns of Indian classical music (quite different from the conventional swing 4/4 jazz rhythm). As members of the Hindustani Jazz Sextet, Ellis, Rao and their fellow musicians experimented radically with unusual beats and rhythms that made for interesting effects and, as evident in the recordings, have not dated with time.

Rao played the sitar, tabla and dholak as part of the sextet. Some fellow musicians who went on to become his students included Emil Richards, who was fascinated by different percussion instruments, while Tom Scott and Bill Plummer were Rao’s students for the sitar.

'Bombay Bossa Nova' by the Hindustani Jazz Sextet.

Rock improvisations

In 1966, raga rock became a musical genre of sorts, and Rao came in for special praise from critics, who appreciated his sitar-playing in the album eponymously named after the genre. Depending on the critic’s perspective, raga rock encompassed anything that was non-European in inspiration and playing, or had the clear use of eastern (Hindustani) instruments, motifs and rhythms.

From 1963 onwards, solo artists and rock bands like Davey Graham, the Yardbirds (with Jeff Beck on guitar) with Heart Full of Soul and the Kinks’ See my Friends, used the guitar in an unorthodox, improvised way that revealed clear Hindustani classical influence. Two years later Harrison was playing the sitar for Norwegian Wood. Brian Jones’ Paint it Black came about in March 1966, thanks to some quick lessons from Rao, who happened to be in London. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds made the 12-string guitar sound almost sitar-like on Eight Miles High. His bandmate, David Crosby, called raga rock the abstraction of a musical idea and cited the influence of Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane.

In mid-1966, when Rao played the sitar, accompanied by the Folkswingers, which included several award-winning studio musicians such as Larry Knechtel, Hans Blaine, Herb Ellis, Tom Tedesco, in Raga Rock, there was no longer anything diffused about the blended term. Raga rock appeared to stand on its own as a unique genre. One critic wrote that the album “swings” and that “Rao’s improvisation followed a sparkling course that lifted the music above the mundane”. The sitar no longer provided background, but stood out in the solos and the varied accompanying moments.

'Norwegian Wood' from the album 'Raga Rock'.

The following year, Rao, on sitar and a percussion stringed instrument called gopi (it goes by other names too), accompanied guitarist Chet Atkins on his album, It’s a Guitar World, playing two well-received pieces on it – January in Bombay and Ranjana (composed by Rao).

'Ranjana' from 'It's a Guitar World'.

The Music Circle

Since its somewhat fortuitous beginnings in 1973, The Music Circle has organised nearly 300 musical events. Established and emerging musicians, including L Subramanian, L Shankar, Lakshmi Shankar, Vishwamohan Bhatt, Satish Vyas, Vinod Venkatraman and others, have performed as part of the group. Among its most ambitious productions has been a lavish music and dance recital of the Ramayana that included performers from India, Cambodia and Indonesia.

Rao’s devotion to The Music Circle and his collaborative endeavours left him with little time for his own compositions. A few of these, in all likelihood, exist as part of the archives of Southern Library of Recorded Music in Britain. The musician Tom Furse of the Horrors, in a 2015 album, produced a rediscovered gem by Harihar Rao called Temple Courtyard.

Rao was a unique institution builder in his own right, and his musical contributions would rank him alongside Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Nazir Jairazbhoy. While his own musical output may seem scattered, his genius lay in helping other musicians find their feet and hone their talent. Rao’s amazing versatility and his willingness to explore – not merely for the sake of experimentation but to create meaningful fusion from the music of East and West – made him a radical, thoughtful innovator, a musician ahead of his times.

Harihar Rao. Image courtesy: Paula Rao/The Music Circle.