Humans have always lived in two worlds, one of thought and one material. Philosophers, artists and ascetics are known to cling to the former; corporations and businessmen, the latter. The trick is to exist sufficiently in both, balancing the fine line between flesh and spirit. From this initial human contradiction lies an endless world of paradox.
It was this balancing act director Mark Kidel attempted in his documentary Between Two Worlds, an in-depth look at the illustrious career of India’s ambassador of sitar, Ravi Shankar. A longtime filmmaker with vast experience in global sounds (as well as co-founding WOMAD with Peter Gabriel), Kidel captures a minute-yet-essential glimpse of Shankar’s 70-plus-year escapade through Indian music and spirituality.
Inspired after reviewing the autobiographical Raga Mala (Welcome Rain, 1999), Kidel sought out old footage of Shankar’s early days in Paris alongside his famous dancing brother Uday. The documentary touches upon his childhood, surrounded by important artists of the Indian and European Diasporas, which he left in his late teens to intensively study the sitar.
“What’s really important about Indian classical music is its connection to spirituality and the idea that music works on the body and soul,” says Kidel. “It’s an ancient technique that goes back to Vedic times; it’s a science of transformation of sound. It’s not the only music tradition that does this, but the fact is that music and spiritual practice are one, and that you’re playing for the gods or the gods are expressing themselves through you.”
Spending seven years under his guru, Baba Allauddin Khan, Shankar forced himself to discipline. He was living a life of early stardom, offering away his childhood to tour with his elder brothers. As spiritual as his music is, as god-like as his success has become, Between Two Worlds portrays Shankar as both genius and human, a beautiful man playing cosmic sounds on stage while being kept at bay by his wife for his habit of “watching girls.” Behind the expert craftsman lives a curious child.
Beautifully shot footage in Benares–a holy city infamous for housing the bhodi tree under which Buddha found enlightenment–forms a montage around Shankar, whisked away from urban streets talking on a cell phone. Within lies the musician’s dichotomy: an artist performing sacred music who has used technology, knowingly or not, to transport ancient sounds to global ears.
This is where the meat of Kidel’s focus lies, exploring his rise to international stardom. When Shankar arrived in America he was drawn