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Vasant Rai: Guru of Raga-Rock

Our neighborhoods have long been meccas for immigrant cultures from near and far, facilitating a multicultural mix that have made them among the most unique communities in America. In that vein, today we’d like to spotlight the life and legacy of Vasant Rai, one of the world’s most decorated and honored masters of Indian classical music and culture. Rai is well-known for popularizing sarod and sitar within western music venues, as well as for founding the Alam School of Music, which operated in Greenwich Village between 1969 and 1985.

Vasant Rai (left) performing and being interviewed on the Asia Society’s “Window on Asia” radio program in 1972. Photograph sourced from the Asia Society.

Born in India’s North Gujarat region in 1942, Rai trained with maestro Ustad Allauddin Khan, becoming proficient on the sitar, sarod, violin, and flute. After finishing his training in 1969, he moved to New York to practice and perform an east-west hybrid of Indian music, one that combined traditional elements with more American and European rock and punk rock sounds. During the 1960s and ‘70s, Indian instruments were becoming very popular tools for western musicians to appropriate an “alternative” or “counterculture” sound. Artists like Vasant Rai and Ravi Shankar frequently collaborated with western musical artists, such as the Beatles and the Doors, to develop the “Raga-rock” genre that mixed western melodies with Indian instruments like the sitar and sarod. In his opinion, Rai never thought of Raga as cultural misappropriation, but as a tool to further introduce western audiences to the delights of Indian music. In a 1980 interview, he explained his intentions for collaborating with westerners: 

“I would like to offer the best of Indian classical music to as many people as possible. But only about 10 percent of the population would go to listen to Indian music, or any [Asian] classical music. That doesn’t mean that they don’t like it. It’s just new for them. I have tried to create something with Western musicians. I have mixed Indian and Western music so audiences hear something Indian when they are listening.”– Vasant Rai interviewed by Ira Landgarten for Fret Magazine

Compositionally, Raga-rock usually integrated western melodies with Indian instruments like the sitar and sarod. These are guitar-like instruments that hail from the Indo-Afghan regions of the Indian subcontinent, and both carry distinctly recognizable sounds. The sitar is more well known for its overtone-rich texture that produces resonant and reverberant chords, while the sarod produces deeper, weightier notes more akin to a bass guitar.

Vasant Rai ‘s “Live at Washington Square Church 1981” album cover.

As the Raga-Rock style became more popular, so did Vasant Rai’s talents. In 1972, Rai became a visiting professor at Columbia University’s College of Music, and a frequent performer at Carnegie Hall. During the ‘70s, Rai moved from the Chelsea Hotel, where he had previously been staying, to an apartment in Greenwich Village. Here, he formed a friendship with jazz flutist Herbie Mann, who introduced him to clubs like the Bottom Line and Village Gate (formerly located at 15 West 4th Street and 160 Bleecker Street, respectively). He also hosted concerts and classes at the Alam School of Indian Classical Music, which was located in the Alternative Center for International Arts at 28 East 4th Street — a still-extant building in what we would now call NoHo. Through his school, Rai taught many western musicians, such as George Harrison, John Coltrane, and Colin Walcott to play the sarod. In 1975, Rai signed a record deal with Vanguard Records, and in 1976 he accompanied Indian artists Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha at Shankar’s frequent and famous dusk-till-dawn raga concerts at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights. His 1981 live album was recorded and performed at Washington Square Methodist Church at 135 West 4th Street.

28 East 4th Street, the former home of the International Center for Alternative Arts and the Alam School of Music
Former Washington Square United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of nycago.com/

In 1985 at the young age of 43, Vasant Rai mysteriously died in his apartment after a concert at Carnegie Hall. Despite his short life, Rai’s musical legacy lives on within the countless artists he taught. If you’d like to learn more about the historic musicians and venues that made our neighborhoods notable, then I’d encourage you to check out our maps of Musician’s Homes and Musical Venues within the Greenwich Village Historic District or our guided tour of music venues in the East Village from our East Village Building Blocks website.

Further Reading and Sources:

One response to “Vasant Rai: Guru of Raga-Rock

  1. In india he is known as Sarod Samrat Pandit Vasant Rai. The meaning of Samrat is the Emperor of the Sarod. His recording with Allah Rakha, Zakir Hussian, Mahapurush Mishra and Shamta Prasad are legendary

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