Dec. 12: Ravi Shankar, who died at the age of 92, is famous for introducing Indian classical music to the West but that popular recognition hides a less appreciated quality. He accomplished the task by remaining true to his heritage.
He died in a hospital near his home in southern California after undergoing heart-valve replacement surgery last week, his family said in a statement. The night before the surgery, he was nominated for a Grammy for his latest album, The Living Room Sessions, Part 1.
“Although it is a time for sorrow and sadness, it is also a time for all of us to give thanks and to be grateful that we were able to have him as a part of our lives,” his wife Sukanya and daughter Anoushka said. “His... legacy will live on forever... in his music.”
He is also survived by his daughter, Grammy-winning singer Norah Jones, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Born as Robindra Shankar Chowdhury on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi to Shyam Shankar and Hemangini Devi, Ravi Shankar encountered the West early in life when at the age of 10 he joined his older brother Uday Shankar’s touring dance troupe. He also discovered a facility with the sitar and the sarod.
In an interview he had recalled that the many western classical musicians who visited his brother’s house in Paris found Indian music to be beautiful when they heard it with the dancing. “‘On its own it is repetitious and monotonous.’ They talked as if Indian music were an ethnic phenomenon, just another museum piece. Even when they were being decent and kind, I was furious. And at the same time sorry for them. Indian music was so rich and varied and deep. These people hadn’t penetrated even the outer skin.”
If that was the spark for his later effort to popularise Indian music in the West, he realised his limitation as a self-taught musician. Allauddin Khan, who was to become his guru, joined the dance company for a year in 1936 and told Ravi Shankar that he had talent but was wasting it. “That I was going nowhere, doing nothing…. Everyone else was full of praise, but he killed my ego and made me humble.”
In 1937, Ravi Shankar gave up dancing, sold his western clothes and returned to India to become a musician at Allauddin’s feet at Maihar in Madhya Pradesh.
“I surrendered myself to the old way,” he said, “and let me tell you, it was difficult for me to go from places like New York and Chicago to a remote village full of mosquitoes, bedbugs, lizards and snakes, with frogs croaking all night.”
He spent seven years with Allauddin and married his daughter, Annapurna, a tie that snapped later. They had a son together, called Shubho, who is no more. He married Sukanya in 1989. He also had relationships with concert producer Sue Jones, whose daughter is Norah, and Kamala Shastri, a dancer.
Unlike other Indian classical musicians, Ravi Shankar became a dabbler early in his career. In 1949 he was appointed music director of All India Radio where he formed the National Orchestra, an ensemble of Indian and western classical instruments.
In the 1950s, he scored the music for Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy.
“I have always had an instinct for doing new things,” he said in 1985. “Call it good or bad, I love to experiment.”
That streak took him out of the country in 1954 when he toured the Soviet Union. But it was in 1956 that he had his first major concert tour, organised by the late Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he had a long and fruitful collaboration. It was a landmark year as he quit his AIR position to go on tours of Europe and the US.
Ravi Shankar was, however, not the first Indian musician to be presented in the US thus by Menuhin. A year earlier, he had introduced the sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, Allauddin’s son and Ravi Shankar’s fellow disciple, to the American audience.
Ali Akbar might have got to the US first but it was Ravi Shankar who was widely seen to have won the West for Indian music with his sitar.
One big reason for his success abroad was his communicative skill and ability to tailor recitals to his audiences. At that time, other Indian musicians could not explain what they were presenting, putting audiences off by playing one raga for two hours. Ravi Shankar gave western listeners Indian music in the right dose.
He was a communicator not just with his nimble fingers sliding along the sitar strings, but with words, too, perhaps because of his early exposure to the western mind. Other musicians did not have that privilege.
“I never compromised on style; I never compromised in giving them anything un-Indian in a bid to please them. All I did was to reduce the duration,” he had said.
Through his recitals, as well as recordings on the Columbia and World Pacific labels, Ravi Shankar built a western following. But interest in the sitar exploded in 1965, when the Beatle George Harrison encountered it on the set of Help!, the Beatles’ second film. Intrigued by the instrument’s complexity, he learned its rudiments and used it on a Beatles recording, Norwegian Wood, that year.
Harrison recorded several songs that appeared on Beatles albums with Indian musicians rather than his band mates. In 1967, the rock world was stringing along with the sitar.
Ravi Shankar performed for huge audiences at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 and at Woodstock in 1969.
The sitar maestro, who won three Grammy awards, later regretted his participation in rock festivals, saying that he deplored the use of his music, which has its roots in an ancient spiritual tradition, as a backdrop for drug taking.
“People would come to my concerts stoned, and they would sit in the audience drinking Coke and making out with their girlfriends. I found it very humiliating, and there were many times I picked up my sitar and walked away.”
Although his reputation entered popular culture because of his association with Harrison, Ravi Shankar’s influence in classical music, including on composer Philip Glass, was just as large.
His work with Menuhin on their West Meets East albums in the 1960s and 1970s earned them a Grammy, and he wrote concertos for sitar and orchestra for the London Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.
As a classical instrumentalist he was among the best ever in India. He also created two ragas universally sung and played: Bairagi and Nat Bhairav. The model of the sitar he had designed for himself is now considered the standard across the world.
Still, Ravi Shankar’s popularity abroad and his experiments with Western musical sounds and styles drew criticism from some traditionalists, though all Indian musicians remain beholden to him for creating an overseas market for them.
In 1981, he had said: “In India I have been called a destroyer. But that is only because they mixed my identity as a performer and as a composer. As a composer I have tried everything…. But as a performer I am, believe me, getting more classical and more orthodox, jealously protecting the heritage that I have learned.”
Ravi Shankar never played anything other than Indian classical music abroad.