The origins of the musical instrument known as the sitar are linked to an unknown, but innovative, musician in the Mughal court. In the second half of the 20th century, the sitar became synonymous, across the world, with Ravi Shankar. This association of a musical instrument with an individual is a tribute to Ravi Shankar’s music-making and also of his ability to take Indian classical music beyond cultural boundaries. He was India’s best cultural ambassador. Ravi Shankar fused these two aspects of his work — his outstanding mastery over the sitar and music and his propagation of Indian classical music — with effortless ease. He could do this because of his commitment to the music he played and his belief in its universal appeal. Music, in the hands of Ravi Shankar, conquered time and space. His playing was loved in New York, London, Calcutta and anywhere he played. He never compromised on the fundamentals of the ragas he played and on his talim or training. At the very core of his genius was his complete immersion in his art. Anyone who ever saw him play will testify that while he played, he was in his own solitary world where only he and his music mattered. He was the music as long as the music lasted.
Ravi Shankar learnt his art at the feet of his guru, Allauddin Khan. From this training, which included hours and hours of relentless practice, emerged Ravi Shankar’s mastery over two key features of music, sur and laya, melody and tempo. His control over these was faultless and perhaps matchless among his contemporaries. To these he added, as he matured, his knowledge of ragas and their intricate structures, and developed his skills, to an almost unbelievable extent, in alap, vistar, gatkari and the bringing together of taan and complex rhythmic patterns. The in- effable blending of all these made Ravi Shankar’s music-making an intellectual, aesthetic and emotional experience. The word, experience, is advisedly used since, for Ravi Shankar, playing, and for his audience, listening, were more than a performance. It was a challenge to seek greater analytical rigour and lucidity.
Ravi Shankar made his music transcend cultural barriers and identities. He did so without compromising on his classical training. When he played before non-Indian audiences, and even when he played with Western musicians, he never sacrificed the purity of a raga and his distinctive style. He invited his listeners to follow him as the music unfolded. It was an aesthetic adventure for both player and listener. Ravi Shankar’s passing leaves a void — India will be without its best ambassador, and the world of music bereft of a master of the seven notes.