Ravi Shankar: The Human Embodiment of the Sitar

Ravi Shankar: The Human Embodiment of the Sitar

Ravi Shankar, widely hailed as sitar’s greatest virtuoso, created a passion among Western audiences for the rhythmically vital, melodically flowing ragas of classical Indian music — a fascination that had expanded by the mid-1970s into a flourishing market for world music of all kinds.

In particular, his work with two young semi-apprentices in the 1960s — George Harrison of the Beatles and the composer Philip Glass, a founder of Minimalism — was profoundly influential on both popular and classical music.

And his interactions throughout his career with performers from various Asian and Western traditions — including the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the saxophonist and composer John Coltrane — created hybrids that opened listeners’ ears to timbres, rhythms and tuning systems that were entirely new to them.

Mr. Shankar, who died on Dec. 11, 2012 at the age of 92, had his final performance was a concert with his daughter, the virtuoso sitarist Anoushka Shankar, on Nov. 4 that year in Long Beach, California. He was also the father of the Grammy-winning singer Norah Jones.

Mr. Shankar, a soft-spoken, eloquent man whose own virtuosity transcended musical languages, was trained in both Eastern and Western musical traditions. Although Western audiences were often mystified by the odd sounds and shapes of the instruments when he began touring in Europe and the United States in the early 1950s, Mr. Shankar and his ensemble gradually built a large following for Indian music.

A Beatle Was Intrigued

Western interest in his instrument, the sitar, exploded in 1965 when Harrison encountered one on the set of “Help!,” the Beatles’ second film. Harrison was intrigued by the instrument, with its small rounded body, long neck and resonating gourd at the top, and its complexity: it has 6 or 7 melody strings and about twice as many sympathetic strings, which are not played but which resonate freely as the other strings are plucked. He soon learned its rudiments and used it that year on a Beatles recording, “Norwegian Wood.”

The Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Byrds and other rock groups followed suit, although few went as far as Harrison, who recorded several songs on Beatles albums with Indian musicians rather than with his band mates. By the summer of 1967 the sitar was in vogue.

At first, Mr. Shankar revelled in the attention his connection with popular culture had brought him, and he performed for huge audiences at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 and at Woodstock in 1969. He also performed, with the tabla virtuoso Alla Rakha and the sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, at an all-star concert at Madison Square Garden in 1971 that Harrison had organized to help Mr. Shankar raise money for victims of political upheaval in Bangladesh.

But his reach went much further. He composed for films (including the score for Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” in 1982), ballets, electronic works and concertos for sitar and Western orchestras. As his popularity spread, societies for the presentation of Indian and other traditional music began springing up — the largest one in New York is the World Music Institute — and a thriving world music industry was soon born.

Last week, Mr. Shankar was told he would receive a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in February, said Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

Though linked with the early rock era by many Americans, Mr. Shankar came to regard his participation in rock festivals as a mistake, saying he deplored the use of his music, with its roots in an ancient spiritual tradition, as a backdrop for drug use.

“On one hand,” he said in a 1985 interview, “I was lucky to have been there at a time when society was changing. And although much of the hippie movement seemed superficial, there was also a lot of sincerity in it, and a tremendous amount of energy. What disturbed me, though, was the use of drugs and the mixing of drugs with our music. And I was hurt by the idea that our classical music was treated as a fad — something that is very common in Western countries.

“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.

“I tried to make the young people sit properly and listen. I assured them that if they wanted to be high, I could make them feel high through the music, without drugs, if they’d only give me a chance. It was a terrible experience at the time.

“But you know, many of those young people still come to our concerts. They have matured, they are free from drugs and they have a better attitude. And this makes me happy that I went through all that. I have come full circle.”

Ravi Shankar, whose formal name was Robindra Shankar Chowdhury, was born on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi, India, to a family of musicians and dancers. His older brother Uday directed a touring Indian dance troupe, which Ravi joined when he was 10. Within five years he had become one of the company’s star soloists. He also discovered that he had a facility with the sitar and the sarod, another stringed instrument, as well as the flute and the tabla, an Indian drum.

The idea of helping Western listeners appreciate the intricacies of Indian music occurred to him during his years as a dancer.

“My brother had a house in Paris,” he recalled in one interview. “To it came many Western classical musicians. These musicians all made the same point: ‘Indian music,’ they said, ‘is beautiful when we hear it with the dancers. 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.”

Mr. Shankar soon found, however, that as a young, self-taught musician he had not penetrated very deeply either. In 1936 an Indian court musician, Allaudin Khan, joined the company for a year and set Mr. Shankar on a different path.

‘I Surrendered Myself’

“He was the first person frank enough to tell me that I had talent but that I was wasting it — that I was going nowhere, doing nothing,” Mr. Shankar said. “Everyone else was full of praise, but he killed my ego and made me humble.”

When Mr. Shankar asked Mr. Khan to teach him, he was told that he could learn to play the sitar only after he decided to give up the worldly life he was leading and devote himself fully to his studies. In 1937 Mr. Shankar gave up dancing, sold his Western clothes and returned to India to become a musician.

“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. I was just like a Western young man. But I overcame all that.”

After studying with Mr. Khan and marrying his daughter, Annapurna, also a sitarist, Mr. Shankar began his performing career in India. In the 1940s he started bringing Eastern and Western currents together in ballet scores and incidental music for films, including Satyajit Ray’s “Apu” trilogy, in the late 1950s. In 1949 he was appointed music director of All India Radio. There he formed the National Orchestra, an ensemble of Indian and Western classical instruments.

Mr. Shankar became increasingly interested in touring outside India in the early 1950s. His appetite was whetted further when he undertook a tour of the Soviet Union in 1954 and was invited to perform in London and New York. But it wasn’t until 1956 that he began spending long periods outside India. That year he left his position at All India Radio and toured Europe and the United States.

Through his recitals and his recordings on the Columbia, EMI and World Pacific labels, Mr. Shankar built a Western following for the sitar. In 1952 he began performing with Menuhin, with whom he made three recordings for EMI: “West Meets East” (1967), “West Meets East, Vol. 2” (1968) and “Improvisations: West Meets East” (1977). He also made recordings with Rampal.

Coltrane had become fascinated with Indian music and philosophy in the early 1960s and met with Mr. Shankar several times from 1964 to 1966 to learn the basics of ragas, talas and Indian improvisation techniques. Sitar performances are partly improvised, but the improvisations are strictly governed by a repertory of ragas (melodic patterns representing specific moods, times of day, seasons or events) and talas (intricate rhythmic patterns) that date back several millenniums.

Coltrane named his son Ravi Coltrane, also a saxophonist, after Mr. Shankar.

Mr. Shankar loved to mix the music of different cultures. In 1978 he collaborated with several prominent Japanese musicians — Hozan Yamamoto, a shakuhachi player, and Susumu Miyashita, a koto player — on “East Greets East.”

In 1988, his seven-movement “Swar Milan” was performed at the Palace of Culture in Moscow by an ensemble of 140 musicians, including the Russian Folk Ensemble, members of the Moscow Philharmonic and the Ministry of Culture Chorus, as well as Mr. Shankar’s group of Indian musicians. And in 1990 he collaborated with Mr. Glass — who had worked as his assistant on the film score for “Chappaqua” in the late 1960s — on “Passages,” a recording of works he and Mr. Glass composed for each other.

“I have always had an instinct for doing new things,” Mr. Shankar said in 1985. “Call it good or bad, I love to experiment.”

Though many listeners became familiar with Mr. Shankar mainly through his cross-cultural, style-blending experiments, his film scores and his concertos, his main love remained the ancient Northern Indian Hindustani style in which he was trained as a young man.

Throughout his career he toured the world with a variation on the traditional Indian ensemble: himself as the sitar soloist, backed by a pair of tamburas — string instruments that provide a backing drone — and tabla, a sublimely tactile percussion instrument that produces rounded, subtly bending pitches.

Often his tabla player was Alla Rakha, who became a renowned soloist in his own right. At times, Mr. Shankar also shared the spotlight with Ali Akbar Khan, a master of the sarod, another Indian stringed instrument. These concerts, including an annual performance at Carnegie Hall, adhered to traditional forms, in which the musicians would improvise on a raga, often ecstatically, for about an hour per piece.

A Lasting Friendship

Western listeners who were sensitive to the techniques that Mr. Shankar and his musicians were using to expand on the ragas found the music entrancing and Mr. Shankar’s inventiveness and dexterity startling. Many sought out the music of other sitar, sarod and tabla soloists, as well as Indian vocalists, and branched out to other forms of world music, from China, Japan, Indonesia and eventually African and Latin American countries.

Mr. Shankar maintained his friendship and working relationship with Harrison, who released a recording of a 1972 performance by Mr. Shankar on the Beatles’ Apple label. In 1974 Harrison also produced a recording on his own Dark Horse label by a group billed as Shankar Family and Friends performing in a more popular style — short, bright-edged songs with vocals, rather than expansive instrumental improvisations.

The “friends” included Harrison, listed in the credits as Hari Georgeson, as well as the bassist Klaus Voormann, the pianist Nicky Hopkins, the organist Billy Preston and the flutist Tom Scott. Mr. Shankar toured the United States with Harrison the same year. They last worked together in 1997, when Harrison produced Mr. Shankar’s “Chants of India” CD for EMI.

After Harrison’s death in 2001, Mr. Shankar contributed a new composition to the “Concert for George,” a starry celebration of Harrison’s music staged at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2002. The new piece, “Arpan,” was performed by an ensemble of Indian and Western musicians led by Anoushka Shankar.

Protecting the Heritage

Mr. Shankar continued to be regarded in the West as the most eloquent spokesman for his country’s music. But his popularity abroad and his experiments with Western musical sounds and styles drew criticism among traditionalists in India.

“In India I have been called a destroyer,” he said in 1981. “But that is only because they mixed my identity as a performer and as a composer. As a composer I have tried everything, even electronic music and avant-garde. But as a performer I am, believe me, getting more classical and more orthodox, jealously protecting the heritage that I have learned.”

Mr. Shankar was a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, from 1986 to 1992 — one of 12 “nominated members” chosen by the president for their contributions to Indian culture.

Mr. Shankar taught extensively in the United States and founded a school of Indian music, the Kinnara School, in Los Angeles. He was a visiting professor at City College in New York in 1967. Recordings of his lectures there were the basis for “Learning Indian Music,” a set of cassettes. Mr. Shankar was the subject of a documentary, “Raga: A Film Journey Into the Soul of India,” in 1971, and published two autobiographies: “My Music, My Life” in 1969 and “Raga Mala” in 1997.

In 2010, the Ravi Shankar Foundation started a record label, East Meets West Music, which began by reissuing some of his historic recordings and films, including “Raga.”

Mr. Shankar’s first marriage, to Annapurna Devi, ended in the late 1960s. They had a son, Shubhendra Shankar, who died in 1992. He also had long relationships with Kamala Shastri, a dancer; Sue Jones, a concert producer, with whom he had a daughter, Ms. Jones, in 1979; as well as Sukanya Rajan, whom he married in 1989. Ms. Shankar, the sitar virtuoso, is their daughter, born in 1981. He is survived by his wife and two daughters, as well as three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

“If I’ve accomplished anything in these past 30 years,” Mr. Shankar said in the 1985 interview, “it’s that I have been able to open the door to our music in the West. I enjoy seeing other Indian musicians — old and young — coming to Europe and America and having some success. I’m happy to have contributed to that.

“Of course now there is a whole new generation out there, so we have to start all over again. To a degree their interest in India has been kindled by ‘Gandhi,’ ‘Passage to India’ and ‘The Jewel in the Crown,’ ” he added, referring to popular Western films and TV shows. “What we have to do now is convey to them an awareness of the richness and diversity of our culture.”

  • Allan Kozinn for the New York Times


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