1920 — 2012
Composer • Sitar
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The “Godfather of World Music”, Ravi Shankar, was responsible for popularizing the native Indian instrument, the sitar, in Western cultures. He was both a composer and a performer, known for his cross-over performances and scores that were not quite Indian or Western classical music. He collaborated with Philip Glass and lead-guitarist of the Beatles, George Harrison, during his career. He is also the father of singer-songwriter Norah Jones and sitarist Anouska Shankar.
Ravi was born on 7 April 1920 in the old city of Varanasi, India into a wealthy Brahmin family, the highest class of the Indian caste system. Mark Twain once described the city as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and look[ing] twice as old as all of them put together”.
At the age of 10, Ravi moved with his older brother, Uday, to Paris. There, Uday was a member of the dance troupe Compagnie de Danse Musique Hindous (Company of Hindu Dance Music). His brother’s dance activities would have a tremendous impact on Ravi, who often observed on the sidelines. He was exposed to many traditional Hindu dances and rhythms, while also having the unique opportunity to notice the Western public’s reaction upon hearing the music. Ravi recalled, “this critical analysis helped me to decide what we should give to Western audience to make them really respect and appreciate Indian music”.
In addition to his time spent with his brother’s dance troupe, Ravi was able to absorb the Western culture while attending a Parisian school. These diverse influences from his early years would later become evident in his own compositions. His knowledge of both cultures also helped him to understand which aspects of Indian classical music the Western audiences would be able to appreciate.
Ravi met the multi-instrumentalist Allaudin Khan in 1934 at a music conference and subsequently became a sitar student of the guru for many years in Maihar. He had also become the soloist for his brother’s dance troupe around this time. With Khan’s diligent teaching, Ravi was soon performing recitals with success.In addition to Khan’s purely musical influence, he also served as a spiritual and life guide for Ravi. Khan, though a devout Muslim, was very open to the music and rituals of all religions. Ravi, who referred to Khan as “Babi” told of their trip to Brussels one year, when they went to a cathedral with a huge statue of the Virgin Mary, where a choir was rehearsing. “Baba went towards that statue and started howling like a child: ‘Ma, Ma’ (mother, mother), with tears flowing freely. We had to drag him out”. This open-mindedness is evident in Ravi’s music, as it is respectful of all cultures.
After finishing his studies with Khan, Ravi Shankar moved to Mumbai, where he found work as a ballet composer for the Indian People’s Theatre Association until 1946. Following this, he was appointed music director of the New Delhi radio station All-India Radio (AIR), where he remained until 1956. It was during this period that Shankar began experimenting with compositions for orchestra that mixed both Indian instruments with Western instruments.
He was also active at this time as a performer, writing and performing together with American-born violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The collaboration of these two artists resulted in three spectacular albums. Of their three albums, West Meets East(1967), West Meets East, Vol. 2 (1968) and Improvisations: West Meets East(1976), the first won a Grammy Award.
As Shankar’s popularity grew, he travelled to the Soviet Union to perform and also to the United States and Western Europe. Helping his cause were his film scores toThe Apu Trilogy, directed by Satyajit Ray. The first film of the trilogy,Pather Panchali, was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955 for best film.
Some of his most memorable performances in the 1960s include his appearances at the Monterey Pop Festival and also at Woodstock (1969). The Beatles’ lead guitarist, George Harrison, took up sitar with Shankar in 1966, eventually recording on the instrument for the band’s trackNorwegian Wood.
Another Grammy Award came in 1973 for the recording of the benefit concert, Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. The proceeds of both the concert and the recording were donated to UNICEF to help Bangladesh refugees that had suffered from the recent flooding and violence. Together with Harrison, Shankar was able to organize this huge benefit concert at Madison Square Garden on 1 August 1971. The concert featured performers such as Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, in addition to Shankar and Harrison. Not only was the show a major success, it is also considered to be the first major charity concert of the modern era.
From the 1970s on, Shankar’s popularity only increased. He received an Oscar nomination for his film score to Richard Attenborough’sGandhi (1982). It was also during this later period that he began to experiment with electronic music, combining it with his more traditional sounds. These experimentations mark the beginning of the New Age movement in music. In addition to his experiments with electronics, he also busied himself with orchestral music. With his orchestral music, Shankar aimed to blend Western and Indian instrumentation. His work led to a collaboration with minimalist composer, Philip Glass, resulting in the albumPassages (1990).
While Shankar’s music was widely popular, he also received much criticism from Indian music traditionalists who vilified him for not being a “classical purist”. Shankar, however, did not let this criticism affect him, explaining, “I have experimented with non-Indian instruments, even electronic gadgets. But all my experiences were based on Indian ragas”. Shankar also returned criticism of his own, claiming that these “traditionalists” are ignorant about classical music and tradition, claiming that “over centuries, classical music has undergone addition, beautification and improvement—always sticking to its traditional basis. Today, the difference is that the changes are faster”.
Throughout his career, Shankar received many awards and honours, including 14 honorary degrees, three Grammy awards (two posthumously) and a membership to the Academy of Arts and Letters.
He was the father of two award-winning daughters—sitar player Anoushka Shankar and singer-songwriter Norah Jones (born Geetali Norah Shankar).
Shankar died in San Diego, California on 11 December 2012 at the age of 92. He had suffered a series of problems with his heart and upper respiratory system throughout the year, even undergoing heart surgery to replace a valve just days before his death.
Shankar’s near-century on Earth will not be forgotten. He has left a legacy behind in the fusion of East and West musical cultures.