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Ravi Shankar, the sitar player, who has died aged 92, did more than any person to popularise Indian music in the West and in the process became one of the most celebrated Indians of his time.
Ravi Shankar Photo: PHOTOSHOT
12 Dec 2012
Yehudi Menuhin once said that Shankar had a “genius and humanity” to rival Mozart. And it was Menuhin who invited Shankar to make his first appearance in New York in 1955. Shankar was unable to accept, so his brother-in-law, Ali Akbar Khan, a virtuoso of the sarod (or short-necked lute; the sitar is a long-necked lute), played to great acclaim instead.
Shankar made his London and New York debuts the following year. But it was in the 1960s that superstardom arrived, when the Beatles professed their admiration. George Harrison discovered Shankar through the folk rock pioneers The Byrds, who had heard Shankar’s music when sharing a studio with the sitar player in Los Angeles. Harrison used a sitar on Norwegian Wood, and shortly afterwards, in 1966, befriended Shankar and took lessons from him.
The Beatles’ guitarist then went to India for six weeks. But the visit proved a rude introduction to celebrity for Shankar, who was astonished when, almost overnight, thousands of fans appeared outside Harrison’s hotel and began chanting his name. Master and pupil escaped to Kashmir.
Despite his affection for Harrison, it proved a difficult period for Shankar, who disliked the rock music scene. His association with the Beatles led to accusations in his native land that he was a hippie who promoted drug use. In fact, Shankar was intensely critical of the “flower and beads” addicts. Looking back years later, he said: “Unfortunately certain things got mixed up. It was the time of revolution, the onslaught of drugs, Vietnam. It was very chaotic and, in a way, very superficial.” During the 1970s he distanced himself from his hippie associations and began to refocus on cementing his status as a classical Indian musician.
But his friendship with Harrison endured. “It is a beautiful relationship,” Shankar said. “Guru and disciple and friend at the same time and father and son as well.” Harrison collaborated with him on the Concert for Bangladesh benefit performances in 1971, co-produced a four-CD album for Shankar’s 75th birthday, and produced Shankar’s album Chants of India (1997), in which classical Indian forms (mantras and chants based on Sanskrit prayers) were combined with a choir and Western instrumentation including vibraphone, harps, violins and cellos. Harrison also edited Shankar’s autobiography, Raga Mala (Garland of Ragas, 1999), and once dubbed him “the Godfather of world music”.
Certainly the scope of Shankar’s influence was immense, taking in everything from minimalist classical works to post-be-bop jazz.
For example, Shankar and the composer Philip Glass collaborated on the experimental fusion album Passages (1990), having first met in 1965 while both were working on Conrad Rook’s film Chappaqua. Meanwhile, Shankar’s experimentation with fusions between Hindustani and western classical music, as well as jazz and “new age” music, inspired numerous pop and folk musicians to do likewise. John Coltrane even named his son after him.
Shankar was also innovative within his own tradition, giving unprecedented prominence to his tabla (tuned hand drum) accompanists, and initiating the use of voices in place of instruments in some of his more experimental compositions, popularising many previously obscure talas (rhythmic cycles).
A natural didact, he drew on his facility for languages to become the first to explain to western audiences how to appreciate Indian classical music. At concerts, he would show how it gives equal emphasis to melody and complex rhythmic cycles, and lacks chords, counterpoints, dynamics and harmony, all of which are fundamental to the western classical tradition.
He also revolutionised the way Indian classical music was presented, both at home and abroad, demanding the most appropriate staging and lighting from promoters, and a high level of decorum, respect and concentration from his audiences. His own onstage professionalism in turn became the model for the flood of Indian artists whose international careers followed in his footsteps.
Ultimately, however, his global impact was a function of his great musicianship. His style of playing the sitar was uniquely romantic, with bass notes ringing clear from specially-commissioned instruments, on which the strings were dampened with a “hook system” to modify their sound. It was a mastery that was the fruit of long years of study at the feet of a teacher who, Shankar later said, “told me you have to leave everything else and do one thing properly”.
Ravi Shankar was born Robindro Shaunkor Chowdhury in Varanasi, West Bengal, on April 7 1920. He was brought up by his mother because his father, Pandit Dr Shyam Shankar Chowdhury, a wealthy landowner and minister in a maharaja’s court, left his family in poverty and went to Calcutta and then London to practise law. He later taught at Columbia University and became a member of the Privy Council.
The youngest of five surviving brothers (two other children had died, at birth and in early childhood), the boy was nicknamed Ravi, meaning “the sun”. He met his father for the first time when he was eight years old.
In the year of his birth, Ravi’s brother Uday, who was 20, joined their father in London and studied Fine Art under Sir William Rothenstein at the Royal College of Art. In 1923 Uday became a dancer, partnering Anna Pavlova in her Oriental Impressions suite.
Founding his own company in 1931, Uday persuaded 10-year-old Ravi to join his troupe in Paris. The effect of being catapulted from a life of austerity to a sophisticated world of hotels, high society and western culture was profound, as the boy took a part for the first time in introducing Indian culture to the rest of the world.
It was through the troupe that Ravi met the Indian instrumentalist Ustad Allauddin Khan, who later became his teacher and mentor. In 1938 Shankar gave up dancing for music, and for the next seven years, at Maihar, near Varanasi, learned all he could from Khan, living in austere and (ostensibly) celibate conditions.
Ali Akbar Khan was Allauddin’s son, and he and Shankar became famous throughout the subcontinent for their instrumental duets, or jugalbandis, between sitar and sarod, which were highly innovative at the time. As the years went by and Shankar continued to have little contact with his own father, he became something of an adoptive son to his guru, who went so far as to favour him over his own son, whom he treated with harsh discipline and even cruelty during their gruelling training sessions.
In 1939 Shankar gave his first solo recital, in Allahabad (the 50th anniversary of which would be celebrated with a concert at London’s Barbican Centre), and afterwards was allowed by his teacher to appear on All India Radio. It was then that Shankar took up “Ravi” as his stage name, in order to identify himself as Indian rather than primarily Bengali, and thus appear more “international” to his new radio audience.
After completing his training Shankar moved to Bombay, where he worked for HMV and began composing for stage productions and films, including Cheetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946). He then moved to Delhi to become the music director for All India Radio.
He held this post from 1949 to 1956, during which time he founded a national chamber orchestra called Vadya Vrinda – an Indian ensemble with a few extra western stringed instruments. He also began working with the Calcutta-based film director Satyajit Ray, eventually writing the scores for Ray’s acclaimed Apu trilogy.
Shankar’s first engagements for western audiences came through his friends in various embassies. Invitations to play in Europe followed. His London debut was at the Conway Hall, and three years later he filled the Festival Hall. He played at a Unesco concert in Paris in 1958; gave recitals in 1963 at the Edinburgh Festival (during which he made many contacts in the folk music scene); and performed a duet with Menuhin at the United Nations Human Rights Day concert in New York in 1967. The same year the two men’s collaborative album West Meets East won a Grammy.
Shankar appeared with George Harrison at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, and in 1971 at the two concerts to raise funds for Bangladesh in Madison Square Garden. The resulting album, The Concert For Bangladesh, was a huge seller, winning him his second Grammy and making him a hero in that country, from which his family had originated.
Although Shankar founded schools of Indian music in Bombay (1962) and in Los Angeles (1967), the latter was short-lived and he maintained that he preferred to educate the public outside India through his tours and media appearances.
Though he was sometimes criticised by Indians for cheapening their music, he insisted that all he did was to shorten pieces to make them easier on Western ears, pointing out that a raga has no fixed length and that Indian musicians had long tailored their pieces to the limitations of recording technology since the invention of 78s.
In 1982 he provided choreography for the Asian Games in New Delhi and wrote and performed the music for the film Gandhi, for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
His compositions include three sitar concertos (the first having been commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra) and several ballet scores, such as Immortal India (1944). He also conceived a number of works of musical theatre, including Ghanashyam — A Broken Branch with the Birmingham Touring Opera Company, which toured Britain in 1989; and he created numerous forms of raga.
His early autobiography, My Music, My Life, was published in 1968 and a film about him, Raga, was completed in 1972. From 1986 to 1992 he was a member of the upper chamber of the Parliament of India.
Shankar’s first wife was Annapurna Devi, the daughter of his teacher Allauddin Khan. They had a son, Shubho, who died in 1992. Shankar later fell in love with Sukanya Rajan, a married woman 34 years his junior, with whom he had a daughter, Anoushka, in 1981. The child was brought up alone by her mother in Willesden Green until Sukanya Rajan and Shankar married in 1989. They then moved to India for two years before returning to London, Shankar’s favourite city. They eventually settled in California because of Shankar’s health (he had two heart attacks and had undergone quadruple bypass surgery in 1986).
Anoushka became his pupil and made her debut as a sitar player in New Delhi in March 1995 at the age of 14. Four months later she appeared with her father at a Barbican concert in London. She has since established herself as a credible solo artist, showing the same facility with tradition and experimentation as her father, who won his third Grammy in 2000 for Full Circle – Carnegie Hall 2000.
Her fame has, however, been eclipsed by her half-sister, the jazz pianist and singer-songwriter Norah Jones, who was born in 1979 as a result of a clandestine affair Shankar had with the New York concert producer Sue Jones. Norah Jones has sold tens of millions of albums.
Passing on his expertise had always been a crucial part of Shankar’s musical mission. In October 1997 he travelled to Tokyo to receive the Praemium Imperiale, a prize worth £90,000, awarded in recognition of his work to encourage the efforts of young artists. “Teaching is a natural function for him, whether you call yourself his student or not,” Philip Glass noted. “He is very generous with his ideas and skills and technical understanding of music. If there’s something you don’t know, he wants you to know it. The impetus of his teaching comes from that desire to share knowledge.”
Ravi Shankar acknowledged as much: “Teaching is the final goal of an Indian musician’s life.”
His wife and daughters survive him.
Ravi Shankar, born April 7 1920, died December 11 2012