Sunday 17 November 2019

Ravi Shankar

Maestro of the sitar who dazzled Beatle George Harrison and brought the culture of Indian music to the West

RAVI SHANKAR, the sitar player, who died on Tuesday 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.

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 made his London and New York debuts the following year. But it was in the Sixties 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.

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.

During the Seventies 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 two 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). 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.

He revolutionised the way Indian classical music was presented, both at home and abroad. His own onstage professionalism in turn became an inspiration for the many Indian artists whose international careers drew on his example.

Ultimately, however, his global impact was a function of his great musicianship. 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.

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. 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. 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.

Ali Akbar Khan was Allauddin's son, and he and Shankar became famous throughout the subcontinent for their instrumental duets.

In 1939 Shankar gave his first solo recital, in Allahabad, 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.

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 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 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.

In 1982 he provided choreography for the Asian Games in New Delhi and wrote and performed the music for the film Gandhi.

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 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. They settled in California because of Shankar's health (he had two heart attacks and had 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. Ravi Shankar acknowledged as much saying: "Teaching is the final goal of an Indian musician's life."

His wife and daughters survive him.

Sunday Independent

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