Photo of Ravi Shankar by Vincent Limongelli
Ravi Shankar was, without doubt, the most famous Indian musician and did more than anyone to bring Indian classical music to the world. In the Q&A that Anoushka Shankar gave before her Songlines concert on November 23, she mentioned that she’d recently done a concert with her father. It was on November 4 in California in what turned out to be his last public performance. It shows that despite delicate health he was active to the end. He died on December 11 after heart surgery, aged 92.
Ravi Shankar was born in Varanasi, India’s holy city, and started performing at an early age in the dance troupe of his elder brother Uday. Based in Paris, it was the beginning of a cosmopolitan life and his first experience of introducing audiences in Europe and America to Indian culture.
He didn’t start learning the sitar until he was 18 years old and went into a rigorous traditional training with Allauddin Khan, the father of sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, who became his guru. Ravi Shankar considered this period one of the most important in his life. It certainly formed him as a musician and it’s incredible to think of those two musicians, the sitarist and the sarod player, learning at the feet of the master.
Shankar didn’t just become an amazing sitar player, but also worked in the theatre, radio and cinema. He composed music for four films by the leading Bengali director Satyajit Ray. In the 1950s he started touring abroad with concerts in the USSR, Europe, America and Japan. In 1958 he performed a concert with Yehudi Menuhin in Paris, which began a long friendship and the first fusions of Eastern and Western music. ‘Among Western classical musicians Menuhin was the first to be interested in Indian music. He wanted me to tour the West and he made it happen,’ he told Songlines in 2008. They went on to record the Grammy-winning West Meets East album in 1966. ‘What I got from my guru, Allauddin Khan, was so solid and deep that I could keep that intact and be experimental too.’
It was in 1966 that he met George Harrison and the Beatles. The group went to India and Shankar started teaching Harrison the guitar which he’d already played on ‘Norwegian Wood’. He had a strong influence on the ‘psychedelic’ sound of the Beatles and played pop festivals in Monterey (1967) and Woodstock (1969). Harrison and Shankar collaborated on the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, the first big charity concert event which included Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. Harrison dubbed Shankar “the godfather of world music.”
In 1970, Shankar was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra to write a sitar concerto and wrote three in total. Aged 90, he composed a Symphony – also including a prominent sitar part played at its premiere by his daughter Anoushka. I was lucky enough to be at his last London concert in June 2011 when, bearded and frail, like a holy sadhu, he started with an evening raga – ‘Yaman Kalyan’ – which literally seemed to energise him and grew into something magisterial. And he ended with a free-ranging finale which was innovative and invigorating. He still had his revolutionary spirit. Amazingly he had a Top of the World disc in Songlines #85. The Living Room Sessions was a new recording released in June this year. ‘The four tracks on this disc,’ wrote Jameela Siddiqi, ‘lack absolutely nothing in the way of musical virtuosity, technical brilliance and the kind of high-energy passion that belongs in concert performances.’
Songlines had a playlist selected by Ravi Shankar in #79. He included music by younger artists he admired and whom he’d inspired, including Philip Glass, Nitin Sawhney, Karsh Kale and Joshua Bell and Anoushka Shankar. ‘The sound created by the sitar and violin is so compatible yet so different,’ he said, obviously thinking back to his work with Yehudi Menuhin. Aside from his amazing musical legacy, Shankar has left a living musical legacy in his two daughters, the singer Norah Jones and sitar player Anoushka.
Ravi Shankar wasn’t just a great Indian musician, but a great musician full stop.