Ravi Shankar (1920-2012): a gifted, complex and beautiful life
Posted on December 28th, 2012

Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe

Pundit Ravi Shankar who died on 13 December at the age of 92 was a special human being. The Sanskrit ‘Om’ symbol on the red front steps of the sprawling hilltop home at Encinitas, San Diego, where he died, epitomised his life: he was remarkable not only for his extraordinary musical gift, but an enlightened mind. Shankar’s last musical performance was on 4 November, in Long Beach, California with his daughter, sitarist Anoushka Shankar Wright.

Ravindra Shankar Chowdhury was born on 7 April 1920, in the holy city of Benares, now known as Varanasi. He was the youngest of five sons of a Bengali Brahmin family from Jessore, now in Bangladesh. At the age of 10, he joined the world famous Paris based dance troupe of his brother Uday. Over the next eight years, in Paris, Shankar travelled with the troupe across Europe, America and Asia.

Ravi’s move from dance to music was due to the influence of renowned musician Baba Allaudin Khan (the father of sarodist Ali Akbar Khan) who joined his brother’s dance troupe: Shankar eventually became his pupil, gave up dancing and came back to India and spent 7 1/2 years of isolated, rigorous study of the sitar as required under the Gurukula system. Shankar gave his first concert in 1939, and in 1940 began playing recitals on All India Radio with Ali Akbar Khan. He later founded and became the musical director of All India Radio’s first National Orchestra. In the 1950s, Shankar’s fame grew, and was appointed music director for All India Radio.

Between 1950-1955 he wrote the scores for several popular films including Satyajit Ray’s Apu triology and movies such as Anuradha and Godaan. But Ravi Shankar could not compete on the popularity charts with Bollywood music directors like Shankar and Jaikishen, O.P.Nayyar, S.D.Burman, Naushad and several others.  In the 1980s he wrote music for Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” for which he was nominated for an Oscar.

Ravi Shankar in the West

Ravi Shankar was better known in the West than in India. Many Indians believe that Ustad Vilayat Khan, the son of sitar maestro Enayat Khan, who came from an immaculate pedigree of court musicians near Agra was a better sitar player.

But Ravi Shankar shot in to international fame due to his associations with influential Western musicians such as the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison of The Beatles: beginning in the 1950s, Shankar collaborated with, and taught Indian music to Western musicians, including violinist Yehudi Menuhin jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and the musical group The Byrds, whose song “Eight Miles High” contains Shankar’s mesmeric sitar playing. He also collaborated with flutist Jean Pierre Rampal, composer Philip Glass and conductors Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta. But it was his close relationship with George Harrison, the Beatles lead guitarist, in the 1960s that promoted him to global stardom.

George Harrison had grown fascinated with the sitar, and played it with a Western tuning, on the song “Norwegian Wood,” but asked Shankar to teach him to play it properly. Following Shankar’s tutelage, Harrison recorded the Indian-inspired song “Within You Without You” on the Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

Shankar’s involvement in rock music spurred the raga-rock phase of the 60s, with him invited to play at iconic music events such as the Monterey and Woodstock festivals. Though there were signs that Shankar enjoyed the popularity, and the money that brought, his cultural estrangement with the drug use and rebelliousness typical of the hippie culture was apparent: he is reported to have been horrified when Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar on stage at the Monterey Festival and commented, “In our culture, we have such respect for musical instruments, they are like part of God.”

On the broader Monterey experience, Shankar wrote: “I felt offended and shocked to see India being regarded so superficially and its great culture being exploited. Yoga, Tantra, mantra, kundalini, ganja, hashish and Kama Sutra all became part of a cocktail that everyone seemed to be lapping up!” Shankar, once said Indian audiences did not always approve of his association with Western rock stars and he was also not comfortable with the fame it brought him. “When I started working with George Harrison I became like a pop star myself,” he told The Guardian newspaper in a June 2011 interview. “Everywhere I went, I was recognised. I didn’t like that at all.”

A complex personal life

The musical genius of Ravi Shankar was accompanied by other personality traits that made him an enthralling person. The self-confessed follower of free love, Shankar, has openly admitted that he could “be in love with different women in different places. It was like having a girl in every port – and sometimes there was more than one!”

When Ravi Shankar was 21, in 1941, he married 14-year-old Annapurna Devi, daughter of his guru Baba Allauddin Khan and sister of Ali Akbar Khan. The couple separated acrimoniously and his son with Annapurna, Shubhendra, died in 1992, aged 50.

Shankar lived with the dancer Kamala Shastri from 1967 to 1981, while his marriage to his first wife was crumbling. In 1978, he began an affair with the already married 18-year-old Sukanya Rajan who often played the tanpura at his concerts. In 1979, he fathered a child, musician Norah Jones, with New York concert producer Sue Jones. Anoushka was born in 1981 to Sukanya, and eventually Ravi married Sukanya in 1989 when Anoushka was 11.

His wife Sukanya has said: “He was 58 at the time of our marriage and the gap between us was 34 years. He told me he couldn’t change. I realised I was too much in love… I really couldn’t care. Even if he gave me a few days in a year, I was fine. That experience would help me tide over a whole year.”

Shankar’s life time achievement however, was in his interpretations of classical ragas rather than in bringing up a fundamental change in the perception of ragadhari music in the West where he spent most of his life. Though Shankar introduced millions of lovers of western classical, jazz and rock music genres to Indian music through his many collaborations, not many Westerners were enticed, with the exception of a few well known cases, to gain an in-depth understanding of the traditions of this sophisticated art form.

Ravi Shankar did not make a significant impact in terms of bridging the musical gap between the West and the East: The remark by Time magazine, on a Shankar concert in 1957, that “US audiences were receptive but occasionally puzzled” summarised the impact correctly; Shankar and colleague Ustad Ali Akbar Khan were amused when they were greeted with admiring applause when they had been just tuning their sitar and sarod for a minute and a half at the opening of the Concert for Bangladesh.

Despite his fame, numerous albums and decades of world tours, Shankar’s own music, and Indian music in general, remains a riddle to many Western ears.

He would have justifiably said “One can only lead a horse to water”.

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