R.I.P. Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)

Ravi Shankar (4/7/20-12/11/21)

The passing of a legend. 

When I was a child, the term “world music” seldom got more global than the British Invasion or dreamy folk from Canadians such as Joni Mitchell. All that changed in 1965, when George Harrison slipped a 7-½ second sitar run into The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” What a sound! It was like steel striking glass and wrapped in a drone. As it turned out, that was about all Harrison could do on the sitar at the time, but he hustled himself off to India to study with the man who taught him that little lick: Ravi Shankar. Soon I and other kids were listening to Shankar’s music. Did we understand it? Well… a lot gets lost when East meets West, but let’s just say that our musical palettes gained a taste for masala. With Ravi Shankar’s passing on December 11, 2012, some of the flavor just left the planet.

Naysayers–as is their wont–slammed George Harrison for commercializing Indian music, but he was true to his teacher’s intent; it was always Ravi Shankar’s dream that the West would come to embrace Indian music. Thanks to him, it did. Shankar was born on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi, the sacred Hindu city along the Ganges. His first taste of music–and his first trips to Europe–came as a dancer in his brother’s ensemble, but in 1934, Shankar apprenticed himself to Allauddin Khan, of the famed Hindustani musical family, and when he emerged from his rigorous training in 1944, he was already among the world’s finest sitar players. That’s more remarkable than it sounds–the sitar has 23 strings (including seven that are horizontal to the fret board), some of which are drones and some of which resonate sympathetically with melody strings. It is generally considered such a difficult instrument that most renowned masters emerge in their 40s and 50s, not at age 24. In like fashion, they are expected to spend decades conquering the intricacies of classical style, not evolving signature sounds. (Shankar is famed for his unique slow opening, alap, which serves to shape the ragas–melodies–that are part of the ancient Sanskrit traditions. He also melded sitar into rock, jazz, and avant-garde compositions.)  

Shankar made his first trip to Europe as a solo artist in 1956; he met George Harrison in London nine years later. Harrison was another step in Shankar’s personal crusade to make ragas known in the West. By the late 1960s he had done so with such success that there was merit to exploitation charges. There were so many musicians trying sitar that a veritable subgenre of raga rock emerged–much of it dreck. Harrison, though, proved a true devotee and he and Shankar became close friends. (For some other good stuff, check out John Renbourn’s work with Pentangle, or Dave Mason with Traffic.) Shankar persisted, though, and did stints of serious teaching in New York and California, the latter in which he had a second home. His recording career spanned the years 1937 to 2012, the year of his death. He also won three Grammy Awards, scored at least 15 films, and won uncounted honors across the globe.

I was lucky enough to see Shankar perform on several occasions, the most recent of which was two years when he was 90. He was, by then, as frail as one might expect for one of such advanced age. Shankar was led on stage by one of his band mates holding one hand and his other gripping a cane. But once on the stage–covered by an enormous rug and festooned with tapestries–he did as he had done for over 60 years: he squatted cross-legged on the floor, hoisted his sitar to his lap, and with a single glance and nod orchestrated the first number. His body was 90, but his hands and fingers were those of a precocious 24-year-old as they flew up and down the neck, each finger plucking with precision, and each note ringing with cosmic majesty. If memory serves, the 90-minute concert featured just four compositions, but it was hypnotic and transformative. Did I understand the spiritual explanations of his ragas? I’ll claim nothing beyond this statement: Better than when I was a kid. Was I enchanted? Oh, yes!

Shankar was, by 2010, such a revered figure that the other musicians on stage treated him with deference one might reserve for saints. Shankar was a deeply religious Hindu, but he was no saint. Like many mortals, in the struggle between mysticism and worldly desire, the latter often won. He fathered three children, of whom only the first was the product of marriage. He separated from his first wife–Khan’s daughter–shortly after the birth of their son and began a long-term relationship with a woman named Kanda Shashi, with whom he fathered his greatest legacy: his daughter Anoushka, herself among the world’s greatest sitar players. Shankar had numerous other paramours, including a fling with New York music producer Sue Jones that produced singer Norah Jones. Shankar eventually left Shashi and married for a second time in 1989.

Call Shankar a cultural saint and leave value judgments to others. To me it is telling that among the musicians with whom he collaborated in his long career were Yehudi Menuhin and John Coltrane. Like those two legends, Ravi Shankar was the sort of musician who comes along just once in a generation.--Rob Weir

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