We need to give proper credit to Ravi Shankar, the Indian music legend who recently passed away at the age of 92.
Many Westerners know about of Shankar’s association with the Beatles’ George Harrison in the 1960s, when Harrison took sitar lessons from Shankar and promoted both the instrument and Indian classical music to the West.
But Ravi Shankar did not become Ravi Shankar the world-renowned musician because of George Harrison. Shankar was a genius unto his own. Had he been an American or European, and not a Bengali-Indian musician, his genius would have been more readily appreciated in American and European living rooms. He would not have had to find fame at select, elite liberal homes and even more select, elite university music departments.
Nor should we neglect the message of his art, for the music he played all his life was about peace and soul. It was about humanity. It was about an ancient, several thousand-years-old Indian civilization that taught the world how music can transcend the boundaries of man-made, artificial silos.
In India, music is a way of worshiping Saraswati, the goddess of learning. Music is a well-accepted spiritual yoga. One does not have to belong to a certain religious school to attain religiosity through this art form.
Few people know about the source of the spirituality Ravi Shankar brought from India to the West. It was his mentor Baba Allauddin Khan, a Bengali Muslim who identified a young Ravi’s talent when Khan toured with the ballet troupe of Ravi’s illustrious dancer brother, Uday Shankar, and took the teenager sitarist boy in as a disciple. Khan — the Homer of Indian classical music who lived to be more than 100 years old — also trained Shankar on the lessons of a sacred yet secular lifestyle: a lifestyle of humility, spirituality and absolute peace.
Khan inculcated this philosophy in his students, and Shankar carried that message forward.
Ravi Shankar bridged East and West and preached and practiced world peace. For his music and his mission, we are all in his debt.
Partha Banerjee is a college teacher and a human rights and media activist in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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