Ravi Shankar’s Artistry Spanned Several Streams

Ravi Shankar was a capacious man. He was able to span several different streams.

His impact in helping make Indian classical music known worldwide cannot be overstated.

“It was Shankar's vision that brought the sounds of the raga into western consciousness,” writes The Guardian. “He was thus the first performer and composer to substantially bridge the musical gap between India and the West.”

Shankar became internationally famous, of course, through his mentoring of George Harrison, who popularized the sitar in “Norwegian Wood” and other Beatles compositions. Shankar also collaborated with a number of other renowned Western performers, such as Yehudi Menuhin, Philip Glass and John Coltrane (who actually named his son Ravi in Shankar’s honor). Contemporary world music owes a huge debt to him.

“Whether it is Henry Threadgill’s off-kilter post-jazz or Os Mutantes’ Brazilian gumbo, Bjork’s ethereal soundscapes, or RZA’s fractured beats, all proudly march through a door that Shankar helped open,” writes the New Yorker.

But there were other streams converging in Shankar’s work. There was a coming together of religious influences, too. Not many know that Shankar’s musical guru was a Muslim, Allauddin Khan, and that his first wife was Khan’s daughter, who converted to Hinduism and adopted the name Annapurna Devi. The contribution of Muslims to Indian classical music is little known outside South Asia. Yet the role of Islam—a religion often thought to be inimical to cultural expression—has been immense, and in the most wonderfully syncretic way.

The very instrument that Ravi Shankar played—the sitar—was said to have been created by a legendary Sufi Muslim mystic and poet named Amir Khusro. Khusro is also credited with inventing the tabla, the percussion instrument that nearly always was the chief accompaniment for Shankar’s sitar.

Shankar marked the fusion of the personal with the political. He was the person who persuaded George Harrison to organize the famous benefit concert for Bangladesh in 1971. And Shankar happily collaborated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association, a group of progressive artists dominating India’s stage and cinema in the 1940s and the 1950s.

In addition, Shankar was eager to combine his music with another vibrant art form. Shankar teamed up with the best-ever Indian film director, the Oscar lifetime achievement winner Satyajit Ray, on the Apu trilogy, which regularly features on critics’ lists of the best ever movies made. Shankar also composed for “Gandhi,” the Richard Attenborough-directed biopic that magnified the fame of the Indian independence leader.

Shankar was not averse to combining high art with popular culture, which can be seen by the fact that he gave the music for a number of Bollywood movies, dismissed by many of his peers as kitsch.

I had the privilege of seeing Ravi Shankar twice in concert: once solo in India in the late 1980s and once in Chicago in 1997 with his daughter Anoushka. He made magic with his music on both occasions. My wife went for a concert of his when he came to perform here in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2007. Approaching ninety, he was a frail old man until he touched his sitar, she told me. At that moment, a magical convergence happened.

Ravi Shankar’s talent was oceanic. It’s hard to imagine someone as musically gifted as him emerging anytime soon.

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