Perhaps the best known Indian musician, sitar player and composer Ravi Shankar (born 1920) is credited more than any other individual with introducing Indian musical traditions to the West and expanding those traditions to incorporate Western classical, popular music, and minimalist musical forms.
Already an established musician and composer in his homeland during the 1940s, Shankar gained international attention in the 1950s with his collaborations with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and, in the 1960s and 1970s, with his featured performances at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, the 1969 Woodstock Festival, and the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. His friendship with guitarist, songwriter, and producer George Harrison of the Beatles, which began in 1966, resulted in the introduction of traditional Indian instrumentation on several Beatles recordings. Harrison repaid the favor by lending his guitar playing and production to Shankar's albums Shankar Family & Friends and Festival of India. These recordings and his close association with the Beatles raised the Western youth culture's interest in Indian music. Shankar is also credited with influencing the jazz recordings of John and Alice Coltrane and the minimalist compositions of Phillip Glass, with whom Shankar collaborated on Passages. He has also composed music for flautist Jean Pierre Rampal, Japanese musician Hosan Yamamoto, and jazz musicians Bud Schank, John Handy, and Buddy Rich.
Early Years in Bengal and Paris
Born Robindra Shankar in West Bengal on April 7, 1920, Shankar was the youngest of four sons who survived childhood born to the Brahmin family of Pandit Shyam Shankar, a Sanskrit, Vedic, and philosophy scholar. The elder Shankar also served as a diwan, or legal minister serving the Maharaja (king) of Jhalawar in Rajasthan. The close relationship of Shankar's mother with the Maharani (queen) granted him access to private royal musical events, which exposed him to many of India's most famous performers of the day.
By the time he was ten, Shankar's older brother, Uday Shankar, established himself as a professional dancer in Europe with Anna Pavlova. After forming his own Indian dance company in Paris, Uday invited his mother and brothers to join him in 1930. The troupe toured throughout Europe, introducing the Shankars to European culture. Ravi Shankar became an accomplished dancer and contemplated making dance his profession. When virtuoso Indian musician Ustad Allauddin Khan joined the troupe for one year in 1935, however, Shankar's interest in becoming a musician was renewed.
Khan, called "Baba" by Shankar, began giving him sitar and voice lessons but became annoyed that the lessons seemed secondary to dancing. "Sometimes, he would become upset and grow angry when I was learning, because, although I was a good student, he felt that dance was uppermost in my thoughts," Shankar later noted. "It angered and hurt him that I should be 'wasting my musical talent' and living in glitter and luxury. Baba insisted that this was no way to learn music from him, not in these surroundings, and he swore I would never go through the discipline and master the technique of the sitar."
Shankar quit dancing in 1938 and returned to India to finish his Brahmin initiation, determined to master the sitar. After spending two months abstaining from worldly comforts and eating specially prepared foods, he traveled to Maihar in central India to seek more lessons from Khan. Khan conducted his school like an ashram, requiring his pupils to approach their instrument as a spiritual exercise and to honor him as their guru. Khan and Shankar became very close during the seven years that Shankar studied in Maihar. Shankar married Khan's daughter, Annapurna, in 1941, and they had a son, Shubho, in 1942. Khan's son, Ali Akbar Khan, became a world-renowned musician and a frequent collaborator and touring partner with Shankar.
National and International Fame
After completing his training with Khan, Shankar moved to Bombay, where he joined the Indian People's Theatre Association. He composed the music for the ballet India Immortal in 1945, and, in 1946, soundtrack music for the films Dharti Ke Lal and Neecha Nagar and wrote new music for India's national song "Sara Jahan Se Accha." In 1947, he celebrated India's independence by adapting the works of Nehru for the ballet Discovery of India.
In 1949, Shankar moved to Delhi to accept the director of music post at All-India Radio. He organized and composed music for Vadya Vrinda, the National Orchestra, which is credited with expanding the possibilities of Indian orchestral music. He also composed film scores for Satyajit Ray's acclaimed Apu trilogy.
In 1954, Shankar toured the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with the first Indian Cultural Delegation. He conducted a solo tour of Europe and America in 1956. After releasing two acclaimed albums, Ravi Shankar Plays Three Classical Ragas and India's Master Musician, in 1957, he toured Japan as leader of a cultural delegation and played at the UNESCO Music Festival in Paris in 1958.
Influenced Western Music
Recognition for Shankar's music increased in the 1960s, and he began seeking ways to integrate Indian music with Western musical forms. In 1962, he released the jazz-influenced album Improvisations with Bud Shank. He also instructed horn player Don Ellis and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane in Indian music, leading to Coltrane's modal experimentation on several groundbreaking jazz albums of the 1960s. Shankar also contributed his composition Rich a la Rakha to jazz drummer Buddy Rich and tabla player Alla Rakha.
In 1966, Shankar met and became friends with George Harrison, the guitarist of the Beatles. Harrison's interest in Eastern religions had led him to Indian music. Harrison, in turn, introduced the band's producer, George Martin, and the other Beatles to Indian music. The Beatles first employed a sitar accompaniment on the song "Norwegian Wood." Soon, other rock groups such as the Butterfield Blues Band and the Byrds were displaying Indian influences. Shankar's appearances at both the Monterey Pop and Woodstock festivals increased his popularity among Western youth. But Woodstock's audience mistakenly applauded him for tuning his instrument, and, with the exception of the Concert for Bangladesh, Shankar refused to perform at other pop music festivals. "After I went to Woodstock and one or two others, I thought may be I should not go anymore," he noted, adding, "It sort of hurts me to see people all stoned and doing silly things, things I couldn't imagine. And our music needs a bit of respect like any serious music—Bach, Mozart—so when I found that it was not possible, I thought it was better to keep away."
In 1971, Shankar won a Grammy Award for Best Album for the Concert for Bangladesh soundtrack, the same year he debuted his Concerto for Sitar with the London Symphony Orchestra, featuring Andre Previn and Shankar as soloists. In 1981, he performed a similar feat with conductor Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1974, Shankar toured the United States with Harrison. Ben Fong Torres reviewed a Seattle performance of Shankar's "Dispute and Violence:" "A sometimes loose, sometimes tight fusion of various forms of Eastern and Western music—folk, classical and spiritual Indian; rock, jazz and even big-band swing. … Shankar at the podium, arms flailing, index fingers dipping and pointing, took it all to a victorious, symphonic, last-stomp halt."
Harrison produced two of Shankar's albums in the first half of the 1970s and described his friend as "the godfather of world music." In 1978, Shankar collaborated with Japanese shakahachi player Hozan Yamamoto and koko player Susumii Miyashita on the album East Greets East. In 1982, he was named Artistic Director of the Asian Olympics held in Delhi and was nominated with George Fenton for an Academy Award for Best Original Score for the Richard Attenborough film Gandhi. He also served a six-year term from 1986 to 1992 in India's parliamentary upper chamber, the Rajya Sabha. His past experience as a dancer benefited him when he performed at the Kremlin in Moscow in the late 1980s, employing Bolshoi dancers alongside traditional Indian and contemporary electronic instrumentation. The recording of this performance, Ravi Shankar inside the Kremlin, is considered to be one of his best releases.
In 1989, he toured Europe and India with Zubin Mehta and the European Youth Orchestra. Shankar also composed and performed in a musical theater piece, Ghanashyam, in Britain in 1989 and India in 1991, and collaborated with Phillip Glass on Passages in 1990. Even into the new millenium, he continued to write, perform, and tour.
Fong-Torres, Ben, editor, What's That Sound?, Rolling Stone Press, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976.
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