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Ravi Shankar - Cosmopolitan with the Lute

Felicitation by Ingo Anhenn
(April 2010)

Trying to write something original on the occasion of Ravi Shankar's 90th birthday would be carrying coals to Maihar. The Maestro is one of the few Indian musicians, who have made it into the general cultural world memory. Whatever is written here is equally available from TV, the internet and the papers in some way or another. More interesting than the common celebration phraseology though is an answer to the question why particularly Ravi Shankar became so famous - in spite of too long alaps (every alap is too long), unspectacular sitting occupation and many competitors, who have equally mastered the sitar.

Robindro Shankar Chowdhury was born on April 7th, 1920, in Varanasi. His role model in a way seemed to be his father, who left the family early in life to pursue a career as a lawyer in London. When Ravi Shankar was still an underaged beau, he followed his father's footsteps and went to Europe for extended tours with his older brother Uday, performing in his shows as a dancer and temp musician, absorbing the glamorous lifestyle of Paris in the 1930s, learning the languages, the culture and the business.

His strong sense of cultural contrasts, combined with a guru-authority-syndrome, made Ravi Shankar change the metropolitan decadence with rural asceticism: From 1938 till 1944 he studied sitar with the great Allauddin Khan in the central Indian town of Maihar. Highly informative details about this period can be found in Ravi Shankar's first autobiography "My Music, My Life" - e.g. the story of how he wants to flee from the hardships and pressure and his fellow student Ali Akbar Khan says: "Why do you want to leave? You are the only one who doesn't get beaten here." After the frugal life in Maihar, Ravi Shankar went back to the metropolises, worked as composer for the film industry in Mumbai and as music director for All India Radio in Delhi. And from 1956 onwards he toured Europe and the US again and started working with violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin.

His status as THE ambassador of Indian music all over the world was earned in the mid 1960s, when Ravi Shankar got a new, though short-termed, disciple, a beat guitar player called George Harrison. Harrison connected Ravi Shankar with the Western youth movement and thus opened performance opportunities at major festivals like Woodstock for him - where Ravi Shankar dazzled the stoned crowd with his tihais. Here as well as in his other musical ventures, e.g. into Western classical or the just emerging world music, Ravi Shankar shows his unique talent: He discovers, takes part, but does not get corrupted. Traditionalists at home accused him of betraying the only true North Indian raga tradition; new audiences in the West applauded after the tuning of the instruments, mistaking it for the first piece of the programme; his compositions for sitar and orchestra merely showed the limitations of such combinations rather than their possibilities - all these obstacles where perceived as necessary resistence, just showing that the hedgehog again reached the top of the field before any of the hares. Anything goes - but not for too long.

For after all his experiments Ravi Shankar always went back to the traditional raga concert, which he, together with his long-term tabla accompanist Alla Rakha, developed into a hallmark with rhythmical mastery and dignified raga approach. With his open jawari and staccato sound he represented the lively and nervous aspect of the music - Maihar-style for coffee drinkers.

What made Ravi Shankar world-famous was not so much his individual language of sitar, but his personal development. He learnt the traditional ascetic musicians' life based upon a cosmopolitan foundation in a quasi postgraduate way. His amount of openness and salesmanship was not designated in the ancient guru-disciple-model. Ravi Shankar, a great, in music as well as in the art of being in the right place at the right time.