India Instruments EN » Network » Texts » Ravi Shankar - Visionary of Indian Music

Ravi Shankar - Visionary of Indian Music

Obituary by Yogendra
(January 2013)

I grew up in the West German border region next to the iron curtain that separated East and West Europe since world war two. My first record of sitar music as a teenager in the early 1980s was the double album "The Genius of Ravi Shankar", found in a small record store in a small provincial town. My first sitar teacher Darshan Kumari was a student of a student of Ravi Shankar. His book, "My Music, My Life," was a major inspiration at the start of my career. My teacher Ali Akbar Khan, son of Allauddin Khan might have never made it to the U.S. and Europe without Ravi Shankar, wouldn't have founded his music school there and I would never have learnt from him. Even though I never met Ravi Shankar in person, I owe him a lot of my life today. Now the legendary sitar virtuoso passed away on December 11th, aged 92, after a heart surgery in San Diego. Announcing the news, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rightly called him a national treasure and global ambassador of the Indian heritage.


"Stay in bed at night, but go for pee outside" - little bed wetter Robindro, called Robu, knows this Bengali nursery rhyme by heart. But it does't help. In his new home in Paris he still often wakes up from sweet dreams in a wet bed initially. In winter 1930/31 it is bitterly cold in the French capital, and the way out to the toilet is through frost and snow. Robu is 10 and after a long journey with his mother and his brothers - by train from his hometown Varanasi to Mumbai, then by ship to Italy and finally to Paris by train - just arrived in Europe. He is the youngest and has spent his childhood in material poverty but lovingly groomed by his mother. His father had left the family before Robu's birth to live in England. So had his brother Uday, 20 years older, who had been studying art there for several years and had eventually started a career as a dancer. Paris is Uday's idea. After a successful duet program together with the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova he wants to produce his own stage show of Indian dance and music for audiences in Europe. And now he needs all available family members as participants.

Paris is like a dream for Robu. He takes in the life of the vibrant metropolis with all senses, learns French, dances and plays several instruments in Uday's show, meets with the international artists' boheme and discovers the charms of the fair sex. From a poor Indian child he is transformed into a young European dandy in no time. Uday's concept of combining elements from various Indian dance traditions into his own style without having had any classical training works, the show is a success, and Robu tours Europe and the US with the family troupe from 1932 till 1937. But in 1938 political tensions in Europe increase so much that touring becomes impossible. Robu is at a crossroads. He renounces his luxury life and goes to the small Central Indian town of Maihar in order to study classical Indian raga music on sitar with charismatic master musician Allauddin Khan. For seven years, he dives into the mysteries of the music in ascetic seclusion, endures moscitos, bedbugs, lizards and snakes and undergoes Allauddin Khan's notoriously strict training. Their connection becomes so initimate that he even marries Allauddin's daughter Annapurna and has a son with her. When Robindro Shaunkar Chowdhury leaves Maihar for Mumbai with his small family in 1944 in order to start his career as a musician, he has a new name and a new vision: He wants to bring the treasures of Indian music to the World. As Ravi Shankar he is about to become Indian music's first world star.


It is helpful to know this story in order to understand and appreciate Ravi Shankar's personality and work properly. His thorough understanding of Western lifestyle and worldview made him a most efficient bridge builder between cultures, a great mediator, who was able to build lifelong friendships with key figures in the West, get them excited for Indian music and reach out to a wider public with their help. E.g. Ravi Shankar met the slightly older violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin already as a teenager in Paris in the 1930s. They became true friends in 1952, when Menuhin was traveling India and Ravi Shankar played a house concert especially arranged for him. In 1966 / 67 they played several concerts together and recorded two albums called "West Meets East" which had a great impact on classical Western listeners. The collaboration of Western star virtuoso Menuhin with relatively unknown Indian musician Shankar made it clear to the Western public for the first time that raga music was not mere folk but an art music tradition in its own right. The whole structure of their performances together was Eastern or rather Indian - the music had been composed by Ravi Shankar. The only Western element was the fact that the music was not improvised but had been completely fixed and notated.


Growing up in the holy hindu city of Varanasi gave Ravi Shankar deep roots in traditional Indian spirituality. These roots helped him overcome several critical phases in his life, were a constant source of inspiration and made him a perfect projection screen for the revolting, spiritually uprooted and searching Western youth in the second half of the 1960s. One of these searchers was George Harrison, lead guitarist of the Beatles and world-famous popstar at that time. They first met in London in 1966 and immediately had a good understanding. Harrison initially saw in Shankar a kind of guru who could teach him both Indian music and spirituality. And Shankar saw in Harrison a young lad with good manners and a serious interest in Indian culture. Learning proved difficult for Harrison, though, due to his many obligations and the hysterical fans who followed him everywhere, but the love of Indian classical music, the deep identification with Indian spirituality and the intimate friendship with Ravi Shankar remained until his death in 2001. The connection with George Harrison opened the doors to the world of pop for Ravi Shankar. His performances at the festivals of Monterey and Woodstock, at the Concert for Bangladesh and on tour mit Harrison, his first autobiography "My Music, My Life" and his autobiographical documentary "Raga" brought him to the peak of his worldwide popularity in the beginning of the 1970s.


Ravi Shankar used his status as a pop icon to advance his career, but psychedelic drugs, free love and the revolutionary attitude of the juvenile western counter-culture remained disturbingly alien to him. He saw himself neither as part of the hippie movement nor as a mere entertainer in showbiz, but remained true to his identity as classical Indian raga musicians from the strict school of Allauddin Khan. From beginning to end of his career in music, he played traditional sitar concerts wherever opportunity presented itself. Initially, he could reach only a small circle of connoisseurs in India. Even his first tours in the West in 1956/57 brought his music mainly to Indian overseas students and immigrants. But with increasing awareness, he reached an ever bigger public, both in India and in the West. Ravi Shankar's raga performances were not rigidly orthodox. On the contrary, with his creativity, his genuine interest in new ideas and his fine feeling for musical effect, he introduced a number of new, invigorating elements into the tradition: He modified the sitar to expand its tonal range, redefined the role of the tabla accompanist by giving him space for his own solos, used unusual rhythmic cycles, integrated ragas and rhythmic structures from South Indian music into his playing, created new ragas and, together with Ali Akbar Khan, established the duet of two equal melody soloists on different instruments as a new form. Besides, he also passed on his knowledge and ideas to the next generation of musicians, according to ancient custom, by taking selected students into his house and teaching them there. All this made him not only one of the major raga performers but also one of the most effective innovative forces of North Indian classical music in the second half of the 20th Century.


Ravi Shankar's musical output was not limited to the improvised performance of traditional raga music. He was also fascinated by the sounds that arise through the interaction of several instruments. Most influential on his work were his impressions of the mixed music ensemble accompanying Uday Shankar's dance shows, of the Maihar band of his teacher Allauddin Khan and of Western orchestras in the 1930s. Early in the 1950s, Ravi Shankar worked as music director at All India Radio in Delhi and seized this opportunity to establish a National Chamber Orchestra with predominantly Indian instruments. Here he had the necessary freedom to develop his own ideas and put them into compositions. A first milestone after that was his music for Satyajit Ray's internationally acclaimed Apu Trilogy 1955-59, followed by several more striking film and theater musics for artistically ambitious Indian productions. From 1971 onwards he entered new compositional territory with a total of three concertos for sitar and orchestra that were performed with renowned western orchestras and himself as soloist around the world. In 1982, he contributed to the soundtrack of Richard Attenborough's Academy award-winning Gandhi biopic, and in 1990 he explored contemporary Western compositional concepts for the CD "Passages” in collaboration with minimal music composer Philip Glass. But no matter what he tried, the musical basis of all of Ravi Shankar's creative experiments remained the traditional music of India with its ragas, folk songs and religious chants.


The public also has an interest in the personal life of its celebrities. Ravi Shankar's was for a long time overshadowed by tensions and conflicts. In his second autobiography "Ragamala", published in 1997, he wrote about it frankly. His marriage to his first wife Annapurna broke apart after only a few years. The two finally broke up in 1967, but Annapurna agreed to official divorce only in 1982. The relationship to their son Shubho remained difficult until the latter's untimely and unfortunate death in 1992. From the late 1940s until 1981, Ravi Shankar maintained a relationship with Kamala Shastri, but could not marry her because of the continuing marriage to Annapurna. He also had numerous changing affairs. With Susan Jones, Ravi Shankar became father of Norah Jones (now a well-known soul and jazz singer) in 1979, and with Sukanya Rajan he became father of Anoushka in 1981. From 1974 onwards he had serious heart problems, which made a quadruple bypass surgery necessary in 1986. After that and many years as a globetrotter with no real home, Ravi Shankar decided to give a new order to his life. In 1989 he married Sukanya and settled down with her and Anoushka in California. The loving relationship and marriage with Sukanya lasted until his death. After the marriage, however, Sue Jones broke up with him bitterly and denied him any contact with their daughter Norah. Only when Norah had grown up, father and daughter established a positive relation once again. Ravi Shankar's relation with Anoushka was a very close one. He trained her as a classical sitar player, performed with her regularly and supported her career to the best of his capacities. Her success as a musician and the birth of her son Zubin in 2011, were a great joy to him. Together with Anoushka he gave thelast concert of his long and eventful life on November 4th, 2012.


Ravi Shankar has written wonderful music, has given great concerts, has enriched Indian classical instrumental music with many innovations and has thus contributed considerably to its increased popularity compared to vocal music in India. He has clearly earned his place in the history of music in general and the history of Indian music in the 20th Century in particular. But the cultural and historical significance of his life's work goes far beyond that. Almost single-handedly, gifted with a unique musical and artistic creativity, equipped with language skills, eloquence and a charismatic and inspiring aura like no other Indian musicians of his time, driven by a visionary impulse, he freed Indian music from being confined to its native culture and revealed its universal beauty to the world. Today's cross-cultural and global network of Indian music and its status as one of the world's great classical traditions is inconceivable without Ravi Shankar. His work has not only changed the inside of the music world, but how music is perceived in the world at large.

"My goal has always been to take the audience along with me deep inside, as in meditation, to feel the sweet pain of trying to reach out for the supreme, to bring tears to the eyes, and to feel totally peaceful and cleansed." - Ravi Shankar