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World Music Legends

Ravi Shankar

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published March 2005
INDIA

Raga

Ravi Shankar’s name is so intimately associated with Indian classical music that a sizable percentage of those who know nothing else about the genre are at least aware of his stature as the subcontinent’s most important and enduring cultural icon. Although the word guru is often attached to Shankar, ambassador is an equally valid descriptive. For more than four decades, Shankar and his sitar have represented the sound of India to the world.

            He remains best known in the West for his unprecedented success in bridging the two cultures. Never one to deny himself an opportunity to explore, Shankar has spent his entire career making connections and pushing in new directions, while remaining ever true to the music’s roots. He was not the first Indian musician to venture to the West, but he was undeniably the first to launch a serious attempt at finding ways for Indian classical music to reach beyond its core audience. In a way, he didn’t find it, it found him, in the person of George Harrison, the Beatles’ lead guitarist.

            It was on the set of the Beatles’ 1965 film Help! that Harrison first noticed the sitar, a long, multi-stringed, fretted instrument with a gourdlike body. Investigating, he learned that its acknowledged master was Ravi Shankar, and Harrison sought the Indian musician, who taught him some rudiments, enough for Harrison to lay down some sitar licks on his group’s next album. Interest in the sitar—and subsequently in Shankar and Indian culture and philosophy as a whole—exploded and Shankar rode out the ’60s as a most unlikely hero to pop fans, performing at such landmark events as Woodstock, the Monterey Pop Festival and Harrison’s Concert for Bangla Desh. His influence was such that by the end of the ’60s the sitar (and the newly invented electric sitar) was ubiquitous on rock recordings.

By that time Ravi Shankar was already in his late forties, born April 7, 1920 in Varanasi, West Bengal, India. His parents were well-to-do, which afforded Shankar the opportunity to first study dance, performing with his brother Uday’s dance troupe in Paris, and, ultimately, music. He lived for several years with his teacher, Ustad Allauddin Khan, becoming proficient on several instruments but displaying a particular predilection for the sitar. He began his recording career in the late 1940s and spent several years as the music director of All India Radio. Shankar toured India, but equally as important, he toured outside of India, bringing his country’s classical music to the Soviet Union and eventually the United States and Europe by the late ’50s. In the early ’60s, he also founded the Kinnara School of Music in Bombay.

Shankar’s thirst for experimentation didn’t begin and end with his work with Harrison. In 1967—the same year he wowed the hippie crowd at Monterey—Shankar recorded a collaborative album with the renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin. West Meets East became the first of five Ravi Shankar albums to land on the Billboard pop chart, a feat unequaled by any other Indian classical musician. In 1980, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned Shankar to compose “Raag-Mala,” with Zubin Mehta conducting. Shankar has worked with flute virtuoso Jean Pierre Rampal, with Phi

Recommended Recordings

 

The Sounds Of India (Columbia)

At The Monterey International Pop Festival (One Way)

West Meets East (Angel)