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Pandit Ravi Shankar – looking back at the sitar maestro’s life and work | Damini Singh

Indian Classical Music is known across the world, thanks to several great and talented musicians. The classical form of music has a certain je ne sais quoi that inspires countless of its practitioners to dive deep into its arts and technicalities.

Doctrinaires of Indian classical music have displayed a passion which is as far apart from being perfunctory as is physically possible. Many gems have been born out of this deep-rooted love,and the shines brightest of them all is perhaps the legacy of the famous sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar. His contributions to music, western as well as Indian classical, have been tremendous, and he is often spoken about with warm remembrance and admiration.

Pandit Ravi Shankar’s early life

Ravi Shankar was born on 7 April 1920 in the city of Varanasi. His birth name was Rabindra Shankar Chowdhary, which he eventually shortened. Born to a Bengali family, he grew up studying music. In 1930, at the age of ten, he accompanied his brother, Uday Shankar’s dance troupe, travelling with them to Paris. A few years later, he became a member of the troupe, and learnt how to dance, as well as to play various Indian classical instruments. His troupe toured Europe, and the United States from early to mid 1930’s, picking up French, and Western dance, as well as music and other customs.

Alauddin Khan, who was the lead musician at the court of the Prince of Maihar, became Pandit Shankar’s guru, training him while Shankar travelled with Khan’s troupe. Later, Shankar continued his training under Khan in Maihar. Under Khan’s rigorous training, Shankar practiced on the sitar and the surbahar, learning about various ragas. He also learnt how to play other instruments such as the rudra veena, the rubab and the sursinger.

Shankar’s stint at the AIR and Bollywood

Pandit Ravi Shankar’s professional career began at the age of 24, when he moved to Mumbai and joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association, where he composed ballads and songs. One of his earliest accomplishment also came at the same young age, when he composed music for the popular national song “Saare Jahaan Se Accha”—a song that is still sung in every corner of the country. Shankar then started composing music for the All India Radio (AIR), where he also founded the Indian National Orchestra.His compositions always included notes of both Indian classical as well as Western instruments. He also went on to compose soundtracks for a number of Bollywood movies, including the Apu trilogy, Godaan, and Anuradha.

Later, Ravi Shankar was introduced to the Western violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who invited him to New York City in 1955, to perform as a part of a demonstration on Indian classical music. After that, there was no turning back for the musician. He resigned from the AIR, and pretty soon, was touring UK, Germany, and the US, performing for small audiences, and educating them about Indian music.

Shankar recorded his first LP, Three Ragas, and performed them in London in 1956. A couple of years later, in 1958, he performed at the tenth year celebrations of the United Nations’s and UNESCO’s music festival, which was held in Paris. After touring for much of 1961, in 1962, he founded the Kinnara School of Music in Mumbai.

The sitar maestro’s rise to international fame

Shankar soon met and befriended Richard Brock, who was the founder of World Pacific Records, and recorded a majority of his albums in the 1950s and 1960s under Brock’s label. While producing music under World Pacific Records’s label he was introduced to George Harrison, Beatles’s lead guitarist, with whom he collaborated on a number of songs, which were composed after Harrison became deeply influenced with both Indian music, as well as the Indian spiritual movement, the Hare Krishna movement.

This helped Shankar gain widespread, worldwide recognition. He went on to perform at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and at Woodstock in 1969. However, he had terrible experiences in both the events. He was horrified when he saw Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar at the Monterey festival. In Woodstock,, which became infamous for attracting a strange and obscene crowd, he allegedly disliked the venue. He completely distanced himself from the hipster culture of the late 1960’s that reeked of drugs, and alcohol fuelled rock compositions and a gypsy-esque lifestyle.

From winning a Grammy to teaching in California

Shankar went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance for the “West Meets East”, in which he collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin. After 1970, he was invited to many colleges across the US as a guest lecturer, including the City College of New York, and UCLA. He finally became the head of the Department of Indian Music at the California Institute of the Arts.

Ravi Shankar later went on to perform innumerable concerts, with some of the most reputed bands and assemblies, further cementing his reputation as a world-class musician and, elevating the status of Indian classical music, which also gained fame and recognition at an international level. In some of his concerts, Shankar performed alongside Andre Pervin, a famous conductor, in Moscow, with the Russian Folk Ensemble. He also performed with members of the Moscow Philharmonic. In 1971, he performed in the Concert for Bangladesh, which was organised by George Harrison. His other accolades include being a member of the Rajya Sabha, with his tenure lasting from 1986 till 1992.

Pandit Ravi Shankar also had a major role to play in the popularisation, influence, and incorporation of Indian music and instruments into the Western music culture. Shankar’s friendship with George Harrison led to the latter taking sitar lessons from him, and using the instrument to record “Norwegian Birds (This Bird Has Flown)”, which featured in the Beatles’s album “Rubber Soul” in 1965. This led other musicians, both known and otherwise, like The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Byrds, etc., to incorporating an Indian classical influence on their own western-styled compositions. This created a new musical trend, loosely termed as the raga rock, and it even extended to blues musicians, such as Michael Bloomfield.

Pandit Shankar’s unique style

Shankar was named as one of the top sitar players of the second half of the 20th century. He was also known for his unconventional method of playing the sitar, and organising his compositions. Hans Neuhof, who authored Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, wrote that Shankar’s style was different from that of the others, and not widely practised. This was one of the reasons why he rose above all the others in his performances of melodic passages. Other than the sitar, Shankar’s concerts also helped in popularising and improving the appreciation of the tabla, – especially after he began collaborating with Ustaad Alla Rakha.

As a token of respect, admiration and reverence, Ravi Shankar was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian awards, in 1999. Today, we remember his achievements and contributions to, and in familiarising and popularising Indian classical music in the Western world, as well as his legacy. He was truly a gem, who inspired people everywhere to inculcate a deep, abiding carry forward their love for music, and contribute to the ever increasing world of music.


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