Composer, scholar, teacher and worldwide performer, Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away Tuesday at the Scripps Hospital, in La Jolla, near San Diego, California. He had been admitted on December 6th with breathing difficulties. Shankar was 92.
Perhaps more than any other artist of the 20th century, his performances around the world gained global acceptance for Hindustani music. His collaborations with non-Indian musicians, spanning over half a century, made him an early crossover figure. Shankar was one of the first musicians of the foremost rank whose role in emerging post World War II culture not only created what became known as “world music,” it helped make that label a powerful one.
Shankar first became a celebrity in the late 1960s, when Beatle George Harrison studied Hindustani music with the master in London, Kashmir and India. Harrison had earlier used a sitar, retuned to typical Western tuning, in his song, Norwegian Wood. After studying with Shankar, Harrison wrote Within You, Without You, for the Sgt. Pepper album.
Though the master’s collaboration with Harrison was his most famous, he worked with many of the world’s finest musicians:
[Shankar] became a de facto tutor for Westerners fascinated by India’s musical traditions.
He gave lessons to [John] Coltrane, who named his son Ravi in Shankar’s honor, and became close friends with [Yehudi] Menuhin, recording the acclaimed “West Meets East” album with him. He also collaborated with flutist Jean Pierre Rampal, composer Philip Glass and conductors Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta.
“Any player on any instrument with any ears would be deeply moved by Ravi Shankar. If you love music, it would be impossible not to be,” singer David Crosby, whose band The Byrds was inspired by Shankar’s music, said in the book “The Dawn of Indian Music in the West: Bhairavi.”
A man with a long, complex love life, he fathered both Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar, winners of almost a score of Grammies.
He inspired one of the first mega-benefit concerts in modern music history, the August, 1971 Concerts for Bangla Desh. Here is a shortened version of the opening set of the concert, which later also featured Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, and the band Badfinger. In this segment, the musicians are Ravi Shankar on sitar, Ali Akbhar Khan on Sarod, Kamala Chakravarty on tamboura, and Alla Rakha on tablas:
At the time of the concerts for Bagladesh, I was a music director and producer at a Seattle radio station, KRAB FM, that played more music from around the world than any other in the United States, and studying sitar with Dr. Robert Jangaard, who had been taught by Ali Akbar Khan, at the latter’s school in San Rafael, California. On the air, we not only played chamber works of north Indian music that Khan’s and Shankar’s so fully exemplified, we had a large collection of the latter’s music from his many film scores.
It was through doing research on Shankar’s film music that I first came into contact with the name of Philip Glass, who had yet to become discovered, let alone famous. Glass, in a 1972 interview for KRAB radio conducted by Michael Wiater with the minimalist composer, stated that his work with Shankar on a film score while studying in Paris in 1966 changed his life in a profound way. Wikipedia relates the transformation:
Glass worked in winter 1965 and spring 1966 as a music director and composer on a film score (Chappaqua, Conrad Rooks, 1966) with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, which added another important influence on Glass’s musical thinking. His distinctive style arose from his work with Shankar and Rakha and their perception of rhythm in Indian music as being entirely additive. He renounced all his compositions in a moderately modern style resembling Milhaud’s, Aaron Copland‘s, and Samuel Barber‘s, and began writing pieces based on repetitive structures of Indian music and a sense of time influenced by Samuel Beckett.
In my view, Shankar’s impact on Glass, who has so deeply influenced other musicians, far exceeds his effect on George Harrison or the Beatles.
Here are Shankar and Glass collaborating on the 1990 work, Ragas in Minor Scale:
The list of musicians with whom Shankar collaborated is too long to list here, but his readiness to meet music on Western terms while holding dear his own longstanding Indian cultural values is one of the great developments of 20th century music. It can probably said that, like Philip Glass, exposure to Shankar’s art changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of musicians, millions of people around this planet over the course of the past 60 years.
And his inspiration lives on directly, as well as indirectly. Here are his two daughters, Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones, performing together:
I was able to see Ravi Shankar perform three times over the decades – in San Francisco in the late 1960s, in Vancouver, BC, in the early 1970s, and in Anchorage, joined by Anoushka, in the late 1990s. Although selling my sitar in 1973 helped get me the money to move to Alaska, his art influenced me back then to not write music again until I had found ways to tell stories people could remember through their melodies, and to avoid the intellectual and academic bullshit my art had been headed toward before encountering Shankar’s profound message.
Thank you, Pandit!
Here is a recent performance of the late master, celebrating India Day in Great Britain, in 2009. He is joined by daughter Anoushka:
Photo by Alexandra Ignatenko released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.