Ravi Shankar's Sitar Gently Weeps

One of the fullest, freest and most feted Indian lives of the last century came to an end Dec. 11, when Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away at the age of 92 in San Diego.

Shankar was, to most of his peers in India and a vast audience around the world, the greatest sitar player of his era. But his influence extended far beyond his own innovations in technique, composition and collaboration. Beginning in the 1950s, when the sitar wasn't widely known outside South Asia, Shankar took the sublime sound of his 17-stringed classical Indian instrument into the concert halls and homes and studios of the West, leading to a wave of cross-fertilization that included collaborations with George Harrison, John Coltrane and Philip Glass, as well as the Concert for Bangladesh with Harrison, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton at Madison Square Garden in 1971.

He won three Grammy Awards over a span of 35 years and was nominated to receive a fourth -- for Best World Music Album -- in 2013. For a few decades, Shankar was probably the best-known Indian in America. The flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia summed up Shankar's towering career:

To him, Indian music was a religion and he made it his mission to spread it beyond India’s shores; that was his zeal and his reach. Today when I go overseas to perform, I do not have to explain the nuances of Indian classical music to anybody. If they understand, it is because of him.

On the day after Shankar's death, a spokeswoman for the Grammy Awards said that a lifetime achievement award would be given to him. Shankar had been informed about this honor the week before his death. The news would have pleased him enormously, for he had made America his second home, even if he kept many links to India and had set up a school of music in the capital, New Delhi. Among other things, the lifetime achievement award celebrates Shankar's longevity. Having begun his career in music while in his teens as a dancer in his brother Uday Shankar's troupe, he remained active even in his 90s: The last concert he gave was in November. Last year, he gave a performance in Los Angeles about which Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed said:

I am among the maybe millions whose first meaningful experience with music from a distant culture was Shankar’s sitar playing. He opened ears and remade sensibilities. …

Shankar has always been an innovator. He is a devout traditionalist, as all great Indian musicians must be. But he is also a modern man. His celebrity, of course, was Beatles-driven, and I hope that Martin Scorsese’s upcoming documentary on George Harrison gives the quiet Beatle’s devotion to Shankar full due.

But that’s only a small part of the Shankar legacy. He collaborated with the renowned classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who once compared the sitarist’s genius to Mozart’s. Shankar wrote two concertos for sitar and orchestra, premiered by two former Los Angeles Philharmonic music directors, Zubin Mehta and André Previn (though not, alas, by the L.A. Phil). He inspired student Philip Glass to become the Minimalist we now know. If he had done nothing more than compose the film scores for Satyajit Ray’s “Apu” trilogy in the 1950s, the name of Ravi Shankar would be remembered and revered.

What was the dauntingly complex classical music tradition that Shankar mastered and whose appeal he communicated so successfully? He made an attempt to explain its nuances in an essay, "On Appreciation of Indian Classical Music":

Indian classical music is principally based on melody and rhythm, not on harmony, counterpoint, chords, modulation and the other basics of Western classical music. ...

The tradition of Indian classical music is an oral one. It is taught directly by the guru to the disciple, rather than by the notation method used in the West. The very heart of Indian music is the raga: the melodic form upon which the musician improvises. This framework is established by tradition and inspired by the creative spirits of master musicians.

Ragas are extremely difficult to explain in a few words. Though Indian music is modal in character, ragas should not be mistaken as modes that one hears in the music of the Middle and Far Eastern countries, nor be understood to be a scale, melody per se, a composition, or a key. A raga is a scientific, precise, subtle and aesthetic melodic form with its own peculiar ascending and descending movement consisting of either a full seven note octave, or a series of six or five notes (or a combination of any of these) in a rising or falling structure.... It is the subtle difference in the order of notes, an omission of a dissonant note, an emphasis on a particular note, the slide from one note to another, and the use of microtones together with other subtleties, that demarcate one raga from the other.

There is a saying in Sanskrit -- "Ranjayathi iti Ragah" -- which means, "that which colours the mind is a raga." For a raga to truly colour the mind of the listener, its effect must be created not only through the notes and the embellishments, but also by the presentation of the specific emotion or mood characteristic of each raga. Thus through rich melodies in our music, every human emotion, every subtle feeling in man and nature can be musically expressed and experienced.

Shankar extended the corpus of existing Indian ragas by composing new ones such as "Nat Bhairav" and "Bairagi." He also composed film scores and collaborated enthusiastically with musicians around the world. His most memorable venture in bringing musicians together for a cause was in 1971, when the plight of refugees in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) led him to petition George Harrison to organize a concert to raise funds for relief work. Harrison was a great admirer of Shankar's after visiting India and taking sitar lessons from him; Shankar described the encounter in an interview in 1997 with Rolling Stone magazine. He met Harrison in 1966, he said:

I had heard of the Beatles, but I didn't know how popular they were. I met all four, but with George, I clicked immediately. He said he wanted to learn [sitar] properly. I said it's not just learning chords, like the guitar. Sitar takes at least one year to [learn to] sit properly because the instrument is so difficult to hold. Then you cut your fingers to this extent [shows tips of two fingers – purple, with calluses]. He said he would try. He seemed so sweet and sincere that I believed it.

He also described his love for the U.S.:

I came to New York in 1932. The Empire State Building was new. I was having fever. Whenever I was very excited, I would get a temperature. Coming to New York on a boat in the morning mist and fog, and slowly you see these giant buildings. It was magic. I went to the Cotton Club and saw Cab Calloway. He was so gorgeous. I went to Broadway – Will Rogers doing his lasso tricks – and Radio City Music Hall, with the Rockettes. Wow!

Shankar and Harrison put together a huge ensemble of stars for the Concert for Bangladesh. The Indian journalist Vir Sanghvi wrote about the event in "How Ravi Shankar Made India Proud and Influenced Foreign Policy," noting that U.S. audiences had yet to achieve a complex understanding of his work and his musical tradition.

For Indians of my generation, the defining memory of Ravi Shankar remains the Bangladesh concert. You probably know the story. In 1971, when the Pakistani army let loose a reign of terror in what was then East Pakistan, the world grew agitated as stories of brutality began to emerge. ... It was then that Ravi Shankar, an Indian Bengali, went to see his friend, George Harrison. The Beatles had just broken up and at that stage Harrison was the most commercially successful ex-Beatle. ... Harrison agreed to organise a massive concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden to benefit Bangladesh refugees. ...

You can hear the concert on the live album or watch the movie. Just before the rock stars come on, Ravi Shankar plays a small set. The audience, primed by stories of Shankar’s role in persuading Harrison to organise the concerts, goes berserk as soon as Shankar plays the first few notes. Ravi Shankar stops. He pauses. He looks at the crowd and then he says: “If you enjoyed the tuning-up so much, I hope you will like the concert even more.”

The writer Salil Tripathi paid tribute to Shankar's views on music and place in the Indian pantheon, saying:

Ravi Shankar’s presence on the Indian aesthetic plane has been so constant, that with his passing an essential part of what being an Indian means has disappeared— as if the gulmohur tree is now bereft of flowers; the spring fields are without the flame of the forest; the monsoon sky weeps without the dancing peacock. ...

This experimentation and improvisation showed Ravi Shankar’s enormous zest for life and love affair with creativity, but some purists became unhappy. His fusion diluted the purity of Indian music, according to them. But Ravi Shankar wanted to soar; he thought beyond boundaries – in a sense, embracing the Tagorean notion of nationalism, of striding confidently outside your shores with your culture as your talisman, and meeting other cultures on equal terms and embracing possibilities to create something new. He did not wish to keep Indian culture imprisoned in a cage; he wanted it use its wings; his music was not meant to be fossilized. And so he dipped into other forms, including the Japanese rokudan with Miyashita Susumu and Yamamoto Hozan, creating a new kind of music; he played the ragas in minor scale with Philip Glass.

Shankar's musical influence reverberated within his own family: One of his daughters is the singer-songwriter Norah Jones; another is the sitarist Anoushka Shankar, with whom he sometimes played. It's difficult to imagine another classical musician from the Indian subcontinent replicating his influence around the world -- the closest was perhaps the late Pakistani musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In truth, Shankar's oeuvre is so vast and his influence so enduring that it seems his name will continue to be used in the present tense for decades to come.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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