Pandit Ravi Shankar, one of the greatest sitar players of post-Independence India and the country’s best-known classical musician in the West, was born on 7 April 1920. He did more than any other person to popularise Indian classical music in the West.
Born Ravindra Shankar Chowdhury in Benares (Varanasi) to a family of Bengali Brahmins originally from East Bengal (now Bangladesh), he was the youngest of five sons. His father, Shyam Shankar Choudhury, was the diwan of Jhalawar, a princely state in Rajasthan, and a scholar of Sanskrit. The young Ravi would hear Vedic chants in early morning in Benares, which kindled an interest in music.
However, he first took to dance as a member of his brother Uday’s dance troupe that performed in the West. As a boy of 10, Ravi moved to France with the troupe, and in the following years, he travelled across Europe, United States and Asia. In France, he was introduced to Western classical music, took a liking to the guitar and opera, and learnt French.
In 1938, however, he went to Maihar (in present-day Madhya Pradesh) to study music under the watchful eyes of the sarod maestro Ustad Allauddin Khan. For seven or eight years, he studied the intricacies of the sitar and Hindustani music. He married Allauddin Khan’s daughter Annapurna, also a musician, in 1941. They, however, separated later.
A musical journey across continents
In 1939 Ravi Shankar gave his first concert. Soon, he started performing for the All India Radio. His relationship with films started in 1946 when he composed scores for Dharti ke Lal and Neecha Nagar. Later he became the director of the National Orchestra of the All India Radio. He started going on foreign performance tours, and was already a rising star.
In the 1950s he, famously, composed music for master filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. “The most important passages of music in Pather Panchali were composed by Ravi Shankar in an all-night session lasting about eleven hours until 4 a.m., because of Shankar’s touring commitments. [W]hen Ray met him in Calcutta, ‘he sort of hummed’ for him a line of melody with the feeling of a folk-tune about it but which also had a certain sophistication. It became the main theme of the film . . . ,” Ray’s biographer Andrew Robinson wrote in The Inner Eye.
Ravi Shankar’s international collaborations started in the 1950s. He would team up with musicians such as the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin. His single most important collaboration, however, was with the Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison — who once called the sitar maestro “the godfather of world music”.
The two would spend a lot of time together, with a fascinated Harrison learning the workings of the sitar from Ravi Shankar. A Beatles’ number inspired by Ravi Shankar’s music led to the Indian musician becoming a regular at the Western rock scene in the 1960s and 1970s. His popularity in the West soared after he performed in major music festivals such as Monterey (California) and Woodstock.
However, he found it difficult to come to terms with some of the attitudes of the new generation of musicians and the widespread drug abuse of that era. He was particularly disturbed when the legendary Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire. “That was too much for me. In our culture, we have such respect for musical instruments, they are like part of God,” he was quoted as saying.
One of his kind
In reaching out to the West without compromising on the brilliance of his own music, Ravi Shankar was a trailblazer. As Gowri Ramnarayan wrote in The Hindu after his death: “His range was astonishing. He could wrench hearts with a slow Hemant in an intimate chamber; stun a huge hall with lightning and thunder virtuosity; fascinate with radio broadcasts of an Indian orchestra; enchant flower children at Woodstock; exchange notes with legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin; guide the New York Philharmonic orchestra through his own composition; entrance a Beatle with his magic.”
In terms of core musical talent, Ravi Shankar is widely regarded as among the greatest sitar players of the second half of the 20th century. “Even those neophytes who have begun to listen to him on YouTube can appreciate his superb aalap played in Bhimpalasi at the Monterey Rock festival, in the U.S. in 1967. There is also his rendering of Piloo in Thumri-style, accompanied by Chatur Lal, in which Ravi Shankar plays most of the time to suggest the amorous singing style required of the form,” Partha Chatterjee wrote in a Frontline obituary on Ravi Shankar. “In this recording, he achieves as usual, a certain grave detachment even while being romantic, perhaps because his sitar is tuned half a note lower than almost any other sitarist, barring Mohammad Sharif Poonchwale.”
The legend continues
In his later years Ravi Shankar at times expressed concern about the state of Hindustani classical music in the country, and stressed the importance of learning from a guru. He once remarked: “Today everything is so advanced that you can have lessons on a computer and I feel appalled when I hear students learning from a tape. How can anyone even compare the foundation and solidity of knowledge learned for years directly from a guru to today’s hourly lessons and computer culture?”
He established institutes in India and the United States dedicated to the cause of performing arts. He authored two autobiographies — the first one in 1968, and the second one in 1996 with inputs from George Harrison. Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka wrote a book on her father’s life in 2002.
Ravi Shankar received dozens of awards in his long musical career. Among these were the Bharat Ratna (India’s highest civilian award), three Grammy Awards, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan, and the Knight of the Legion of Honour (France’s highest civilian honour).
Ravi Shankar died in San Diego, California, on 11 December 2012. The renowned classical musician Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia said after his death (quoted in the Mint): “To [Ravi Shankar], Indian music was a religion and he made it his mission to spread it beyond India’s shores. 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.”
Also on this day:
1926 — Prem Nazir, star of Malayalam cinema, was born
1942 — Jeetendra, Hindi film actor, was born
1962 — Ram Gopal Varma, Hindi film director and producer, was born
- The Inner Eye by Andrew Robinson
- Ravi Shankar website