Ravi Shankar: A gifted and complex life


By Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe

There are many social changes taking place throughout the globe today, caused by the corrosive effect of the neoliberal economic value system on other spheres of life. The recent distasteful example of a local teenage bopper throwing her undergarment at a Colombo concert by a 40 - year - old "junky" musician from Spain is indicative of the degree of degeneration of musical taste as much as the ‘globalisation’ of unrestrained, vulgar behaviour particularly by the youth.

It is also a sign of the times that the society fails to appreciate or celebrate people and values that could be described as ‘wholesome’. The near-forgetting of the fourth death anniversary a remarkable musician like Pundit Ravi Shankar who died on 11 December 2012, at the age of 92, falls in to this particular category of social malaise.

Ravi Shankar was a special human being remarkable not only for his extraordinary musical gift, but also for his enlightened mind. He was a man of two worlds:having performed for audiences in Europe as a teenager and later returning to a rigid classical training in India, he made home in California where he died; The sacred Sanskrit ‘Om’ symbol on the front steps of the sprawling hilltop home at Encinitas, San Diego epitomised his life.

Ravindra Shankar Chowdhury was born on 7 April 1920 to a Bengali Brahmin family in the holy city of Benares, now known as Varanasi. He was the youngest of five sons. At the age of 10 he joined the world famous Paris-based dance troupe of his brother Uday, who was famous for ‘fusing’ European theatrical techniques with Indian classical dance. Shankar travelled with the troupe across Europe, America and Asia until he was 18.

Ravi Shankar made a move from dance to Indian classical music under the influence of his brother Uday’s mentor, and father of his friend sarodist Ali Akbar Khan, the influential classical music guru Ustad"Baba" Allauddin Khan of Maihar. He returned to India and started intensive sitar training - 14 - hours a day for seven continuous years -under Allauddin Khan.

Shankar gave his first concert in 1939, and in 1940 began playing recitals on All India Radio with his friend, and later brother-in-law, the sarodist Ali Akbar Khan. He later founded and became the musical director of All India Radio’s first National Orchestra. In the 1950s, Shankar became music director for All India Radio.

Between 1950 and 1955 he wrote the scores for several popular films including Satyajit Ray’s "Apu" trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar). But Ravi Shankar’s cerebral music could not compete on the popularity charts with the loosely Raag-based creations of Bollywood music directors like Shankar and Jaikishan, Laxmikant and Pyarelal O.P. Nayyar, S.D. Burman and Naushad. However he finally found critical as well as popular recognition in the 1980s for the music he wrote for Richard Attenborough’s epic movie "Gandhi".

The musical genius of Ravi Shankar was accompanied by other personality traits that made him an enthralling person. His self-confessions of being an adherent of free love - and openly living a life that embodied it -made Ravi Shankar a controversial figure in the eyes of some. In 1941, at the age of 21, Ravi Shankar married 14-year-old Annapurna Devi, daughter of his guru Allauddin Khan and sister of his friend Ali Akbar Khan. The couple separated acrimoniously after a decade, leading to Annapurna living her life as a recluse in a suburban flat in Mumbai.

Since then Shankar lived a life free of social inhibitions: he lived with a dancer named Kamala Shastri in the 70s. Later he started courting an already married, 18-year-old Sukanya Rajan, who accompanied him on the tanpura. In 1979 he married a New York concert producer named Sue Jones. The estranged daughter from that marriage who took her mother’s name, Norah Jones, is a leading jazz musician who has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide. Eventually, at 58 years of age, Ravi married Sukanya - 34 years his junior when his daughter Anoushka was 11 - a record that reveals unorthodoxy typical of a free mind.

Despite his brilliance as an Indian musician, Ravi Shankar will go down in history as an Indian musician better known in the West than in India: Many Indians believe Ustad Vilayat Khan (who was a pedigreed court musician from Agra) was a better sitar player.But Ravi Shankar shot in to international fame due to his associations with Western musicians such as the violinist Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison of The Beatles.

Beginning in the 1950s, Shankar taught Indian music to Western musicians, including Menuhin, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and the musical group The Byrds. Later he also collaborated with composer Philip Glass and conductors Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta. But it was his close relationship with George Harrison, the lead guitarist of The Beatles that propelled him to the crest of the psychedelic movement in the 1960s.

George Harrison had had aknown-fascination with the sitar, and hadtried playing it with a Western tuning before asking Shankar to teach him to play it properly. Following Shankar’s coaching Harrison recorded the Indian-inspired song "Within You, Without You" on the Beatles album "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band".

The Beatles’association with Indian music madeShankar’s classical music concerts in America and Western Europe total sell-outs. Shankar also entered thevibrant Rock music festival circuit at the time, playing at the Monterey pop festival in 1967, Woodstock in 1969 and the "Concert for Bangladesh" at Madison Square Garden in 1971.

Shankar however, was disillusionedwith the fame his association with Western rock musicbrought;He disapproved of the drug use and rebelliousness typical of the hippie culture he was becoming part of. On the Monterey experience, Shankar wrote: "I felt offended and shocked to see India being regarded so superficially. Yoga, Tantra, mantra, kundalini, ganja, hashish and Kama Sutra all became part of a cocktail that everyone seemed to be lapping up"! "The message I’m trying to get through is that our music is very sacred to us and is not meant for people who are alcoholic, or who are addicts, or who misbehave. If one hears this music without any intoxication, or any sort of drugs, one does get the feeling of being intoxicated. That’s the beauty of our music. We don’t believe in the extra, or the other stimulus taken."

He is reported to have been horrified when the American rock guitaristJimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar on stage at the same festival and commented, "In our culture, we respect musical instruments like part of God";He found Woodstock even more painful as "the audience were all stoned and didn’t know who was playing."

Such lamentations were expressions of frustration of the failure of his efforts to popularise Indian music in the West. His efforts that begandecades before the label "world music" was invented, worked only within a small population of keen music enthusiasts;His collaborations with alto saxophonists Bud Shank (of California Dreaming fame) and the jazz legend John Coltrane only had insignificant, transient impact.

Despite all his efforts, Shankar’s own music and Indian music in general remained a riddle to Western ears at large;The extent of Western ignorance of his brand of music became evident when Shankar and his colleague Ali Akbar Khan received admiring applause at the opening of the "Concert for Bangladesh" -before the real concert beganand they had simply been tuning the instruments for a minute and a half!

Regretting his failure to bring up a fundamental change in the perception of the sophisticated art formof "ragadhari" music among Westerners at large, Shankar turned his back on rock musicin the mid-70s and set out to concentrate on his Indian following. He succeeded, and continued his career as India’s best-known and best-loved classical and experimental musician, often joined on stage since the 90s by his daughter Anoushka, the only sitar player he ever trained.

Ravi Shankar’s summary of classical music, made in 2007 in a conversation with the santoor player Satish Vyas showed the understanding he had gathered after a life time of hard work: "Classical music has never been appreciated by the masses(in the East or the West). It was always, patronised,cherished, and developed by a "class" of people in the same way as in literature with Kalidasor Shakespeare and hence the term "classical", and not pop, that describes it."

In other words, a life time of work appears to have made Shankar’s brilliant mind realise the truth in the idiom "you can only lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink"!

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