News Column

Ravi Shankar Bridged the Gap Between East and West

Dec 12, 2012

Siddhartha Kumar, dpa

Ravi Shankar

Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, whose influence on The Beatles and appearances at rock festivals made him a cult figure for the flower-power generation, is credited with bringing Indian music to the world stage during an illustrious seven-decade career.

Tributes poured in from across the world for Shankar, who died Tuesday at a hospital in the United States just a few days after a heart valve replacement surgery, aged 92.

He was regarded as India's best-known cultural ambassador, who collaborated with musical icons like violinist Yehudi Menuhin and saxophonist John Coltrane.

Shankar remained active as a professional musician until his last years, producing a wide body of work, with his compositions on the sitar as well as well music for dance-dramas, ballets and films.

But Shankar's career as a musician was not planned. Born to a Bengali family in the Hindu holy town of Varanasi on April 7, 1920, he joined his elder brother Uday Shankar's dance troupe at an early age and toured European cities where he became acquainted with Western music and culture.

Shankar gave up dancing and returned to India in 1938 to learn the sitar - a long-necked Indian lute - from maestro Allaudin Khan.

Shankar soon mastered the instrument and combined performances with work for All India Radio where he established the National Chamber Orchestra.

As word of his virtuosity spread throughout India, Europe, Asia and then the United States from the 1950s, Shankar introduced millions of music lovers to the rich heritage of Indian ragas and music.

It was Shankar's close relationship with The Beatles' lead guitarist George Harrison and performances at legendary rock events like the 1969 Woodstock festival that made him a well-known name in the West, eventually helping him become the first Indian to bridge the gap between two musical cultures.

Harrison, who played the sitar on The Beatles song Norwegian Wood, sought out Shankar to train him in 1966. The Beatle later recorded several India-inspired songs on the band's albums, bringing Shankar into the international spotlight.

Described as "the Godfather of world music" by Harrison, Shankar played alongside top musicians at festivals and inspired the "raga-rock" genre played by bands in that era.

He also collaborated with Menuhin as well as flautist Jean Pierre Rampal, composer Philip Glass and conductors Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta.

"Ravi Shankar has brought me a precious gift and through him I have added a new dimension to my experience of music. To me, his genius and his humanity can only be compared to that of Mozart's," Menuhin had said earlier.

As a performer, composer and teacher, Shankar was an Indian classical artist of the highest rank, and he spearheaded the worldwide spread of Indian music and culture, said writer Oliver Craske, who contributed to Shankar's autobiography Raga Mala.

His daughters, sitar player Anoushka Shankar and multi-Grammy winning singer Norah Jones, are famous musicians in their own right.

Shankar's sitar was often seen to attain philosophical and spiritual depths rarely achieved by younger musicians, but he soon became the target of some criticism in India, accused of betraying Indian culture through his Western associations.

"It was only years later that my critics acknowledged that I was the one who opened the door (to Western music) for them," he once said in an interview.

A three-time Grammy award winner, Shankar was feted with many Indian and international honours and awards and continued with his concerts well into his twilight years. He and Anoushka last performed in California on November 4.

He is also one of the contenders for the 2013 Grammy awards for his album The Living Room Sessions Part-1, competing against his daughter Anoushka, in the world music category.

Source: Copyright 2012 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters