By Surekha Vijh
WASHINGTON: The Indian sitar legend Ravi Shankar will receive a posthumous lifetime achievement Grammy award at the 55th Grammy Awards on February 10, according to Grammy organizers.
Three-time Grammy winner sitar maestro Shankar, who passed away on December 11 in La Jolla in California at the age of 92, is among seven artists, including Carole King, Glenn Gould, Charlie Haden, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Patti Page, and the Temptations, who have been named for Grammys Lifetime Achievement Award.
Ravi Shankar has been nominated for his album “The Living Room Sessions Part-1.”
According to Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the honour for Ravi Shankar was decided before his death.
“As one of the world’s most renowned sitar players, Shankar is a true ambassador for international music,” says the Recording Academy in its brief biography of the Indian musician.
“As a performer, composer, teacher and writer, he is considered a pioneer in bringing Indian music to the West,” it adds.
The emissary for world beat, Ravi Shankar taught his close friend George Harrison, the late Beatle, to play the instrument and collaborated with him on several projects, including the ground-breaking Concert for Bangladesh in 1971.
Harrison called Ravi Shankar “The Godfather of World Music”, and Yehudi Menuhin, widely considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, compared Ravi Shankar to Mozart.
A recipient of the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest India civilian honor, in 1999, Ravi Shankar maintained residences in both India and the US.
He is survived by his wife Sukanya; daughters Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar Wright and her husband Joe Wright; three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Paying tributes to the maestro, The LA Times said,” The sitarist was a master of a complex form, the raga. He grew and evolved, achieving a heightened awareness that he conveyed to his listeners. When inspired — which, when he began to play a raga, was often – Ravi Shankar could make you think he had mastered the secret of creation. The famed Indian musician was not a doer but a maker.”
The New York Times said Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso and composer, created a passion among Western audiences for the rhythmically vital, melodically flowing ragas of classical Indian music – a fascination that had expanded by the mid-1970s into a flourishing market for world music of all kinds.
Ravi Shankar’s interactions throughout his career with performers from various Asian and Western traditions – including the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the saxophonist and composer John Coltrane – created hybrids that opened listeners’ ears to timbres, rhythms and tuning systems that were entirely new to them.
With two young semi-apprentices in the 1960s – George Harrison of the Beatles and the composer Philip Glass, a founder of Minimalism – Ravi Shankar was profoundly influential on both popular and classical music.
For me, listening to his music was being transported into a trance, an experience one has never experienced before.
Listening to his music and meeting him in person and interviewing him were totally a different feeling. It was like experiencing the best of both heaven and earth.
A Bengali Brahmin, he was born Robindra Shankar on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi, the youngest of four brothers. He spent his first 10 years in relative poverty, brought up by his mother.
He was almost eight before he met his absent father, a globe-trotting lawyer, philosopher, writer and former minister to the Maharajah of Jhalawar.
In 1930, his eldest brother Uday Shankar moved the family to Paris, and over the next eight years Ravi Shankar enjoyed the limelight in Uday’s troupe, touring the world introducing Europeans and Americans to Indian classical and folk dance.
Ravi Shankar reached the acme of fame in the 1960s when he was embraced by the Western counter-culture. Through his influence on his great friend George Harrison, and appearances at the Monterey and Woodstock festivals and the Concert for Bangladesh, he became a household name in the West – the first Indian musician to do so.
He authored violin-sitar compositions for Yehudi Menuhin and himself, music for flute virtuoso Jean Pierre Rampal, music for Hosan Yamamoto (master of the Shakuhachi and Musumi Miyashita – Koto virtuoso) and collaborated with Phillip Glass (Passages).
Harrison produced and participated in two record albums, `Shankar Family & Friends’ and `Festival of India’ – both composed by Ravi Shankar.
Ravi Shankar also composed for ballets and films in India, Canada, Europe and the United States. The films include “Charly,” “Gandhi,” and the “Apu Trilogy”.
A Magsaysay award winner, Ravi Shankar was nominated to the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the Indian parliament) in 1986.
Between the early 1950s and the mid-1960s, he became the leading international emissary for Indian music, first performing as a solo artist in the USSR in 1954, in Europe and North America in 1956, and Japan in 1958.
The sitar virtuoso was responsible for incorporating many aspects of Carnatic (south Indian) music into the north Indian system, especially its mathematical approach to rhythm. He also gave a new prominence to the tabla player in concert. He developed a characteristic sitar sound, with powerful bass notes and a serene and spiritual touch in the alap movement of a raga. The music doyen wrote a new melody for Mohammed Iqbal’s patriotic poem ‘Sare Jahan Se Accha…’
Panditji,’ as Ravi Shankar was known to his pupils and fans, was appointed Director of Music at the Indian People’s Theatre Association, and later held the same position at All India Radio (1949-56). He composed his first new raga in 1945 (30 more would follow) and began a prolific recording career.
Though he’s often thought of in the West as an experimenter and collaborator – with guitarist George Harrison, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, saxophonist John Coltrane, composer Phillip Glass and conductor Andre Previn – Ravi Shankar was a traditionalist.
Indian classical music, as ancient as the scriptures of Hinduism, flowed from his fingers with ease. His music transfixed even those who knew not one iota about the complexities of it.
He created an aura of spirituality. His music transcended the boundaries of race and religion. Harrison called Ravi Shankar the “godfather of world music.” Many Indians like to think of him as their cultural ambassador to the world.
Norah Jones, Shankar’s other daughter, said after her father demise, “My dad’s music touched millions of people. He will be greatly missed by me and music lovers everywhere.’’
Ravi Shankar was 59 when Jones was born, and she saw him only sporadically growing up. “I don’t like talking about him because he doesn’t have anything to do with me or my music,” Jones told Rolling Stone in 2004.
Ravi Shankar’s gift went beyond his skills on the strings. He possessed an uncommon ability to reach across cultures. And he did it by touching their souls. At first, he reveled in the attention his connection with popular culture had brought him, and he performed for huge audiences at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 and at Woodstock in 1969.
He also performed, with the tabla virtuoso Alla Rakha and the sarod (string instrument) player Ali Akbar Khan, at an all-star concert at Madison Square Garden in 1971 that Harrison had organized to help Ravi Shankar raise money for victims of political upheaval in Bangladesh.
But his reach went much further. He composed for films (including the score for Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” in 1982), ballets, electronic works and concertos for sitar and Western orchestras. As his popularity spread, societies for the presentation of Indian and other traditional music began springing up – the largest one in New York is the World Music Institute – and a thriving world music industry was soon born.
Ravi Shankar soon found, however, that as a young, self-taught musician he had not penetrated very deeply either. In 1936 an Indian court musician, Allaudin Khan, joined the company for a year and set him on a different path.
After studying with Ustad Khan and marrying his daughter, Annapurna, also a sitarist, Ravi Shankar began his performing career in India. In the 1940s he started bringing Eastern and Western currents together in ballet scores and incidental music for films, including Satyajit Ray’s “Apu” trilogy, in the late 1950s. In 1949, he was appointed music director of All India Radio. There he formed the National Orchestra, an ensemble of Indian and Western classical instruments.
Ravi Shankar loved to mix the music of different cultures. In 1978, he collaborated with several prominent Japanese musicians – Hozan Yamamoto, a shakuhachi player, and Susumu Miyashita, a koto player – on “East Greets East.”
In 1988, his seven-movement “Swar Milan” was performed at the Palace of Culture in Moscow by an ensemble of 140 musicians, including the Russian Folk Ensemble, members of the Moscow Philharmonic and the Ministry of Culture Chorus, as well as Shankar’s group of Indian musicians.
And in 1990 he collaborated with Glass – who had worked as his assistant on the film score for “Chappaqua” in the late 1960s – on “Passages,” a recording of works he and Glass composed for each other.
“I have always had an instinct for doing new things,” Shankar said in an interview. “Call it good or bad, I love to experiment.”
Though many listeners became familiar with Shankar mainly through his cross-cultural, style-blending experiments, his film scores and his concertos, his main love remained the ancient Northern Indian Hindustani style in which he was trained as a young man.
Throughout his career he toured the world with a variation on the traditional Indian ensemble: himself as the sitar soloist, backed by a pair of tamburas — string instruments that provide a backing drone — and tabla, a sublimely tactile percussion instrument that produces rounded, subtly bending pitches.
Often his tabla player was Alla Rakha, who became a renowned soloist in his own right. At times, Ravi Shankar also shared the spotlight with Ali Akbar Khan, a master of the sarod, another Indian stringed instrument. These concerts, including an annual performance at Carnegie Hall, adhered to traditional forms, in which the musicians would improvise on a raga, often ecstatically, for about an hour per piece.
Western listeners who were sensitive to the techniques that Ravi Shankar and his musicians were using to expand on the ragas found the music entrancing and his inventiveness and dexterity startling. Many sought out the music of other sitar, sarod and tabla soloists, as well as Indian vocalists, and branched out to other forms of world music, from China, Japan, Indonesia and eventually African and Latin American countries.
Ravi Shankar maintained his friendship and working relationship with Harrison, who released a recording of a 1972 performance by the maestro on the Beatles’ Apple label. In 1974, Harrison also produced a recording on his own Dark Horse label by a group billed as Shankar Family and Friends performing in a more popular style — short, bright-edged songs with vocals, rather than expansive instrumental improvisations.
After Harrison’s death in 2001, Ravi Shankar contributed a new composition to the “Concert for George,” a starry celebration of Harrison’s music staged at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2002. The new piece, “Arpan,” was performed by an ensemble of Indian and Western musicians led by Anoushka Shankar.
Ravi Shankar continued to be regarded in the West as the most eloquent spokesman for his country’s music. But his popularity abroad and his experiments with Western musical sounds and styles drew criticism among traditionalists in India.
“In India I have been called a destroyer,” he said in 1981. “But that is only because they mixed my identity as a performer and as a composer. As a composer I have tried everything, even electronic music and avant-garde. But as a performer I am, believe me, getting more classical and more orthodox, jealously protecting the heritage that I have learned.”
Ravi Shankar taught extensively in the United States and founded school of Indian music, the Kinnara School, in Los Angeles. He was a visiting professor at City College in New York in 1967.
Recordings of his lectures there were the basis for “Learning Indian Music,” a set of cassettes. He was the subject of a documentary, “Raga: A Film Journey Into the Soul of India,” in 1971, and published two autobiographies: “My Music, My Life” in 1969 and “Raga Mala” in 1997.
In 2010, the Ravi Shankar Foundation started a record label, East Meets West Music, which began by reissuing some of his historic recordings and films, including “Ragas.,” his classical compositions.
Ravi Shankar’s first marriage, to Annapurna Devi, ended in the late 1960s. They had a son, Shubhendra Shankar, who died in 1992.
He also had a long relationship with Kamala Shastri, a dancer; Sue Jones, a concert producer, with whom he had his daughter Norah Jones in 1979; as well as Sukanya Rajan, whom he married in 1989 and had daughter Anoushka Shankar.