How did the auspicious and evocative sounds of sitar, native to India, become marred with Western pop of the 1960s? We have the legendary virtuoso sitarist Rabindra Shankar Chowdhury, more commonly known as Ravi Shankar, to thank. Ten years since his death on 11th December 2012, his musical ingenuity continues to fascinate audiences.
Over the course of his life, Shankar rose to international acclaim. Rock stars and classical composers – from George Harrison and Jim Morrison to Philip Glass and Yehudi Menuhin – not only admired him but became students, so taken were they with his passion. His responsibility for the worldwide dissemination of Hindustani (North Indian) classicism encapsulates the transformative potential of cross-cultural musical blends, if approached with open ears and a curious mind.
Shankar was born in 1920 in Varanasi, the holiest ancient Indian city, to a prosperous but disconnected family. At 10, he travelled Europe and the United States as part of a dance troupe led by his brother Uday. This Western foray had a profound impact on Shankar, an inquisitive and intelligent teenager who revelled in the Hollywood ‘Golden Age’. His upbringing fostered a cultural open-mindedness that would inform his trajectory as an artist. This heady mix was infused with training from Allauddin Khan, an old master of sitar. Shankar left Uday’s tour in 1938 to become Khan’s disciple, where he quickly excelled at the instrument. The musical connection between the cultures of the hedonistic and consumerist 1930s and Indian spiritualism of antiquity is seemingly non-existent: even at this young age however, Shankar looked like he could bridge this gap.
As the British Empire weakened during the late 1930s, the idea of a united India was becoming tangible. Shankar, a worldly man at 18, was born in the generation that would define the culture of new India – and he wanted to take it global.
Indian classical music revolves around a raga, the melodic entity, and a tala, the rhythmic backbone. No part of it is confined to the rigorous tonal framework that Western music theory is characterised by; rather, flexibility over a metric cycle is encouraged, depending on which mood the performers want to evoke. Indian classical music is limitless – it exists to stir emotion. It’s a notion that bodes well for the freedom of expression sought in the West during the 1960s, which Shankar recognised and capitalised on.
After completing his sitar training, Shankar toured the world, and found the most receptive audience to be jazz fans, who were excited for a new sound and appreciated complex improvisation. He performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and at Woodstock Festival in 1969. He was embraced in the musical metamorphosis of the 1960s, where free improvisation substituted the rules of a rigorous tonal centre. As modal jazz grew, iconic musicians became increasingly captivated with the spiritual framework of the Indian raga. Saxophonist John Coltrane, for instance, revelled in and grew from Shankar’s training – to the extent that he named his son, Ravi Coltrane, after Shankar.
The fusion of Hindustani classicism with avant-garde jazz seemed natural, but no-one could have anticipated Shankar’s sincere contribution to rock, since it was also at this time that he met his most famous fan and lifelong friend, George Harrison of the Beatles. The benefits of their relationship were very much reciprocal. Harrison’s stature made promoting Shankar’s music easy, and once his commanding sitar presence was popularised, a Western audience immediately respected Shankar’s merit. But the most profound impact was on Harrison’s own musical growth. Captivated by the sitar’s lustrous, incantation-like vibrations, Harrison approached Shankar with curiosity and awe. In Shankar’s own words, “I found [Harrison] really wanted to learn”. To inform his penchant of the sitar itself, yes, but Shankar’s music had done more: it awakened Harrison to Indian philosophy. Together, the two defined the sound we now call ‘raga-rock’. Shankar’s influence on popular tradition was unexpected, but the outcome was truly unique, redefining the boundaries which have divided musical genres for so long , and on a wider scale, Eastern and Western cultures.
Listen for the light-hearted, folky sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood (The Bird Has Flown)’; for its more foreboding use on ‘Paint it Black’ by the Rolling Stones (Brian Jones was taught by Harihar Rao, another protégé of Shankar); or the extramundane energy on Coltrane’s ‘India’ and his album A Love Supreme. From raga-rock to spiritual jazz, Shankar’s influences are timeless.
Ravi Shankar gathered a myriad of accolades over his lifetime, but even next to the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, what best encapsulates his legacy to me is the title bestowed on him by George Harrison: “The Godfather of World Music”.
Image “Womadelaide 10 Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar (India)” by PeterTea is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.