Last week, on the 11th December, came the sad news that one of the greats of world music – sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar had died. This blog post will not be a recollection of his life journey or character analysis, nor do I intend to enlist the numerous awards and accolades this virtuoso received, as there are many eloquently written obituaries out there, which I’m sure many of you have read already.
In the spirit of Sampleface, what I want to talk about here is the crossing of musical boundaries; the ability of Shankar’s music to connect with other musical styles and embed itself into the western conscience whilst retaining its classical Indian identity. Rhythmically disciplined melodies are vital to the ragas of classical Indian music which Shankar played on the sitar so effortlessly.
However, prior to the 1960’s, perhaps due to the almost mathematical rhythms of classical Indian music, it was perceived as “repetitive” and as merely a background accompaniment to a performance production. Shankar witnessed this attitude first-hand as child-dancer in his family’s Indian Dance troupe based in Paris. In a 1985 interview with NY Times, Shankar recalled this time and how western musicians he encountered during his childhood in Paris “would all remark that ‘Indian music is beautiful when we hear it with the dancers. On its own, it is repetitious and monotonous.’”
“They talked as if Indian music were an ethnic phenomenon, just another museum piece.”Ravi Shankar
Determined to showcase Indian classical music in its own right, Ravi had to bring it to the forefront of western popular culture without compromising its identity. Ravi Shankar and his ensemble toured widely playing for audiences at Monterey International Pop Festival (1967) and Woodstock (1969). As well as his own music, Shankar also worked with many distinguished artists across all genres. Shankar’s collaborations with The Beatles during the psychedelic 60s have been well documented. George Harrison even took sitar lessons from the late Pandit-ji and experimented with these sounds throughout the Beatles’ and his own solo career. Take a listen to “Within You Without You,” the 1967 soundscape from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and it’s obvious how Shankar’s musical aesthetics had well and truly established itself in the western popular conscious.
Ravi Shankar’s influences can also be heard in the music of jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane who once remarked in an interview that “I collect the records (Shankar has) made, and his music moves me. I’m certain that if I recorded with him I’d understand and appreciate his work.” Unfortunately, Coltrane died in 1967 and never had the opportunity to record with Shankar but they had met on several occasions for music lessons, which would no doubt influence Coltrane’s own style.
On his 1961 album Africa/Brass, two bassists were employed to mirror the sound of the Indian tabla drum. One of the album’s songs, “India,” was apparently based on an ancient Indian chant, much like the ragas played by Shankar.
Whilst Shankar gained much respect for his collaborations with, and influences on, popular music- for me personally, nowhere is his music more beautiful than when it is heard in the classical music realm. Growing up around classically trained western and eastern musicians and dancers, this remained his forte. Shankar’s collaboration with the equally talented violinist Yehudi Menuhin remains for me, amongst the most accomplished tracks I have ever heard. The blending of their own instruments is so natural but distinct of their identity, what results is a brilliant musical cacophony of equals with is at once controlled and emotional.
Below is one of my favourite scores of Menuhin and Shankar, also featuring Ustad Allah Rakha on the tabla. Ravi Shankar is survived by his talented daughters Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones, who have successful musical careers in their own right. But for me, Pandit-ji still lives on through his musical influences when I scroll through my playlist, be it pop, jazz, classical or electronica.