Ravi Shankar bridged cultures by bringing sitar to the West, but at a cost
Ravi Shankar collaborated with some of the biggest names in rock, jazz, and classical music. But in India critics said he was commercializing spiritual sitar music that was not properly understood.
Ravi Shankar, the Indian-born recording artist, is intrinsically linked to the sitar, the traditional steel-string Indian instrument he singlehandedly introduced to the Western world more than 60 years ago through collaborations with some of the biggest names in rock, jazz, and classical music.Skip to next paragraph
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His decades of ground-breaking work earned him recognition as an innovative giant for helping bridge the divergent musical strains of the two cultures – Beatles guitarist George Harrison referred to him as “the godfather of world music” – but it did not come without a price: the collaborations made him a controversial figure in his native country, and he often expressed regret that he may have overreached in believing contemporary audiences would comprehend the spiritual intent of his music.
Mr. Shankar passed away Tuesday in a hospital near his home in Encinitas, Ca. following surgery last week, according to his family.
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Shankar, who was born in Varanasi, India, joined a dance troupe organized by his brother at the age of 10. The experience brought him to Paris and then New York City where he was first exposed to Western music via Louis Armstrong and orchestras led by Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.
He later returned to India and took up music, discovering he was drawn to the sitar, an instrument with over 20 steel strings that requires considerable strength to position correctly and brutal stamina to play. Adding to the complexity is the performing regimen: sitar players do not read music, but are required to memorize a reportoire of ragas, or traditional melodic patterns, that they then improvise upon. The practice can take years to master.
“It’s the only instrument you can’t call easy,” he told this writer in a 1998 interview.
Shankar’s career as a recording artist, film composer, international touring musician and orchestral director began in the 1940s. He later strove to work with musicians outside his tradition, including French flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, American violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, to whom he gave lessons on Indian improvisation skills.
However, Shankar is best known for his friendship with, and mentoring of, Mr. Harrison, whom he met at a party in London in 1965. At the time, Harrison had already performed a sitar solo on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” a John Lennon composition, and became enraptured with the instrument.
With Shankar, Harrison immersed himself with the instrument to deepen his playing, an experience that became immediately apparent on “Love You To,” considered a landmark for the group.