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.

Sandro Campardo/Keystone/AP/File
Indian musician Ravi Shankar performs in Switzerland in 2005. Shankar, the sitar virtuoso who became a hippie musical icon of the 1960s after hobnobbing with the Beatles and who introduced traditional Indian ragas to Western audiences over an eight-decade career, died Tuesday.

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.

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.

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.

By 1967, the instrument’s unmistakable sounds were emanating from recordings by other major bands of the days, including the Rolling Stones and the Byrds, and Shankar soon was playing before large rock audiences at gatherings like the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969.

At times, the performances became instructional: After tinkering with their instruments at George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh in New York City, Shankar and a group of Indian musicians received booming applause and a standing ovation. He then had to thank the audience, but inform them they were only tuning up.

All these experiences fit with his interest in spreading awareness of his native music, but often got him in trouble with forces back home that felt he was secularizing the music to an audience that was not able, or interested, in appreciating its spiritual undercurrents.

“They thought I’m a goner, they thought I’m just selling my music, commercializing, becoming a hippie. But the fact is, luckily, I was [twice the age] of the audience and quite mature,” he recalled. “I didn’t sell my music. But I was fighting all the time here, telling the kids not to smoke, not to be stoned, and to behave properly. But back home, I was being condemned. It was a very painful situation for almost five years.”

Shankar also grew to dislike how the sitar became used in Western circles, often used in films as a cue for exotic imagery or drug use, which he said he condemned.

“It hurt me in the beginning of course, because they were not played well and were used electronically with very distorted sounds. They were used in films, whenever there was a scene of an orgy, there was that (sitar) twang. That hurt me, initially, but then I got used to it,” he said.

“The biggest shock was the drugs. I felt and I still feel strongly about that. … I fought continuously all these gurus like Allen Ginsburg telling these very young kids that in India, everyone takes drugs.”

Shankar continued his collaborations with Harrison long after the Beatles broke up. They toured together, and Harrison produced some of his recordings; their last was “Chants of India,” a collection of new compositions set to texts that date back 2,000 years, which Harrison produced in 1997. By this time, Shankar was performing largely in orchestral halls throughout the world and to audiences that had grown comfortable with hearing musical traditions from all points of the globe in their own context.

His music was also frequently showing up in more unorthodox ways: in hip-hop, where samples of his sitar were connecting to new beats, an extension of how the instrument was being twined to Western ears almost 40 years earlier.

Late into his life, Shankar often shared the stage with his daughter Anoushka Shankar, also a sitar player, who is currently nominated for a Grammy for Best World Music Album, a category in which she finds herself competing against her late father, already a three-time Grammy winner, for an album he released in April.

He said that their combined performances, because they are improvisatory based on the ragas, are always fresh, leading to revelations both on and offstage.

“I always expect and request, whenever I can, to keep an open mind. People who are very much into Western classical music, they have the maximum difficulty in getting quickly attuned to our music — they are so regimented in their listening to harmony, modulation and they are not open. We give stress to melody and rhythm and follow this raga system and never change the pitch,” he said. “There are things that, if you bear in mind and let yourself go, you see that after some time, something happens.”

“That is the main thing about our music,” he added. “I try to give to my music the spiritual quality, very deep in the soul, which does something even if you are not realizing it or analyzing it — that’s the duty of the music.

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