Daily Bow: Honoring Ravi Shankar

Daily Bow LogoLast week two major titans in the world of classical music passed away: Charles Rosen, who we wrote about last week, and Ravi Shankar.

You might be thinking: “Shankar? He’s not a classical musician is he?” Indeed, his music was very different than ours. But since we’ve recently had a lot of interest in western classical music in Sri Lanka, I thought it was appropriate to not only honor the man, but explore what classical music is on the other side of the world.

One of our era’s pre-eminent sitar players, Shankar played a pivotal role in spreading Indian classical music throughout the western world. One of his biggest followers was none other than the Beatles’ George Harrison, who once called him “The Godfather of world music.” But things were not always bright in Shankar’s life…

While living in Bombay in the late 1940s, betrayed by a business partner and his first marriage in the midst of painful implosion, Ravi Shankar decided to commit suicide. At the eleventh hour, a holy man, who happened to be passing by, knocked on his door asking for water. The man told Shankar that he was aware of his fateful decision. This wasn’t, he went on, the right time to be renouncing life. He had a great future ahead of him, the sadhu continued, and a major role to play in the dissemination of Indian music throughout the world. The man became Ravi Shankar’s spiritual teacher, and for several decades, the sitar player would go to him whenever racked by self-doubt or uncertain of his path.

There was something fated about Shankar’s life: it’s a story that makes sense almost on a mythical level, with its ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments and above all the unfolding of a timely logic. His role was to bridge East and West and to initiate the rest of the world into musical traditions that go back to the ancient Vedas and the artistry of the great Mughal court musician Tansen, who could make the rain fall, it was said, when he played the right raga. Ravi Shankar was a master of the sruti, the subtle and undefined microtone that our more defined system of tempered scales has by-passed for centuries: the sliding space between tones which opens the soul to the reality that lies beyond everyday rational consciousness…

…When we spoke, Shankar, explained that virtuosity was far from everything: he had little time for those prisoners of ego who “played to the gallery”. In so doing, he said, they betrayed music’s inherent power to heal and to communicate love. His longevity had a great deal to do with maintaining a sense of his own roots as well as his spiritual inheritance. At key moments in his life, he went for the “path of most resistance”, as the pianist Artur Schnabel described his own approach to music: when in the 1930s, still a teenager, Raviji turned his back on a life of five-star hotels, fawning Hollywood fans and a budding career as a dancer and choreographer, choosing instead to study music for seven years in near-ascetic conditions with Allauddin Khan. Later, in the early 1970s, he once again retired from the world, when it looked as if he could become a world superstar, playing massive rock arenas, in the wake of his famous appearances at Monterey and Woodstock.

These excerpts are from an article written by Mark Kidel, a documentary filmmaker and writer nearly as legendary as Shankar himself: the subjects of the many portrait films he has made include Rod Stewart, Iannis Xenakis, Leon Fleisher, and Peter Sellars, among others. He made a documentary on Shankar in 2002-2003.

The origins of Indian classical music can be found in the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in the Hindu tradition. When we recognize that, the spirituality behind Shankar’s life makes much more sense. And while that spiritual element is not as prominent in more contemporary classical works, it was a driving force in the lives of many composers for countless centuries: from the masses of Palestrina to the religious works of J.S. Bach and Messiaen. Indian classical music is both elaborate and expressive and shares some basic foundational elements with Western, such as dividing the octave into 12 semitones. Some key differences are the emphasis on improvisation, monophonic melodies, and the presence of fixed drones.

Some people know of Shankar via groups like the Beatles, which popularized the sitar in its tunes after Harrison studied with Indian master. Others know of him through the message of his art, which many argue was about peace, the soul, and humanity.

But all of us know Shankar because he made that fateful decision not to take his life. And his impact on the world through music is something to be respected and admired, regardless of what genres we decide to designate his music to. Like Charles Rosen, Shankar left an unforgettable impact on the world through music. As Kidel writes: “He served music as one serves a higher power, in a spirit of devotion.”

The clip below is from the end of Kidel’s documentary:

Read the full article – Remembering Ravi Shankar, 1920-2012

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