“Music may not have, precisely, saints. But no musician alive is a closer fit.”
Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar had left such a charismatic impression upon the West during the 1950s and 60s, that when Los Angeles Times wrote about the man almost half a century later, they were still as enamoured with the virtuoso as they were then, and even equated him to a saint amongst musicians.
From the banks of Ganga to becoming one of the first Indian musicians to amass an impressively large fan following in the West, if there is a word that can befittingly summarise Pandit Ravi Shankar’s illustrious musical odyssey spanning over eight long decades, extraordinary would be it.
As for his contribution in taking Indian ragas to rest of the world, no other Indian musician would ever come close to Shankar in the way he paved the way for a new era of music to emerge in the 1960s comprising an eclectic infusion of Indian instruments into pop music.
For the American listeners, Shankar’s musical renditions on ‘a confusing-looking instrument shaped like an oversized guitar’ dazzled them with its complexity and some even found a slight resemblance to modern jazz and Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system.
According to TIME, Shankar’s sitar artistry was a major influence on jazz innovators such pianist Dave Brubeck and saxophonists John Coltrane and Bud Shank.
“Everybody says how free our music is, but in comparison with Indian music, we are terrifically restricted. It’s endless what a musician like Ravi can do,” Shank had stated once.
It was, however, his association and much-renowned bonhomie with The Beatles, the quintessential English rock band, which made Shankar an immortal entity in the western countries, especially during the boom of the hippie movement.
The Beatles, in turn, were so entranced by Ravi Shankar’s scintillating expertise in Sitar that the band’s lead guitarist, George Harrison, flew all the way to India just to learn the rustic instrument straight from the maestro.
An interesting story comes along with this historic visit of Harrison, who was specifically advised by Shankar to arrive in disguise to avoid being recognised by people.
With a makeover comprising of a new hairstyle and a moustache, Harrison managed to clear customs and immigration but eventually got caught by the elevator boy at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel in Mumbai, which soon led to a huge crowd.
The duo had to flee to Srinagar where they lived on a houseboat and peacefully continued Harrison’s study of the sitar.
This connection took Shankar, who already was a celebrated Sitar artist, to another level of superstardom, also resulting in a long-term international following of serious enthusiasts.
In the 1970s, they collaborated on two albums and toured the USA together but what emerged as a breakthrough achievement out of this friendship was a charity concert for Bangladesh in 1971.
Disturbed by the plight of countless refugees escaping to India from the brutalities of war in Bangladesh, Shankar wished to intervene and reached out to Harrison.
Through two benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden that included Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and Ringo Starr, the duo managed to raise millions of dollars for UNICEF and became heroes in the eyes of Bangladeshis.
It is believed that this pioneering event had been the precursor that inspired other rock benefits, including the 1985 Live Aid concert to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia.
Shankar and Harrison remained lifelong friends and later worked together on various projects, including the 1997 album Chants from India. In fact, Harrison had co-produced the unforgettable box set retrospective ‘Ravi Shankar: In Celebration’ that came out in 1996.
It is quite heartening how two passionate musicians hailing from completely different musical paradigms forged a bond of friendship that transcended both time and space.
Harrison, who once called Shankar ‘the Godfather of World Music,’ had famously stated that the legendary musician was the biggest influencer in his life.
On his 98th birth anniversary, we remember the musical iconoclast who forever changed the way Indian classical music was perceived abroad and took it to glorious heights—something that no other Indian musician would have dreamt of achieving even in their wildest dreams.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)