“The beauty of our music is the ability to improvise endlessly, and that is my forte – I never know what I am going to do in the next two seconds, and that is still a great thrill.”
-Ustaad Ravi Shankar
Ravi Shankar, a musical prodigy born to India, was a magician with the harmonies and the tunes and embodied in himself a delectable blend of the traditional and the modern. Formally trained by Allaudin Khan, Shankar learned the varying nuances of sitar from the very best in the field, and ventured out of the conventional moulds of instrumental music to create a niche of his own. Widely venerated for his prowess in experimental music and in the field of Indo-western fusion, Shankar travelled to Europe for a major chunk of his youth days to find a way to express the musical side that monopolized his identity in the later years.
In the course of his lionized musical career, along with earning global acclaim, Shankar also acquired a very ardent critic of his works in the form of Ustad Vilayat Khan.Similar to Shankar in some ways, Khan also experimented with the various harmonies and created something new and astoundingly beautiful every time he performed. However, he elevated his music to the pedestal of being very pristine and pious, as something which was best left unscathed from the flames of westernisation. On the other hand, Shankar would often infuse the melodies of his sitar with western classical and jazz forms, in an endeavour to bring the Indian musical mystique to a global mass audience. Pursuing this ambition, Shankar also made acquaintance with the Beatles, an acquaintance that deepened into a deep friendship fuelled by mutual respect.
When Ravi Shankar met ‘The Beatles’, it was a dream union. The flamboyant west with the introspective east. It was the acoustic equivalent of Buddha and Socrates discussing philosophy.
Here’s a rare video of Ravi Shankar teaching George Harrison how to play the Sitar:-
This dream union, however, was to have its costs. Even though Indian music was brought to a global platform, there was a blatant disregard for the finesse of the style. The performance of this music at rave parties made the western rock audiences come to the delirious conclusion of Indian music being in tandem with narcotics and ‘free love’. Ravi Shankar played no small part in making India a must-visit destination in the hippie circuit.
This association shocked Shankar, who belonged to the tradition that considered music as a sacred connection to a higher state of being. It was also insulting for him to be playing for an audience which was too intoxicated to recognize the performer, and the socially accepted and normative practice of breaking the instrument after the performance outraged him. It was the mid 70’s when he realized that he had lost his hard-earned reputation as an earnest classical performer in the eyes of hid own people.
Shankar returned to his homeland and his relentless efforts to correct the mistakes he had committed succeeded. Later, he was conferred with Padmashree award. This also created some controversies when Vilayat Khan refused to accept this award stating that he should have received the award before Shankar, since he was a senior player and had more experience as a sitarist as compared to Shankar.
Such was the relationship between Shankar and Khan, sprinkled lavishly with mutual respect, and yet laden with a kind of animosity where both of them vied for the top spot. Khan had once grudgingly accepted “Robu da has popularised India’s music all over the world at the cost of his music.”
Irrespective of the sharp twists and turns of the roller-coaster like chronicle of his career, Shankar has proven to be one of the most celebrated and cherished classical instrumentalist, and has Anoushka Shankar carrying forward his legacy.