Remembering Ravi Shankar (1920 – 2012)

Music Features

“I have always poured out all of the peace, joy, love and pain that I have experienced in my life through my music.”—Ravi Shankar

The loss is incomprehensible. On a personal level, the death of Ravi Shankar on December 12th at the age of 92 is understandable. The number of years allotted to the Indian sitarist was generous; he filled his time on earth creating an unparalleled body of music and he left nothing undone. On a larger cultural level, a giant has passed and there is truly no one alive to replace him.

Ravi Shankar was born into a world that has disappeared. When he was born two years after the end of the first World War in 1920, India was still a part of the British empire and the culture to which he belonged was often considered backward and undeveloped. But, that’s only because those who made such pronouncements didn’t know where to look. For all of its poverty and reluctance to join the modern world, India had always maintained and continued to cultivate some of the most highly developed musical traditions the world had ever seen.

Ravi was born just in time to benefit from a centuries old system of musical instruction that even in his youth was beginning to disappear. When I met Shankar in 2009, he fondly remembered his own training and told me that before he was even allowed to touch his sitar, his teacher made him spend several years simply learning how to hear properly. He told me that the sounds outside his window and the songs of birds were his first teachers as he was instructed to try and find the corresponding sounds in nature to match the sounds of his sitar. He listened to running water as a way of learning scales. This helped him dissolve the divisions in the natural world to create a palette that was limited only by the ear’s ability to discern patterns in the universe.

As the product of such a rigorous path of instruction, I was surprised when Shankar told me that he was a big fan of YouTube. For all of his disciplined training, Ravi was never a purist and was glad that efforts were being made to preserve the legacy of Indian classical music in a digital format. He told me that he’d spent many enjoyable hours looking at the site and was surprised by the depth of material archived there, but was quick to add that no amount of videos or recordings could substitute for a good teacher.

And what a teacher Ravi Shankar was! He was perhaps most famous for his association with George Harrison who he first met in 1966 and who later credited him with virtually “creating world music.” While that may not be literally true, it’s fair to suggest that Ravi Shankar did more than anyone—except for perhaps Bob Marley—to open the ears of the people of the world to non-western music.

Since he first performed outside of India in 1954 until failing health sidelined him shortly before his death, Ravi Shankar travelled the corners of the earth from India to Europe to the Soviet Bloc during the cold war as an ambassador for Indian classical music. Over more than five decades, Shankar logged millions of miles, thousands of concerts and hundreds of recording sessions with a passion and work ethic that has never been rivaled. All the while, he shared some of the most complex, beautiful and uplifting music ever created as he communicated ancient traditions for the modern world to hear.

It is certainly true that Ravi Shankar’s career was as successful as it was due to a combination of pure talent and good timing. When his career really took off in the ’60s, he was the beneficiary of post-war prosperity and the end of colonialism, as well as the open mindedness of a younger generation that was just coming of age. By this point, Shankar’s command of the language of Indian classical music was at a high point of virtuosity. Few artists in his or any other medium had ever reached such a high point of musical perception as decades of practice gave Shankar the tools to improvise on the spot with the kinds of agility and grace that enabled him to paint aural pictures with his sitar as quickly as the ear could absorb them.

It was hard to miss Ravi Shankar in the ’60s. He was everywhere. He played at Monterey Pop, Woodstock and the Concert for Bangladesh, but even though he was an indelible part of the era’s culture, he wasn’t of it. The free and unrestrained nature of his music was achieved through great discipline and study, and he felt the casual sex, drugs and wild abandon of the era was counterproductive to an understanding of his art form. He told me that he “felt offended and shocked to see India being regarded so superficially and to witness its great culture being exploited. Yoga…the Kama Sutra! They became part of a cocktail in which everyone seemed to be indulging.”

The fading of the ’60s counterculture contributed to a decline in Ravi Shankar’s profile, but also ironically allowed him to develop his music to a higher level. Freed from the expectations of a generation who loved, but largely failed to understand his work, he continued to play around the world and like his long-time friend, the classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, he was an artist whose work continued to improve as he aged.
Like Menuhin’s late recordings of Bach, Shankar’s interpretations of classical ragas became more spare and essential as the years went on and he was able to open himself more to the music of the spheres.

Near the end of his life, Ravi Shankar could express more with a simple melody than others could in an entire concert. This minimalist approach did not evolve in response to the process of aging; instead, it represented a grand adventure that was as much about the exploration of silence as it was about the search for new sounds. Fewer notes were played, but they carried more suggestion and nuance than ever. As Shankar told me in 2009, “The music is so lovely. I am completely free now. At my age, there’s nothing left to prove. I have had a life of rigorous discipline, and now, it is the time in my life when I can be free. In some ways I have never enjoyed playing more. There is no boundary between the music and myself. The thin layer that separated me from it has dissolved. Now, I am the music. This is a time of great joy.”

Shankar continued to experience this great joy right up until the very end of his life; he played his last concert near his home in San Diego just a few short weeks before he died. If you take the time to listen to The Living Room Sessions that featured some home recordings from his 91st year or watch the recently released Tenth Decade DVD, you’ll experience an artist who has truly been liberated from all constraints.

Though I’m sure that everyone wishes that Ravi Shankar could have held on a little longer, it wouldn’t be fair to say that his journey was incomplete in any way. Each of us can only hope that we achieve and experience a fraction of what he did during his time on earth. Ravi’s musical legacy will be carried on in two very diverse directions by his daughters, Anoushka Shankar who continues to travel the world playing her own cutting-edge version of Indian classical sitar music, and Norah Jones who has pursued a career in jazz and pop music. Ravi lives on the mischievous grins that each of them flash when they play an especially good melody or solo.

The night Ravi Shankar died I was watching the Tenth Decade DVD with my youngest daughter, Nora, who suffers from insomnia and has always found his music a magical balm for relaxing and forgetting the cares of the day. Just after I tucked her in to bed, I came downstairs and read of Ravi’s passing. It really felt like someone in the family, someone dear to our daily routines had left us.

Lying in bed that night, I thought about how the last time I heard Ravi Shankar play live, he could barely hold his instrument and it had to be carried on stage for him. Once it was cradled in his hands and he began to play, everything changed as his face lit up and the years washed away as he tuned into the sounds of the universe that a lifetime of listening had given him the sensitivity to hear. That’s how I’ll always remember him—eyes tightly closed , rocking back and forth to the rhythms and dances that he coaxed out of his sitar, with a grin on his face that said it all, and that got bigger as the night went on.

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