12.12.12. and still, my sitar gently weeps…
…as yet another maestro passes away! (Really, these last 3 posts have been more like lengthy obituaries!) Just days after a legend of the Jazz world left, the greatest ambassador of Indian classical music in the West, and one of THE finest musicians of the world passed away. I feel very fortunate to have met him several times over the years and several of his immediate and extended family members, to have listened to him perform on many occasions, and most of all feel very blessed to have worked on the architectural design for the building that nests his school of music.
This year, my own father passed away just 3 days after Ravi Shankar’s birthday. In a strange twist of fate, the night he passed away, I was listening to Anoushka Shankar (who coincidentally has the same birthday as me) in concert in New York City. My ringer was turned off, so I could not hear my mother’s frantic calls. After that, although I have always loved the music of the sitar, and am myself trained in the classical dance style of Bharatnatyam under the tutelage of Jaya and C.V. Chandrashekar from the rigorous and disciplined Kalakshetra tradition of Rukmini Arundale and I was a classical dance performer for 16 years, (besides also learning the Flamenco dance style later,) the strains of the sitar’s strings would remind me of the day my father (who was a violinist as well) passed away. My father’s first birthday since his death would be this December 15th. And then in a strange circle, last night just three days before my father’s posthumous birthday, I received the news that Robindro-ji (Ravi Shankar) had also passed away. I fondly remember the last time I had met him, his wife and his daughter Anoushka. He kept cracking jokes with my French boyfriend – about his accent mainly and his resemblance to a certain movie actor. My partner, Guillaume, couldn’t stop raving for the next several weeks what a beautiful goddess Anoushka was and how good-humoured her father was. “Yes, he was,” I laughed..”considering just how you couldn’t take your eyes off his daughter!”) It was in Montreal, Canada, and he was happy to chat with a fellow Bengali-speaker in the largely Francophone city. I had met the maestro several times before, but I had a feeling then that it may have been for the last time. It was.
Rest in peace, Ravi Shankar.
And, a well-written tribute to him in the New York Times this morning. Spot-on, especially the part on how the ‘other’ is so often ‘exoticised’ or faces reductionism in the West, when there is so much more to this music that had developed in the Indian sub-continent over centuries:
Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso and composer who died on Tuesday at 92, created a passion among Western audiences for the rhythmically vital, melodically flowing ragas of classical Indian music — a fascination that had expanded by the mid-1970s into a flourishing market for world music of all kinds.
In particular, his work with two young semi-apprentices in the 1960s — George Harrison of the Beatles and the composer Philip Glass, a founder of Minimalism — was profoundly influential on both popular and classical music.
And his interactions throughout his career with performers from various Asian and Western traditions — including the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the saxophonist and composer John Coltrane — created hybrids that opened listeners’ ears to timbres, rhythms and tuning systems that were entirely new to them.
……Last week Mr. Shankar was told he would receive a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in February, said Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.
Though linked with the early rock era by many Americans, Mr. Shankar came to regard his participation in rock festivals as a mistake, saying he deplored the use of his music, with its roots in an ancient spiritual tradition, as a backdrop for drug use.
“On one hand,” he said in a 1985 interview, “I was lucky to have been there at a time when society was changing. And although much of the hippie movement seemed superficial, there was also a lot of sincerity in it, and a tremendous amount of energy. What disturbed me, though, was the use of drugs and the mixing of drugs with our music. And I was hurt by the idea that our classical music was treated as a fad — something that is very common in Western countries.
“People would come to my concerts stoned, and they would sit in the audience drinking Coke and making out with their girlfriends. I found it very humiliating, and there were many times I picked up my sitar and walked away.
“I tried to make the young people sit properly and listen. I assured them that if they wanted to be high, I could make them feel high through the music, without drugs, if they’d only give me a chance. It was a terrible experience at the time.
“But you know, many of those young people still come to our concerts. They have matured, they are free from drugs and they have a better attitude. And this makes me happy that I went through all that. I have come full circle.”
Ravi Shankar, whose formal name was Robindra Shankar Chowdhury, was born on April 7, 1920, in Varanasi, India, to a family of musicians and dancers. His older brother Uday directed a touring Indian dance troupe, which Ravi joined when he was 10. Within five years he had become one of the company’s star soloists. He also discovered that he had a facility with the sitar and the sarod, another stringed instrument, as well as the flute and the tabla, an Indian drum.
The idea of helping Western listeners appreciate the intricacies of Indian music occurred to him during his years as a dancer.
“My brother had a house in Paris,” he recalled in one interview. “To it came many Western classical musicians. These musicians all made the same point: ‘Indian music,’ they said, ‘is beautiful when we hear it with the dancers. On its own it is repetitious and monotonous.’ They talked as if Indian music were an ethnic phenomenon, just another museum piece. Even when they were being decent and kind, I was furious. And at the same time sorry for them. Indian music was so rich and varied and deep. These people hadn’t penetrated even the outer skin.”
Mr. Shankar soon found, however, that as a young, self-taught musician he had not penetrated very deeply either. In 1936 an Indian court musician, Allaudin Khan, joined the company for a year and set Mr. Shankar on a different path.
‘I Surrendered Myself’
“He was the first person frank enough to tell me that I had talent but that I was wasting it — that I was going nowhere, doing nothing,” Mr. Shankar said. “Everyone else was full of praise, but he killed my ego and made me humble.”
When Mr. Shankar asked Mr. Khan to teach him, he was told that he could learn to play the sitar only after he decided to give up the worldly life he was leading and devote himself fully to his studies. In 1937 Mr. Shankar gave up dancing, sold his Western clothes and returned to India to become a musician.
“I surrendered myself to the old way,” he said, “and let me tell you, it was difficult for me to go from places like New York and Chicago to a remote village full of mosquitoes, bedbugs, lizards and snakes, with frogs croaking all night. I was just like a Western young man. But I overcame all that.”
And here, a stunningly reflective-yet-joyous piece by his daughter Anoushka (who herself is also a trained Bharatnatyam dancer) from her new album ‘Traveller’ which traces the Indian origins of the gypsy music of Flamenco. The video catches the tail end of the sitar-guitar duet before breaking out into a heartfelt cante flamenco and then finishing with a joyous Bengali folk tune. The cameraman seems mesmerized by Anoushka’s beautiful face – no complaints but it would have been nice to catch just a glimpse or two of the other musicians playing in this piece as well. Really, sometimes I wish Raviji had fathered many more daughters, besides Anoushka and Norah Jones ;) This performance, at the City Winery is bitter-sweet for me, because this is what I was watching and where I was, right up there in the front row, the night my own father (who is seen here with his violin)- the man who had first introduced me to the music of Ravi Shankar, passed away.
A little extra: another gem….recorded in Madrid.