“Araga,” said Ravi Shankar, “is a scientific, precise, subtle and aesthetic melodic form with its own peculiar ascending and descending movement consisting of either a full seven-note octave, or a series of six or five notes in a rising or falling structure called the Arohana and Avarohana. It is the subtle difference in the order of notes, an omission of a dissonant note, an emphasis on a particular note, the slide from one note to the other … that demarcate one raga from the other.”
Known as the sitar player who hobnobbed with the Beatles, presented a rock benefit concert for Bangladesh and later became known as the estranged father of popular American singer Norah Jones, the late Ravi Shankar was a man of many facets.
He was known for having made appearances at non-classical events, such as the original Woodstock and 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. It was his close friendship with the “Quiet Beatle,” George Harrison and his band mates that really helped to popularize sitar music worldwide. He also had musical connections with John Coltrane, Yehudi Menuhin and David Crosby.
Described as the “legend of legends” by Shivkumar Sharma, a noted santoor player, Ravi Shankar played a valuable role in universalizing music of the subcontinent to the world through the instrument of sitar.
He was India’s most esteemed musical ambassador and a singular phenomenon. As a performer, composer, teacher and writer, he did more for Indian music than any other musician. Though he is well known for his pioneering work in bringing Indian music to the West, he did so only after long years of dedicated study under his illustrious guru, Ustad Allaudin Khan.
As early as the 1950s, Shankar began collaborating with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz saxophonist Coltrane. He presented shows in concert halls in Europe and the United States, but faced a constant struggle to bridge the musical gap between the West and the East.
Describing an early Shankar tour in 1957, Time magazine said. “U.S. audiences were receptive but occasionally puzzled.”
Always ahead of his time, Ravi Shankar wrote three concertos for sitar and orchestra. He authored violinsitar compositions for Yehudi Menuhin and himself, music for flute virtuoso Jean Pierre Rampal, music for Hosan Yamamoto, master of the Shakuhachi and Musumi Miyashita - Koto virtuoso and collaborated with Phillip Glass (Passages). George Harrison produced and participated in two record albums, “Shankar Family & Friends” and “Festival of India” both composed by Ravi Shankar. Ravi Shankar also composed for ballets and films in India, Canada, Europe and the United States.
Born in Varanasi, Ravi started his career in the performing arts as a dancer and spent his youth tour- ing Europe and India with the dance group of his brother Uday Shankar. He gave up dancing in 1938 to learn the sitar under Ustad Allauddin Khan. He subsequently worked as a composer of film music and worked on the music of the Apu Trilogy produced by Satyajit Ray and later on Charly and Gandhi. He also served as a music director at All India Radio in New Delhi between 1949 and 1956.
His touring career began in 1956 when he started presenting Indian classical music performances in Eu- rope and the America. This is when his association with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and rock artist George Harrison commenced. The best thing about Ravi Shankar was that he could relate the sitar and Indian classical music with Western music which made his tours quite popular around the world in the 70s and 80s.
In the tradition of Indian political patronage, he served as a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper chamber of the Parliament of India, from 1986 to 1992 and was awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1999. He also received three Grammy Awards and continued to perform into the 2000s, sometimes with his younger daughter, Anoushka. He died at the ripe age of 92, leaving a rich tradition of music behind.