To Yehudi Menuhin he was 'a precious gift' who 'added a new dimension to my experience of music'. 'To me,' the legendary violinist declared, 'his genius and his humanity can only be compared to that of Mozart's.' To the late Beatle George Harrison, he was 'The Godfather of World Music', to conductor Zubin Mehta, the 'Jascha Heifetz of India (who) educated me more than anyone else'.
It is a measure of Ravi Shankar's achievements across the seven-decade span of his music-making that any attempt to describe an encounter with him is usually couched in an intensely personal response – jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, as a measure of his esteem, named his son after the great sitar player – or, more often than not, wrapped in hyperbole. Understandably so. Few other musicians can claim to have crossed so many frontiers, bridged so many boundaries, forged so many truly meaningful relationships with fellow-artists outside of their own discipline as Shankar.
It's also a measure of the man himself that he deftly side-steps the annointments of others, politely but firmly refusing the dubiously tinctured chalice of 'crossover guru' in whatever guise it assumes each time it is foisted upon him.
Even so, perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Shankar's professional life is the degree to which it has been misunderstood. Shankar has never attempted whatever his relationship with The Beatles might have implied – to 'fuse', to be 'ethnic',to 'cross over'. Instead he has immersed himself in a tradition of Indian music that can trace its origins beyond the towering totems of Western art music to sources that are nearly 2000 years old. Significantly, he has managed to bring that music – underwritten by the strictly ordered but improvisationally infused tradition of the rāga – into a western arena without diluting it or compromising it. In doing so he has added immeasurably to the vitality and vocabulary of what appears by comparison to be the limitations of the diatonic system.
As the son of an eminent Indian scholar, lawyer and statesman, his encounter with the West must have seemed pre-destined. Sent to Paris at the age of 10 in 1930 to continue his education, Shankar's precocious ability on the sitar turned him into something of an exotic, if not an infant, phenomenon. Towards the end of the decade he returned to India and a seven-year discipleship with Ustad Allauddin Khan, the founder of modern Hindustani classical music, during which time Shankar and the sitar became as though one.
As the composer of soundtracks for India's nascent film industry in the late 1940s and '50s (Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray's directorial debut included), Shankar gained greater international exposure. His regular tours as a soloist added to his reputation as a musician without compare. Collaborations with western musicians of virtually every generic hue across the following decades – Menuhin, David Oistrakh, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Philip Glass, to name but a few – followed. Yet despite the clamour and glamour of the West, Shankar's own musical focus always remained specific:
'Western music hasn't influenced me at all,' he insisted. 'Nor do I play folk music or primitive songs. What I play is classical music.'
Based principally on melody and rhythm rather than harmony, counterpoint, modulation and the other basics of western classical music, the rāga – described by Shankar as 'a scientific, precise, subtle and aesthetic melodic form with its own peculiar ascending and descending movement consisting of either a full seven-note scale, or a series of six or five notes (or a combination of any of these) in a rising or falling structure' - is at the very heart of Indian classical music (its apparent mathematical underpinning not altogether dissimilar in principle to the complex but accessible structures Bach built his music on).
What distinguishes one rāga from another for Shankar is not only what a musician chooses to do with this contrarily most flexible yet secure, free but fixed of forms, but also, and crucially, 'the projection of the artist's inner spirit'. In brute Western terms, one might describe this as a marriage between 'virtuosity' and the 'holy'. But that the closest Western musicans have been allowed to get to this aspirational union is the self-penned cadenza – a parenthetical addendum, a punctuation mark masquerading as commentary – says something about the prescriptive aesthetic beliefs that underpin artistic constructs in the west.
What sets Indian classical music apart from its Western analogue is the central and often defining importance of improvisation that relies not just on technical ability, but also on sincerity of purpose and integrity of execution – an amalgam in which Shankar, who estimates that 'as much as 90 per cent of Indian music may be improvised,' simply has no equal, east or west.
But it is for his innovations rather than his influence that history will remember Shankar. His ability to take an ancient form and give it renewed resonance not just in its native Indian but vital currency throughout the world can be seen as the root of John Coltrane's push towards free jazz, the provocation to a generation of American minimalists to investigate modular repetition (Terry Riley's In C) and what might be called the sub-atomic elements of music (La Monte Young's Trio for Strings), and the encouragement to young Anglo-Indian composers like Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney to mix and match old and new, east and west to telling contemporary effect.
'I am closer to the past, than to the present,' Shankar, now 82 and still making music, once insisted. Some might think he does himself a disservice, for here is a musician who is very much of the present and as close to the potential-filled future of music-making as he is to the illustrious library of its past.
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