Ravi Shankar is most famous to Americans as the sitar player who in the 1960s influenced such rock superstars as the Beatles’ George Harrison. But the virtuoso of traditional Indian music, who died Dec. 11 at age 92 in southern California, had a broader artistic and spiritual purpose than merely adding an exotic flair to western pop songs.
Shankar’s website features this 2009 quote: “Music transcends all languages and barriers and is the most beautiful communicative skill one can have. Music makes us all experience different emotions or the Navarasa as we call it. Different types of music, whether it is vocal or instrumental, Eastern or Western, classical or pop or folk from any part of the world can all be spiritual if it has the power to stir the soul of a person and transcend time for the moment.”
Not surprisingly, Shankar had a profound effect on those who worked with him, not just with his technical skill. Here are a few famous names in music whose paths intersected with his:
- George Harrison. The most spiritual member of the Beatles was Shankar’s most famous Western student, and one of the few rock musicians that Shankar saw as having a deeper appreciation of Indian music. It also was Shankar who first alerted Harrison in 1971 to the plight of refugees in Bangladesh’s war to become independent from Pakistan, which led to Harrison’s organizing the famous Concert for Bangladesh at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1971. Here’s a video of Shankar giving a sitar lesson to Harrison.
- John Coltrane. According to Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter, as the saxophonist and composer worked to expand the boundaries of jazz, he sought inspiration in the early 1960s from listening to Shankar’s records. As Coltrane told French journalist Francois Postif: “His music moves me. I’m certain that if I recorded with him, I’d increase my possibilities tenfold.” In 1964, Coltrane finally got a chance to meet Shankar, who subsequently gave him a few sitar lessons, according to a 1974 New York Times interview with Shankar. Coltrane was so taken by him that the following year, he named his second son after him. Porter writes that Shankar’s influence on Coltrane can be heard in Coltrane’s interest in exotic scales and the repetitions in his improvisations, “which bring to mind the Indian style of sitar improvisation.”
- Andre Previn. In 1971, Shankar recorded Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra with the London Symphony Orchestra, with Previn conducting. The New York Times opined that “the work is not a concerto in the familiar Western sense of the word . . . the usual contrasting elements of theme, development and key change have been replaced by a well-organized collection of Indian musical forms.”
- Philip Glass. The avant garde composer told the Christian Science Monitor in 1981 that, after graduating from Julliard, his first composing efforts in the early 1960s were boring, “middle of the road” work that mimicked his American instructors. Despairing, he actually decided to quit writing music, until he was hired to be Shankar’s assistant on a movie score. “Through him, I got in touch with a whole different world: non-Western music. I traveled in North Africa, central Asia, India,” Glass recalled. “I became aware of traditions that had nothing to do with my background. I was inspired by it. I saw there were other powerful ideas and ways of organizing music.”
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