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Music / Ravi Shankar

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Ravi Shankar (7 April 1920 11 December 2012) was the world's most famous Indian musician.

His career started as early as the 1930s, when he toured the world as a child singer and dancer in a singing and dancing group. This made him accustomed to Western culture, which would come in handy later in his career. From the late 1930s until halfway the 1940s Shankar was trained into music and the culture of his country by a guru. After his training was completed he began touring and performing, becoming a local celebrity in India.

Notability in the West came in the 1950s and 1960s, when he collaborated with renowned classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, which resulted in the albums "West Meets East" (2 volumes, 1966 and 1968). This made him well known in Classical Music circles, but halfway the 1960s he also became known among pop music fans. In 1965 Shankar met George Harrison with whom he struck a life long friendship. He taught Harrison to play sitar and also imparted knowledge about Indian philosophy, religion, history and culture. This inspired a lot of The Beatles and Harrison solo songs with traditional Indian music, including "Norwegian Wood" (Rubber Soul (1965), "Love You To" (Revolver (1966)), "Within You Without You" (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)), Harrison's solo album Wonderwall Music (1968) and The Concert for Bangladesh (1971). Soon Shankar's fame and popularity spread among other Western music artists. On the cover of Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home (1965) a copy of India's Master Musician can be seen. Frank Zappa mentions Shankar as an influence in the liner notes of Freak Out (1966). John Coltrane named his son "Ravi" after the musician. Minimalist composer Philip Glass started his career as a copyist for Shankar, an experience he credits as formative for his own musical style, and they later collaborated on the album Passages together.

Soon Shankar was performing on rock festivals like Monterey Pop (1967) and Woodstock (1969), despite just playing sitar music. Fans of Psychedelic Rock did enjoy his performances, though, and soon he was a household name among the hippie crowd. Yet Shankar distanced himself from the movement. He felt many people just came to trip on hallucinogenic drugs and babble on about social change, without actually doing something. He was also conscious that his notability and popularity would probably fade away when the hippie movement petered out. A prophecy that turned out to be correct. From the mid 1970s onward only his true fans remained. But he didn't mind. He preferred people coming to listen to the music and respect his culture, rather than just being there because he was hip.

His soundtrack credits include the three films of the famous "Apu Trilogy" by Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar), as well as Gandhi and Canadian short film A Chairy Tale.

Although he embraced the West he remained a devout Hindu and was very concerned about the globalization of Western culture over traditional cultures worldwide.

Shankar kept touring and releasing new albums until his death in 2012. His daughters, Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar are famous musicians in their own right.

Ravi Shankar's work provides examples of...

  • Alliterative Title: His 1965 album "Sound Of The Sitar".
  • Badass Boast: His albums "India's Most Distinguished Musician In Concert", "India's Master Musician" and "The Genius Of Ravi Shankar".
  • Celebrity Is Overrated: While being glad with his international success Shankar remained a modest man who lived a simple life. He once claimed being glad that he was already in his forties when he became such a success among young Psychedelic Rock fans: "Otherwise all that success might have gone to my head."
  • Crossover: He duetted with Indian sarod virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, composer André Previn, George Harrison and composer Philip Glass throughout his career.
  • Cult Soundtrack: He composed music for the films of Satiyajit Ray, including Pather Panchali and the Oscar winning movie Gandhi (1982).
  • Deadpan Snarker: He was warm and serious most of the time, but on The Concert for Bangladesh album he has a moment. Shankar explains to the audience that he and Ali Akbar Khan are going to play some Indian music and that he'd appreciate it if they concentrate a bit and refrain from smoking.note  Then the musicians play a few flourishes for a minute or so, and the audience applauds respectfully.
  • Epic Rocking: Many of his performances can stretch to several minutes, even hours.
  • God-Is-Love Songs: His compositions and improvisations were often inspired by his Hindu faith.
  • Improv: Much of his music was improvised on stage. His album "Improvisations" (1962) is a prime example, but Indian classical music is based on improvisation, so it goes with the territory.note 
  • Instrumental: His music is predominantly instrumental, though sometimes some chanting was done.
  • Long-Runners: Shankar became world famous in the late 1960s, but was already performing and touring as a child singer and dancer in the 1930s.
  • The Mentor: As a music teacher and scholar, he definitely earned the title "Pandit." Who else can say they were a major influence on John Coltrane and David Crosby and The Byrds and The Beatles and The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa and Philip Glass?
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis: To the general public Shankar is better known through his collaborations with The Beatles than anything else he ever did.
  • Self-Titled Album: Many of his albums have his name in the title.
  • Scenery Porn: His music is very popular as the Standard Snippet to play whenever images of Indian landscapes are shown on television.
  • Small Reference Pools: Yeah, sorry, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, Vilayat Khan, Zakir Hussain: Ravi Shankar is pretty much the only Indian musician most Westerners have ever heard of.
    • His daughter Anoushka Shankar is fairly familiar on account of high-profile collaborations with the likes of Sting, Lenny Kravitz and Joshua Bell; a lot of people who like Norah Jones's music probably don't even realise that she's Ravi Shankar's daughter.
  • Watch It Stoned: Averted, at least as far as Shankar was concerned. He intensely disliked when Hippies conflated Indian culture and music with drug culture, especially when they showed up at his concerts under the influence thinking that drugs would help them experience the music better. While Shankar was not a teetotaler, he felt this cheapened his music and would remark, "I assured them that if they wanted to be high, I could make them feel high through the music."
  • World Music: Ravi Shankar popularized South Asian music, both from India and Pakistan, to the rest of the world. He's been called the Godfather of the genre.