Over his long and remarkably accomplished life, Ravi Shankar was a lot of things.
He was a musician, of course, a sitar virtuoso and an accomplished composer whose relentless touring and recording did much to popularize Indian classical music outside India. He wrote concertos, and performed with symphony orchestras as well as traditional Indian ensembles.
He was also a celebrity. A few years after he had become known in the West as “India’s Most Distinguished Musician” (to quote a 1962 album title), he found himself an accidental pop star, thanks to his friendship with Beatles guitarist George Harrison. More recently, he acquired a different sort of fame when it came out that he was the long-estranged father of jazz/pop singer Norah Jones (they eventually reconciled).
Shankar, who died on Tuesday at the age of 92, was an unofficial cultural ambassador for India and, later, a member of the upper house of the Indian Parliament. He was a teacher, a scholar, a philanthropist.
But more than anything, he was a catalyst, someone whose unique combination of musicality, charisma and insight had an enormous and enduring impact on the world’s music – classical, jazz and pop.
It was a role he came to naturally. Perhaps because as a youth he had toured Europe with his older brother Uday’s dance troupe, he was always comfortable playing to audiences outside India. He had also made a point of studying both Indian and European music, something that made it easier for him not only to collaborate with other musicians but also to teach them about his own music.
Harrison, who met the sitarist while filming Help! in 1965, was probably Shankar’s most famous student. Not only did the taciturn Beatle credit Shankar as being the inspiration for the sitar solo in Norwegian Wood, but he maintained an ongoing association. In 1971, Harrison invited Shankar to open an all-star charity concert he had organized for war relief in Bangladesh; Shankar, who had previously performed at both the Woodstock and Monterey Pop festivals, seemed utterly at home, even if his audience mistook his tuning up for a performance.
But Harrison was hardly the only Westerner eager to learn from the master. In Paris, the same year he met the Beatle, Shankar was introduced to a young American composer named Philip Glass. He became a mentor to Glass, teaching him about rhythmic structure and development in Indian classical music. Glass, for his part, worked as Shankar’s copyist, writing out orchestral parts for film scores such as the one for Chappaqua.
Glass eventually applied what he had learned from Shankar to his own music. In an inversion of standard European classical composition, where pieces typically have complex harmonic structures but simplistic rhythmic development, he wrote pieces with simple harmonic development but complicated, interlocking rhythmic structures. To his chagrin, this rich, Indian-influenced style was described as “minimalism” in the music press.
Another of Shankar’s students from that period was tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. A gifted improviser who had become obsessed with finding new and different scales to build solos from, he recognized that the Indian raga system – which had, over centuries, developed a rich and complex system for improvising on a set of tones – had much to teach him. Shankar was more than happy to assist, and the two became so close that Coltrane named his son after the sitar master. Ravi Coltrane is now a successful jazz saxophonist in his own right.
Shankar had other high-profile collaborators, most notably classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin and flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and in later years he performed and recorded extensively with his daughter Anoushka Shankar. She regularly performed his concertos for sitar and orchestra (he wrote three), and in 2010 premiered her father’s Symphony for Sitar and Orchestra in London.
Because he was so happy to mingle musical traditions, Shankar was sometimes denigrated in India for polluting the nation’s musical heritage. But even though he practically invented the “world music” genre, he never forgot his roots. “In India, I have been called a destroyer,” he said once in an interview. “As a composer, I have tried everything, even electronic music and avant-garde. But, as a performer, I am, believe me, getting more classical and more orthodox, jealously protecting the heritage that I have learned.”
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