Ravi Shankar, legendary sitar master who played alongside The Beatles, John Coltrane and Yehudi Menuhin, died Tuesday at the age of 92. Soundcheck host John Schaefer reflects on the life and music of Shankar.
Listen back to two archival interviews conducted by Schaefer on his program New Sounds -- one from 1984, the other from 1996.
The first time I met Ravi Shankar, he told the story of the first time he met Baba Allaudin Khan, the man who would become his guru, and later, his father-in-law. Khan began, Shankar recalled, "by rebuking me. He said I was like a butterfly, doing too many things." Shankar was a 15-year old dancer in his brother Uday Shankar's troupe, which in the 1930s first brought Indian music and dance to the West. He also sang, played flute, and sitar -- all by ear. Khan told him that when he was ready to settle down and commit to one thing, he would accept Shankar as a student. It was, he said, a difficult decision, and it took a couple of years, but he eventually committed to the sitar.
Fortunately for us, Ravi Shankar never stopped doing "too many things." While he did become the most famous sitarist and perhaps the most globally-renowned non-Western artist of our time, he also composed film scores, collaborated with leading classical, rock, jazz and traditional Japanese musicians, and even wrote electronic music and played a bit of synthesizer.
"When I play the sitar," Shankar said during one of his many visits to our studio, "I am a purist, orthodox, very traditional. But as a composer I'm not frightened of experimenting with new sounds. It excites me to hear a whole range of instruments."
This was a hard-won wisdom. In the wake of becoming The Beatles "cult guru," to use his phrase, Shankar found himself in a range of unusual settings. Booked into huge rock festivals, he admitted to being discomfited by the sheer volume of the music and the rampant drug use that accompanied much of it. Though he did say he liked The Mamas & The Papas and some of the other, more melodic groups, I got the strong impression that he would not have willingly sat through another Jimi Hendrix set. After Woodstock, when he saw half a million young people "in the mud, and no one in their right mind," Shankar insisted to his overeager managers that he would not do any more rock festivals.
So for much of the 1970s, Shankar kept a relatively low profile, and when he returned in the '80s, he found that the wave of raga-rock excess has crested, and left behind in its wake a much smaller, but still substantial, number of listeners who were genuinely interested in and moved by his music. When he marked his 50th anniversary of performing, he seemed as energized as ever. Every night, he said, meant a different audience, and that kept it new for him.
Shankar passed on his musical genes. His son Shubho passed away in 1992 at the age of 50, but had toured with Ravi and had proven himself a worthy musical companion. His daughters, Anoushka Shankar and singer Norah Jones have each come into their own in the last decade -- Norah of course with a boatload of Grammy Awards and Anoushka as a globetrotting, risk-taking sitarist very much cut from her father's cloth.
And finally, Ravi Shankar taught. You can take that any way you want: He literally taught music to students in school and in private. But he also taught several generations of Westerners to appreciate the beauty and tradition of Indian music. On an even more basic level, he taught us that just because music doesn't come from your culture doesn't mean it can't be yours.