Remembering Ravi Shankar, 1920-2012 | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Remembering Ravi Shankar, 1920-2012
From child musician to world music superstar - the astonishing, nourishing life of Raviji
While living in Bombay in the late 1940s, betrayed by a business partner and his first marriage in the midst of painful implosion, Ravi Shankar decided to commit suicide. At the eleventh hour, a holy man, who happened to be passing by, knocked on his door asking for water. The man told Shankar that he was aware of his fateful decision. This wasn’t, he went on, the right time to be renouncing life. He had a great future ahead of him, the sadhu continued, and a major role to play in the dissemination of Indian music throughout the world. The man became Ravi Shankar’s spiritual teacher, and for several decades, the sitar player would go to him whenever racked by self-doubt or uncertain of his path.
There was something fated about Shankar’s life: it’s a story that makes sense almost on a mythical level, with its ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments and above all the unfolding of a timely logic. His role was to bridge East and West and to initiate the rest of the world into musical traditions that go back to the ancient Vedas and the artistry of the great Mughal court musician Tansen, who could make the rain fall, it was said, when he played the right raga. Ravi Shankar was a master of the sruti, the subtle and undefined microtone that our more defined system of tempered scales has by-passed for centuries: the sliding space between tones which opens the soul to the reality that lies beyond everyday rational consciousness.
He did fusion, but never lost himself in it
I was lucky to spend time with Raviji, named so by his disciples and friends in recognition for his musical and spiritual mastery. I have felt infinitely blessed by the relationship. I travelled, for the film I made about him, to his birth-place Varanasi. There are many places in India that exude great spirituality, but a few have been singled out as tirtha, points on the earth where it is possible to cross more easily into another dimension. I was not surprised, once I got to know Varanasi, that Raviji had been nurtured there, for he lived to make that crossing as present as possible in his work. He knew that the music he played offered the audience the possibility of transcendence, and he devoted himself to being such a life-enhancing and transformative channel. The idea of crossing was also manifest in his lifelong commitment to teaching Western audiences about the riches of his own tradition. He was what the French call a passeur, a kind of medium, through time, space and other dimensions.
When we spoke, Shankar, explained that virtuosity was far from everything: he had little time for those prisoners of ego who “played to the gallery”. In so doing, he said, they betrayed music’s inherent power to heal and to communicate love. His longevity had a great deal to do with maintaining a sense of his own roots as well as his spiritual inheritance. At key moments in his life, he went for the “path of most resistance”, as the pianist Artur Schnabel described his own approach to music: when in the 1930s, still a teenager, Raviji turned his back on a life of five-star hotels, fawning Hollywood fans and a budding career as a dancer and choreographer, choosing instead to study music for seven years in near-ascetic conditions with Allauddin Khan. Later, in the early 1970s, he once again retired from the world, when it looked as if he could become a world superstar, playing massive rock arenas, in the wake of his famous appearances at Monterey and Woodstock.
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