Ravi Shankar, a song more felt than heard

December 12, 2012

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

As the world pays tribute to sitar master Ravi Shankar, who died on Tuesday at the age of 92, it’s worth reflecting on his greatest contribution to the world: his attempt to bridge the gap between “eastern” and “western” music with the likes of the Beatles and violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

But what will Indians remember him for? Teaching George Harrison to play the sitar, perhaps. But what’s the song he wrote that no Indian can forget? What’s the Indian equivalent of the concert for Bangladesh that Harrison organized, and at which Shankar played?

Yes, he composed the legendary signature tune on Doordarshan, the national broadcaster — the tune that millions of Indians woke up to every day. But have you heard these Bollywood songs from the swinging ‘60s? “Pipara ke Patwa”, “Hiya Jarat Raha Din Rain”? Shankar composed them for the film “Godaan.” They’re not exactly big hits. He also scored Satyajit Ray’s “Apu trilogy” of films, which is an honour whose notoriety is restricted by necessity to a small group of people. Arthouse films don’t reach the same number of cinema screens as “Jaws” or “Dil Chahta Hai.” The soundtrack to “Gandhi” is a nice achievement, but it’s not an enduring hit on its own.

Shankar won all the awards and honours that one could receive, but was he successful at reaching the common man with his music? I don’t think you can say that. Like it or not, Shankar is not to India what the Beatles are to the world. Both are revered — but people play the Beatles every day, within India and without. Beyond the nearly subconscious presence of the Doordarshan tune, he is absent from India’s cinema-obsessed, song-and-dance crazy nation’s collective music-loving conscience.

Instead, he’s nearly more well known in the West, if not by name, then by influence. To most of the world, Indian music remains synonymous with the sitar, and the sitar is very much synonymous with Shankar.

Sure, he was loved and an respected icon among Indian classical music admirers, but he did not really have a legion of followers who yearned for the next concert appearance. In fact, he was often criticized by contemporaries such as Vilayat Khan for mixing with the likes of the Beatles and pandering to the western ear by adapting his works. Whether that’s sour grapes or he has a point is up to you.

Did that affect Shankar? Was he aware of this? I don’t know, but he said the following to The Guardian newspaper in 2011: “When I started working with George Harrison [in 1966], I became like a pop star myself: everywhere I went, I was recognised. I didn’t like that at all.”

“I don’t think I have sacrificed anything. But I do think that my Indian classical audiences thought I was sacrificing them through working with George. I became known as the ‘fifth Beatle’; in India, they thought I was mad.”

What Ken Hunt of Allmusic said about Shankar holds true: Shankar was the most famous Indian musician on the planet, but let’s be clear: that was more by association with the Beatles and the brief worldwide flirtation with hippies, love and enlightenment. Shankar said he rued the fact that his music was often treated as a fad by the hippie generation, which cared about his music in the context of drugs and sex.

In the end, while Shankar will remain one of the brightest stars in the musical sky, his melodies likely will be too faint to hear in his homeland.

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