Ravi Shankar and the West’s search for the lost chord

December 12, 2012

There is a moment in the beginning of the Concert for Bangla Desh live album when sitar master Ravi Shankar and his fellow musicians play some notes on their Indian instruments. When they stop, the audience at Madison Square Garden applauds and cheers. “Thank you,” Shankar said. “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.”

He and his band members then begin playing the piece called “Bangla Dhun.” At the end, the crowd cheers just as lustily as they did for the warmup.

That was 1971. Forty-one years later, and a day after Shankar’s death at the age of 92, I’m not sure that most of the western world is any more hip to the difference between tune-up and performance in Indian music than the people who filed into Madison Square Garden that August to hear the show. I wasn’t when I heard the album in the 1980s, and I am not now. (If that’s a tune-up, I’ll listen to tune-ups for hours)

People are remembering Shankar today as a maestro of Indian music, and as the man who tried to build a bridge between western and eastern styles of music, both performance and theory. He was a crossover success, in large part because the Beatles and George Harrison in particular fell for his sound at the height of their own popularity. At least dear George stuck with it after the pop music industry wrung all that it could from adding sitars and sarods to rock and roll, and the psychedelic revolution spent itself silly on sex and drugs.

Shankar’s legacy was not that he bridged unbridgeable gaps between different cultures through their musical traditions. His legacy was that he embedded Indian music in a larger western pop tradition, and that it lurks there today. Whether we understand it or appreciate it for what it is, I can’t say. I doubt it, however.

Many of us in the West are attracted to Indian classical or devotional music because it evokes the exotic, erotic East. It just has that kind of sound.  We use it in western music to add those flavors (I was going to write “spices,” but I concluded that you can go overboard sometimes), and composers going back more than 200 years have tried their hands at styles and scales that bring the exotic feeling to their music. I suppose the inverse picture of this would be an Indian person who goes totally wild for Gregorian chant for a few heady teenage years before returning to Clapton and Pink Floyd like the rest of us do.

The air was heavy with this accent at one time. Listen to Procol Harum, the Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, the Moody Blues, Steely Dan. Sitar, sitar and more sitar. And then it faded into the background, never losing that mysterious air. To someone who knows what it is all about and understands its rhythms and meters and other distinguishing features, I suspect that it must be more than “Indian music.” To most western ears, that’s all it is.

To understand and fully appreciate different kinds of Indian music requires a lot of concentration and study, so I’m told. I’m not one of the people who has tried. To me, it seems like more of an investment than learning to understand what makes a Mahler symphony work or why Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words can make you cry.

Shankar, from what I know about him, took a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – a serendipitous flirtation by the Beatles and the West with his music – and made something wonderful: he became the most famous Indian musician in the world, he made music in new and amazing styles, and he left the world two daughters who have given the world more beautiful music. Most importantly, he made many more people familiar with a kind of music that was completely unknown to them. Now it will be up to somebody else to make the rest of the world understand it — if the world really wants to.

(Reuters photo: Parth Sanyal)

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Couldn’t help asking how much you have taken to Bollywood music?

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