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.