Ravi Shankar, master of the mystery of Indian classical music


Because no story about Ravi Shankar can fail to mention certain people, let's get this over with: Father to Norah Jones (check) and tutor to the late George Harrison of the Beatles (check), the famed Indian sitar player seems fated to having his career discussed in terms of its value to Western pop.

Shankar, 85, doesn't run from his VH1-worthy connections. But the non-Indian world has trouble talking past these points. If Shankar had never met a Beatle and never had a talented child, he would still be one of the world's most accomplished musicians.

"To me, his genius and humanity can only be compared to that of Mozart's," the violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin once said of Shankar. The two recorded a Grammy-winning classical album, 1967's West Meets East, and the late Menuhin wrote the foreword to Shankar's 1969 autobiography, My Music, My Life. In it, he thanked Shankar for reintroducing Western classical music to "the Indian quality of serenity."

Shankar, who is on a North American tour through late May (he stops in Philadelphia May 4), talks of music as a state of grace. "The music that I have learned and I want to hear is like worshipping God," he said in a recent National Public Radio profile. "It's absolutely like a prayer."

In concert, the famed composer and sitarist creates an almost baptismal pool of sound, rippled by melodies and rhythms. Whether these "ragas," as they are known, encourage prayer, serenity or free-associating bliss might depend on the listener. But a sense of total immersion is the unmistakable signature of Indian classical music, and Shankar is the form's acknowledged master.

Born April 7, 1920, in then-colonial India, Shankar took a roundabout path to the sitar. He had a youthful aptitude for dancing and in his teens traveled the world with an Indian dance troupe. "

Emblem of the '60s

The young Shankar returned to India for intensive training in sitar. A large, long-necked lute with seven strings and moving frets, the sitar requires concentration just to handle, let alone play.

Shankar learned ragas handed down for centuries and soon was composing his own. In the meantime, Indian classical music was beginning to reach the West. In 1955, Ali Akbar Khan -- son and student of Shankar's sitar guru -- played a stringed instrument called the sarod at a recital at New York's Museum of Modern Art. He was the first practitioner of Indian classical music to perform in the Western world and the first to have an album released in the West.

Shankar made his U.S. debut as a sitarist in 1956. In the next decade, he and Khan brought Indian classical to a wider American audience. "Eventually, Western curiosity for Indian music wed the hippy ethos," critic Piero Scaruffi wrote in The History of Rock Music, "and (thanks mainly to the Byrds' Eight Miles High) 'raga-rock' became a sonic emblem of the Sixties."

Shankar, now famous for his tutelage of Harrison, also played the epic Monterey (1967) and Woodstock (1969) festivals.

Shankar would carry on as a performer, composer and teacher. (His daughter Norah was born to a woman Shankar met, but did not marry, while working in the United States.)

His later collaborators would include composer-conductor Andre Previn and modern-classical composer Philip Glass. Working on film scores, Shankar earned Oscar and Grammy nominations for the soundtrack to Richard Attenborough's biographical epic, Gandhi (1982).

No family movie

An icon in his own country, Shankar received India's highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna ("Jewel of India") in 1999. A less welcome tribute came when a "Bollywood" film director announced plans in 2003 to make a movie musical based on the relationship between Shankar and Jones.

"Imagine a great musician and his once-estranged singer-daughter who goes on to set the Western music world on fire," director Dev Anand, 80, said at the time. "It's a terrific story." Father and daughter protested the idea as an invasion of their privacy; the film has yet to be made.

Shankar's touring ensemble includes a different family member: sitar player Anoushka Shankar, a daughter by his second and current wife.

In the Indian tradition, Shankar is passing along to his daughter-collaborator what he learned from his guru. He also has established a foundation and school in New Delhi bearing his name, its mission to preserve his work and teach Indian classical music to new students.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


What: Ravi and Anoushka Shankar in concert

Where: Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 4

Tickets: $37-68

Call: 215-893-1999 (or go online to kimmelcenter.org)

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