The world mourned the death this week of Indian maestro Ravi Shankar, whose name became synonymous with the sitar. Tributes eulogized Shankar as the great connector of the East and West who'd hobnobbed with The Beatles and collaborated with violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. Less has been said about the roots of the music he spent a lifetime perfecting and innovating.
Indians mourned the man they affectionately call Pandit-ji, or Teacher. I sat down with one of his disciples, 48-year-old Shubhendra Rao, a sitar star in his own right. Rao says that, forever the innovator, Shankar fundamentally changed the instrument that he introduced to the West and that spawned the earliest genre of World Music.
The sitar is made of two large gourds set on each end of a long playing board of 19 or 20 strings, six or seven that are actually played, while the rest simply resonate. Rao says Shankar swapped one of the main melodic playing strings for a bass string.
Rao draws his sitar up from the floor to demonstrate, plucking the string that resonates deep and low. He says that single addition stretches the sound of the instrument from two and half octaves to three and three.
Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal says Shankar knew his sitar so intimately, it was like an extension of his body.
"It's not just resonance, but a radiant resonance," Mudgal says. "Of course there was speed, there was virtuosity, there was expression — his playing was expressive. There was very beautiful use of dynamics."
Cornerstone Of Indian Music
Shankar composed concertos, ballads, film scores and ragas — the melodic patterns that represent specific moods, seasons and even time of day. Mudgal says they are the cornerstone of Indian classical music. One of her favorites performed by Shankar is the Raag Bhatiyar, an ancient dawn raag that she says sparkles with "all kinds of acrobatics with the voice of the instrument."
Shubhendra Rao says that, as a young man, Shankar abandoned a glamorous life in Paris to return to India to study with renowned instrumentalist Allaudin Khan and begin a lifelong love affair with Indian classical music.
"From the five-star hotels of Paris and New York and Los Angeles, finally he ended up in a small room infested with snakes and mice," Rao says. "And totally giving up everything and focusing on music."
By the mid-1940s, Shankar was building a reputation as a composer and conductor. He was appointed music director of All India Radio and, Rao says, began commanding adoring audiences even then.
"Here was this handsome, handsome man — girls would just go to see him, forget hear him perform," Rao says. "And this is all before the West. So he changed the whole approach to how an artist is perceived."
Elevating The Music
Shankar changed the nature of performance in India, too, highlighting tabla players, the percussionists of Indian music, who had previously sat in the shadows. He's credited with elevating the respect and the pay that performing artists earned in India.
Rao says Shankar was simply alive to experiment. A student of the Hindustani classical music of northern India, Shankar embraced the genre of the south, as well. He played both from the Dhrupad style of temple music and Khayal, the more playful music of the court. Rao fingers race across the keyboard of his sitar as he performs an especially distinctive raag that Shankar composed by combining two traditional ragas into one.
Ravi Shankar refused to fill the role of the graying doyen, performing up until his death. Rao says his teacher and musicologist was "92 going on 29."
"He was many things put together," Rao says. "On one side, he was spiritual. On one side, he was playful. On one side, he was a child with a great sense of humor and lived life to the fullest."
Some critics in India accused Shankar of commercializing India's classical music to make it more palatable to non-Indian ears. Mudgal calls it "nit-picking." She says the Indian star collaborated with Western artists, but on his own terms. Shankar himself insisted he was not a practitioner of fusion; rather, he said he jealously guarded the heritage of northern Indian classical music, which he had learned as a young man.
In closing out our session with him, Sitarist Shubhendra Rao performs one of his favorite song by his master and teacher. Listening to the soulful melody, it's difficult to conclude that Ravi Shankar's music was anything other than a celebration of India.