Music from the Indian subcontinent is one of the non-Western repertories that has fascinated Western musicians and audiences in recent decades. One of its principal exponents has been the great sitarist Ravi Shankar. As a child he exhibited unusual gifts as both a dancer and a musician, but during his mid-teens began to focus on mastering the sitar. For years he studied as the discipline of a prominent guru, ultimately receiving the blessing of his teacher. His first tour outside India was to the Soviet Union in 1954. During the 1960s he became well known to Western audiences through his many tours and recordings. He has often performed for humanitarian causes, such as the 1958 UNESCO concert in Paris, the United Nations Human Rights Day concert in New York in 1967, and fund-raising events for Bangladesh. The 1971 “Concert for Bangladesh” with the Beatle George Harrison is available on CD and DVD. Harrison studied with Shankar, and their friendship led to Shankar’s appearances atthe Monterey Pop and Woodstock festivals.
Shankar is an undisputed master of the purest classical style of Indian music. He is also a composer and teacher. In his writings on music, he refers frequently to the spiritual dimension of Indian music, a system that “can be traced back nearly two thousand years to its origin in the Vedic hymns of the Hindu temples, the fundamental source of all Indian music. Thus, as in Western music, the roots of Indian classical music are religious. To us, music can be a spiritual discipline on the path to self-realisation, for we follow the traditional teaching that sound is God — Nada Brahma. By this process individual consciousness can be elevated to the realm of awareness where the revelation of the true meaning of the universe — its eternal and unchanging essence — can be joyfully experienced. Our ragas are the vehicles by which the essence can be perceived.” He describes the experience of performing as one in which he infuses the “breath of life into a raga” and “each note pulses with life and the raga becomes vibrant and incandescent.”
Shankar has also crossed the boundaries of traditional Indian music. The experimental side of his career is illustrated by his appearances with George Harrison of the Beatles and three recordings from the early 1970s — one of classical North Indian music with American violinist Yedudi Menuhin, another with Japanese musicians, and a third his Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra. Shankar has composed works for All-India Radio’s instrumental ensemble and scores for ballets and films, including Gandhi and the Apu Trilogy. Shankar has exerted formative influence on Western musicians speaking a broad range of musical dialects, from the minimalist composer Philip Glass to pop groups such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Traffic. His honors include membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and of the United Nations International Rostrum of Composers. His discography totals almost 70 albums and he currently holds the Guinness record for the longest international career in music. In recent years, Shankar has toured and recorded with his daughter, Anoushka, who also plays sitar. Another daughter is the pop musician Norah Jones.