Pandit Ravi Shankar 1920 - 2012

If one man can be said to have brought Indian music to the west, that man was Ravi Shankar.

Ravi Shankar by Rux Shots (w)here

Born in Varanasi in 1920, Robindro Shaunkor Chowdhury first came to Europe in the thirties as a dancer and a musician with his brother Uday Shankar’s dance group. Returning to India he trained as a professional musician during the war years under Allauddin Khan, his career as a composer began in 1945 scoring ballets for the Indian People’s Theatre Association and recording for HMV India. Even this early in his career he was combining Western and classical Indian instrumentation and was acquainted with Western customs and culture.

In the fifties Shankar was the first Indian musician to perform on American television and recorded his Three Ragas for Angel records, the first of his many albums which brought the sitar to the Western record buying public.

1966 was the breakthrough year for Shankar when he recorded his East Meets West collaboration with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and, perhaps more crucially for popular culture, met George Harrison of The Beatles who travelled to India to study sitar for six weeks.

Through the influence of The Beatles, the sitar and Ravi Shankar became synonymous with Indian music, psychedelia and the exotic. If one sound signifies Indian culture it is the harmonically rich twang of the sitar with its undertow of sympathetic strings. During an era when Indian spirituality, fashion and cuisine were to colonise the West, this was the sonic leading edge of barely understood exoticism.

Beyond popular music, Shankar was a forerunner to what we now know as World music, not only as an ambassador for Indian culture but as a creator of fusions and syncretic musics, perhaps most successfully in his collaboration with Philip Glass, another pupil of Shankar’s, on their 1990 album Passages.

Two inventions inspired by Ravi Shankar which are of interest to Kitmonsters everywhere:

In 1967, the American guitar manufacturer Danelectro produced the Coral electric sitar, a hybrid of guitar and autoharp with a jivari bridge, and then later in 1968 the Danelectro sitar, a smaller instrument without the thirteen string autoharp. Vinnie Bell’s electric sitar designs for Danelectro were a very clever hybrid solution. These instruments allowed pop musicians to get the sitar sound without having to find a guru and study the sitar.

Last year, Electro-Harmonix launched their tribute to Shankar with a customary bad pun. The Ravish Sitar pedal is the first serious attempt since Danelectro to bring the sound of the sitar to contemporary music technology. The pedal is a very interesting synth-drone pedal, but misses many of the subtleties of a jivari bridge and a moving string. Electro-Harmonix founder Mike Matthews clearly understood his debt.

Shankar arose from the Indian classical tradition of ragas rather than the popular filmi music which through Bollywood movies has inspired more recent meetings between East and West, but it was Shankar who opened this door for the first time. Ravi Shankar leaves behind two musical daughters, Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones, just as he leaves a legacy in both classical and popular music.

May he have a long and harmonious transmigration.

  • The writer Zali Krishna is a multi-instrumentalist and multimedia artist. He plays electric sitar with drone duo Raagnagrok, and digressive guitar with psych-prog landscapists Durga, as well as recording and performing solo under many noms de guerres: Entropy Circus, Krishna, The Benelux, Royal Free Electric.