by Scott Bolohan
In the history of popular music, it would be hard to come up with people who have had more of an influence than Ravi Shankar.
Shankar, who turned 87 on April 7, began performing in 1939 and rose to prominence in the 1960s following Beatle George Harrison’s interest in Indian music. Shankar has since become the world’s most famous sitar (a large, 19 stringed classical Indian instrument) player. The instrument was made famous in America when used in rock songs such as the Beatles "Norweigen Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," and The Rolling Stone’s "Paint it Black."
In Shankar’s almost 70 years of performing, he has played some historic shows, such as the Monterey Pop Fest in 1966, Woodstock in 1969, and The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. For many of the attendees, it was their first time seeing a sitar played.
"It was the first time that a large audience became conscious of my music," Shankar said. "But I started performing ten years earlier, in 1956 actually, performing all over, in Carnegie Hall and Orchestra Hall as well. From these fantastic music festivals, like Monterey and Woodstock, and even Bangladesh for that matter, the younger generation became attracted to our music. It was mainly because of George Harrison, who became my student."
Shankar was very pleased to be spreading Indian music to the West, but was unhappy with how it became associated with the hippie drug culture, which he opposed. Today he feels Indian music is reaching a new and more appropriate audience.
"Now you may know that I had a problem with that period, with the drug situation and the hippies and their loud behavior and things like that. But those are all gone now, so now I think we have a fantastic period for Indian music," Shankar said.
Shankar’s Chicago concert on April 14 at the Symphony Orchestra Hall will feature his daughter, Anoushka, who is also an acclaimed sitar player.
"The first half will be my daughter Anoushka. She will be playing with a fantastic flute player from India, who is learning from me also. After the intermission I will join. There will also be a wonderful shehnai player, which is an instrument like the oboe, a reed instrument," Shankar said. "And of course, I have accompaniment on drums, the tablas. Of course I will be playing a lot of new things. New things in the sense that the ragas are of new meditative forms or things that I didn’t play last time."
Even though he has played countless shows over his 68 years of performing, he still finds inspiration to perform.
"The music itself is an age old form. They go on adding in the form because most of it is improvisation. Personally I do more improvisation than others. So it is something which has an old format, old system, but we always give it new life, so it is such an exciting thing and inspiring as well."
Soon after Harrison took up an interest in Indian music and famously featured a sitar on "Norwegian Wood," he was introduced to Shankar. Later Harrison became Shankar’s student and frequent collaborator until his death in 2001. However, Shankar was surprised the first time he heard the Beatles fuse rock and Indian music on "Norwegian Wood."
"My nephews and nieces told me about it. I had no idea about it, but when I heard it, it was alright. It was something different. Even then it sounded really strange because George never learned properly and had no experience," Shankar said.
Even though this fusion of Western and Eastern music brought Shankar and the sitar to prominence, he never intended for the two to be combined.
"I never had anything in my mind like that. I was only anxious to give our music to the listeners in this country and it was such a great success that there was no need for me to think along those lines at all," Shankar said. "Of course, I have done a lot of experimental things myself, like recording with [violinist] Yehudi Menuhin and Jean Pierre Rampal playing the flute. And I have written two sitar concertos with a symphony orchestra. But it was more with Western classical music. I never attempted anything with rock or pop."
Shankar became interested in sitar at a young age, when he was a dancer. "I got involved when I was ten. I was a dancer touring with my brother, Uday, touring all over the world. When I was 15, a great Indian musician joined my brother’s group as a soloist. After that I seriously started practicing sitar from him."
Although it is often thought of as related to the guitar, the sitar is much more difficult to master.
"Just like the violin or cello, or any other Western classical instrument, it takes a minimum of 8-10 years to get a good control on the sitar. Becoming a master and all that depends on your luck and how much talent you have," Shankar said. "It takes many, many years of practice and learning and hard work."
His respect in the music community has resulted in many titles, including "The Godfather of World Music" by Harrison. However, he does not seem to have let his fame go to his head.
"Well I’ve been given so many titles at so many times, ‘The Ambassador of Indian Music,’ ‘The Godfather’ by George. It’s nice to hear but it doesn’t change me or my music. I might feel happy to hear it but the main thing is that I’ve been able to bring the music to this country and that makes me very happy."
As one of music’s pioneers and most respected performers, he is happy with his accomplishments and his place in history.
"My greatest accomplishment is so hard to tell you myself (laughs). I think I feel that I have been able to translate, or bring Indian music into this country and the Western world and was the first person to be able to make people understand it. And that makes me very happy."