R.I.P. Ravi Shankar

Indian classical composer and virtuosic sitar ambassador, Pandit Ravi Shankar, died on Tuesday, December 11th, in San Diego, near his home in southern California. According to a statement issued by his family, he had been suffering upper respiratory and heart ailments for some time, and underwent heart-valve replacement surgery last week. While his surgery was successful, the ensuing recovery proved too difficult. He was 92. Though Ravi’s accomplishments within the realm of Indian classical music are colossal and unprecedented, it’s his enduring appeal to Western musical figures, and the cultural bridges he’s built through tutelage and performance, that have made him a transcendant and globally beloved icon. He was a musical connector, an emissary for Indian culture, and absolutely one of a kind.

Ravi was a fleet fingered, precociously intelligent musician whose ecstatic raga explorations bore the strict focus and spiritual yen of years of monastic study with his teacher, Ustad Allaudin Khan. From the ages of 10 to 18, Ravi had left his native India to perform music in his older brother Udhay’s Paris-based dance troupe. There he met Khan, who whisked him back to India and took him in as a disciple in order to teach Ravi his instrument, and to teach him how to learn. As a result, Shankar’s artistic approach was a holistic, fully immersive life-pursuit, a product of the increasingly rare guru system, a discipline in which the aspirant foresakes all in favor of a life completely at the service and mercy of a realized teacher, or guru. It worked.

Listening to Ravi’s ragas is always a trip. Shankar cultivated a singular voice on his sitar, notable for a prominent and resounding lower-register tone and phrasing that was totally his, a unique and identifiable style in a manner similar to, say, Miles on his trumpet. You know when it’s Ravi playing. He has a gentle and poetic way with the alap — the introductory phase of a raga’s performance wherein its notes, contours, and melodic implications are established — but it’s those subsequent sections, the jor, jhala, and particularly the gat, when the tabla enters, where his thrilling, soulful improvisations take hold, running the gamut of expression: they can burn, yearn, and mourn, and are capable of equal resonance on the ecstatic, hopeful, and peaceful side. Though there are ragas for every mood, and ragas prescribed for every time of day, a Ravi Shankar performance of any are timeless.

It should go without saying, here at least, that Shankar’s varied works and teachings influenced countless classical, experimental, jazz, and rock luminaries, including students and collaborators like Yehudi Menuhin, on the East Meets West recordings; Philip Glass, on Passages; John Coltrane, whose son is named in honor of Ravi; and in the most celebrated relationship of his life, George Harrison, with whom he shared a tremendous amount of time, love, and respect, perhaps most monumentally with the landmark music benefit The Concert For Bangladesh.

There are a great many obituaries to his legend already, and you should probably read all of them. You’ll learn a lot about Ravi’s countless outstanding accomplishments, and read tale of a lot of fun Ravi anecodtes. You’ll hear about his Oscar-nominated film score for Gandhi. You’ll read about how, at the Concert For Bangladesh, he called out the crowd for applauding heartily at what they thought was his set’s first song when in fact it was just him tuning up. You’ll read about his way with the ladies and some detail about a few of those relationships: a marriage to his guru’s daughter, Annapurna Devi, also a sitarist, which ended in divorce; an affair with a New York concert promoter named Sue Jones which ended in estrangement, but not before giving him, and the world, Norah Jones; and a later-life marriage to his tanpura player, Sukanya Rajan, after she gave birth to a daughter, the extraordinarily talented sitarist and de facto Shankar torch-bearer, Anoushka.

What you won’t read about in those other pieces is that one time my brother Sarab and I, as pothead, teenaged musicians, got preposterously baked on the drive over to watch Ravi and Anoushka perform at our neighborhood venue, the Valley Forge Music Fair, at a concert which would radicalize our understanding of the possibilites of live music performance. It’s worth noting that the venue was small, and that we were definitely the only stoned humans in attendance. (I guess we were expecting something more like the Monterey Festival footage than the high class function we seemingly crashed. While the ticket prices and venue’s intimacy probably should have suggested as much, in fairness, we were very young. And blazed.)

We sat front row, compliments of tickets gifted by our mom, slack jawed, looking at the Shankars from under long hair with bloodshot, adoring eyes. The surrounding attendees, aunties in saris and uncles in achkans, shot us bitter scowls. But they quickly receded from the periphery, leaving only the Shankars’ taals and raags, unfolding elaborately and enveloping our stupefied minds. We knew how to grasp jazz, and untangle jams; we had never experienced anything like this. On this waist-high stage, sat cross-legged in kurtas, was a group of musicians whose enthralling improvisational reveries would break suddenly, then pivot at apparently arbitrary times yet in complete unison. It played like a totally exploratory jam, but in those moments suggested precise composition. Sarab and I thought they were maybe telepathic. We kept trying to find the “one.” It kept eluding us. It was awesome.

This is the Indian classical way, I’d learn. It is a music that offers its players total freedom within a strict overarching framework, consequently creating a highly functioning community through perfectly expressed individuation. It sounds ideal. And those aunties’ scowls weren’t entirely misplaced, either. In time, I’d come to love how Ravi flatly rejected the hippie movement’s reliance on psychedelic intoxicants to expand consciousness. As such, he and his music presented a graceful and heroic alternative to transcendental experience at a time when the world could use one, and he became, at a crucial moment, a high-minded ambassador for authentic Indian culture. (Though to be fair: Pot is very authentically Indian, too.)

To this day, neither my brother or I are that much better at tracking taals, but Ravi showed us enough to shape what we thought possible musically. He also stood as a testament for what personal sacrifice in the name of art could yield. (I.e. Telepathy.) Lately, people have asked me a lot about Indian role models in the arts when I was growing up, and in turn I’ve talked a lot about how I remember it feeling remarkable when, suddenly, we had dudes like Kim Thayil and Tony Kanal making headway as brown faces on high stages. And while that is true, I realize now that in looking back, sat right there on that waist-high stage, there was Ravi. We always had Ravi Shankar. And we will always him, too. The Pandit, immortal.

Here’s Ravi’s set at Monterey Festival in 1967.

And here’s Ravi’s set from The Concert For Bangladesh, where the crowd applauded after Shankar’s tuning.

Here’s Ravi giving George a sitar lesson:

Ravi on the Dick Cavett show:

Ravi Shankar & Philip Glass – “Ragas In Minor Scale”

Ravi Shankar & Yehudi Menuhin – “Tenderness”

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