“Ravi Shankar is the Godfather of World Music.” Nothing better sums up the stature of the sitar maestro perhaps than these words of George Harrison, the late Beatles member whose famous association with the Indian musician is a folklore in the world of music.
While George Harrison called him the Godfather of World Music, violinist Yehudi Menuhin had compared Ravi Shankar with Mozart.
“Ravi Shankar has brought me a precious gift and through him I have added a new dimension to my experience of music. To me, his genius and his humanity can only be compared to that of Mozart’s” were the words of Yehudi Menuhin who was a pupil too.
Pandit Ravi Shankar, legendary sitar player and brand ambassador of Indian classical music to the world, passed away on December 12 at San Diego in USA at the age of 92. But the musical legacy he left behind enriched generations of Indian classical as well as fusion music practitioners.
But the man who celebrated music, also left behind his philosophy of celebrating life as it comes. So his personal life was as colourful, often controversial, as his musical journey that began in India where he was born in Varanasi on April 7, 1920.
Few are aware that Ravi Shankar recomposed the music for the popular song Sare Jahan Se Achcha at the age of 25. Ravi Shankar was ahead of his times. He has authored violin-sitar compositions for Yehudi Menuhin and himself, music for flute virtuoso Jean Pierre Rampal, music for Hosan Yamamoto, master of the Shakuhachi and Musumi Miyashita - Koto virtuoso, and has collaborated with Phillip Glass (Passages).
George Harrison produced and participated in two record albums, Shankar Family & Friends and Festival of India, both composed by Ravi Shankar.
The Concert for Bangladesh, which was the name for two benefit concerts organised by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, on Aug 1, 1971 to raise funds for the relief of Bangladesh war victims, had drawn 40,000 people at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The concerts were followed by a bestselling live album, a boxed three-record set, and Apple Films’ concert documentary, which opened in cinemas in the spring of 1972.
Ravi Shankar has also composed for ballets and films across the world. He had worked for films like Charly, Gandhi, and more famously the Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray, another Indian maestro from the world of film making. His musical composition for Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala won him the Silver Bear Extraordinary Prize of the Jury at the 1957 Berlin International Film Festival.
Ravi Shankar was also famously associated with The Woodstock Festival. He performed at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. However, in the 1970s Shankar distanced himself from the hippie movement.
Ravi Shankar is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is a member of the United Nations International Rostrum of composers.
Besides a Bharat Ratna in 1999, which India’s highest civilian honour, he got 14 doctorates – the Padma Vibhushan, Desikottam, Padma Bhushan of 1967, the Music Council UNESCO award 1975, the Magsaysay Award from Manila, Grammys, the Fukuoka grand Prize from Japan, the Polar Music Prize of 1998, the Crystal award from Davos, with the title ‘Global Ambassador’ to name some.
His recording Tana Mana, released on the private Music label in 1987, brought his music into the ‘new age’ with its unique method of combining traditional instruments with electronics.
In 1989, this remarkable musician celebrated his 50th year of concertising, and the city of Birmingham Touring Opera Company commissioned him to do a Music Theatre (Ghanashyam - a broken branch) which created history on the British arts scene.
Pandit Ravi Shankar is survived by his wife Sukanya and musician daughters, Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones. While his personal life was under social scrutiny with multiple marriages, his phenomenal talent eclipsed everything else. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh aptly sums up his contribution as he calls him “a national treasure and global ambassador of India’s cultural heritage.”