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How Ravi Shankar defied classical music’s orthodoxy

Oliver Craske’s magisterial biography of the sitar maestro, the first in English, portrays him as a towering but troubled genius

Ravi Shankar at a press conference in London, August 1971.
Ravi Shankar at a press conference in London, August 1971. (Alamy)

The year 1967 was a watershed moment for the global music industry. That year, The Beatles released one of their iconic albums, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which soared to the top of the charts all over the world. Millions lost their minds over the fab four from Liverpool as the frenzy of Beatlemania turned into a contagion. It was an annus mirabilis—a year of miracles—for another musician too, groomed in a tradition that had nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll. As the world became drunk on the lyrics and melodies created by the Liverpudlians, George Harrison, a frontman for the band, began to fall under the spell of a different kind of magic, created by Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar.

Shankar had “arrived" in the West, well and truly, by 1967. His meeting with Harrison was the final turn of the screw for his international celebrity. As Oliver Craske writes in Indian Sun, his magisterial biography of Shankar—the first in English— Billboard crowned the Indian musician its artist of that year. Shankar performed with the classical violinist and his lifelong friend, Yehudi Menuhin, at the United Nations in New York. Dazzled by his music, legendary jazz musician John Coltrane named his son Ravi, and John Densmore of The Doors enrolled at Shankar’s music school in Los Angeles. No Indian artist, apart from Shankar’s older brother, the dancer Uday Shankar, had enjoyed such worldwide eminence before him.

Indian Sun—The Life And Music Of Ravi Shankar: By Oliver Craske, Faber, 672 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>899.
Indian Sun—The Life And Music Of Ravi Shankar: By Oliver Craske, Faber, 672 pages, 899.

In India, however, purists were aghast by Shankar’s experiments with Western forms, his collaboration with rock stars and inadvertent stardom among the hippies and drug users of the 1960s and 1970s. In reality, his natural charisma, openness to new experiences and flamboyance notwithstanding, Shankar had a lifelong horror of substance abuse and addiction. But he was tarred with the same brush nonetheless, simply by association with his growing bohemian fandom. His genius was never separate from his other public avatar either—that of a playboy who carried on multiple (often simultaneous) affairs while he was technically married to his first wife, Annapurna Devi.

Shankar’s reputation was never free from such undercurrents of disapproval. But, in more senses than one, he defied the orthodoxy of India’s classical establishment by shaking up its moral as well as musicological strictures. He embraced his roving sexuality without qualms, shunning the veneer of hypocrisy under which such behaviour was buried in the world of performing arts—though Shankar’s conduct, especially with the hindsight of the MeToo movement, appears far from salutary on several counts.

Craske traces the roots of Shankar’s strong sense of identity to his unconventional upbringing. Born in Benaras (now Varanasi) in 1920, the youngest of seven brothers, he grew up close to his mother. His father was mostly absent, living with his second wife, not exactly a role model by any means. Shankar, however, hero-worshipped his renowned older brother Uday, whose dance troupe he joined as a young boy, travelling with it around the world. This peripatetic life took him to Weimar Germany, placed him under the floodlights of Carnegie Hall, allowed him to meet Clark Gable and Joan Crawford in Hollywood, gave him a chance to sing for M.K. Gandhi, and be personally blessed by Rabindranath Tagore. As a young man employed with All India Radio in newly independent India, Shankar would go on to revolutionize orchestral arrangements for Indian classical music, set the score for the song Saare Jahan Se Achchha, and produce music for movies in Mumbai, Kolkata and beyond, for directors like Satyajit Ray, Tapan Sinha and Jonathan Miller.

With all these glittering gems in his crown, though, Shankar remained a classicist at heart—trained under the hawk eyes of Allauddin Khan, the great guru from Maihar—and devoted to the sanctity of the grammar of ragas and talas. Since his foundation was robustly sound, Shankar could venture into uncharted terrain with unbridled ease. He could compose new ragas and concertos for the sitar, create catchy songs for Hindi movies, leave a non-Indian audience entranced by his virtuosity, reverse the usual sequence of slow and fast moments in the Indian performance format when he performed abroad, and pull off marathon performances of dhrupad, dhamar and other esoteric forms for connoisseurs. As Penny Eastbrook, one of his girlfriends, summed up, “He had no problem East-West."

If Shankar appeared in traditional Indian garments on the stage during his tours, he was mostly spotted in suit, tie and dark glasses outside the concert hall, exuding the glamour of a movie star. Few of his contemporaries could own their style with such elan, or feel no compulsion to project an image of themselves as the archetypal desi musician in the public eye. On the contrary, India, with its slithering bureaucracy and mean-minded mediocrity, often left Shankar frustrated and disenchanted. As he bemoaned after a futile tax raid on his apartment in Delhi, allegedly set up by Annapurna Devi to spite him: “I can do so much more for my country from outside than at home. I feel suffocated and so dead when I go back."

This sentiment not only explains Shankar’s eventual decision to spend most of his life abroad, but also his exasperation with critics who condemned his collaborations with Western performers as “impure", a taint on his credentials as a Indian classical musician.

Craske’s book is a feat of such careful analyses of Shankar’s life and career as well as a masterclass in biographer empathy without resorting to hagiographic adoration of his subject. Far from it. The book is painstakingly honest about Shankar’s personal life and fortunes. For instance, Craske reveals for the first time, with the permission of Shankar’s wife Sukanya Rajan, his experience of being raped by an uncle at the age of 7 and, again, as an adolescent touring the West. The failure of Shankar’s first marriage to Annapurna Devi, the daughter of his beloved guru is blamed on his promiscuous nature, but Indian Sun shows the truth to be more complicated and the relationship to be mutually toxic.

Shankar’s fraught ties with Shubho, his first-born, who died aged 50 in 1992, is also laid bare with all its cracks and fissures—as is Shankar’s initially fragile interactions with pop singer Norah Jones, the daughter he had with music producer Sue Jones. Then there is his notorious rivalry with the other emperor of sitar, Vilayat Khan, whose feelings towards Shankar oscillated between fraternal reverence and bitter rivalry. It was only in the last couple of decades of his life that Shankar found peace and stability in his marriage to Sukanya and as a doting father to their daughter, the sitarist and composer Anoushka Shankar.

To his credit, Craske doesn’t whitewash these complexities and contradictions of being Ravi Shankar. He lavishes as much attention on the cult around him as on the towering scholarship he possessed as a guru and performer. Shankar’s greatness as a musician does not for a moment cancel out his flaws as a human being in the telling of Craske’s story—and that is also the way Shankar himself would have presumably liked to be seen.

In Raag-Anuraag, a memoir he wrote in Bengali, Shankar had spoken about his unconventional lifestyle with a candour that is still rare in the tight-lipped world of Indian classical music. His delight in collaborative and international idioms of music-making, the early efforts at synthesizing Western and Eastern modes of composition, and interest in forms like ballet and opera made him a trailblazer and an iconoclast. It may be a cliché to describe Shankar as a visionary far ahead of his time. It was rather as though the times struggled to catch up with his richly inventive legacies.

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