Pandit Ravi Shankar, who passed away earlier today, was perhaps ‘the’ man who catalysed the creation of fusion music. Specifically, music that was the offspring of Hindustani Classical and Western Rock, Jazz and Pop. His collaboration with Yehudi Menuhin, the great violinist, started this musical exchange.
In the age of protest and revolution that the 1960s were, it needed something special to bring Indian music to the fore. And that happened when George Harrison, one of the Beatles, used the sitar on the now legendary track Norwegian Wood, a single on Beatles’ 1965 LP Rubber Soul.
The then arch rival of the Beatles’, Rolling Stones, used the sitar on Paint it Black in 1966. Indian music became embedded in the western popular consciousness when Panditji performed at Woodstock in 1969. That same year he was named the ‘Billboard Musician of the Year’.
What made Pandit Ravi Shankar distinct was that, he could play as great as the pure traditionalists and at the same time make his music accessible and enjoyable to audiences who hadn’t experienced Indian classical music before. And that meant even composing for Indian films.
Who can forget this haunting melody Sanware Sanware in Raag Bhairavi from the 1960s film Anuradha. He also composed music for one of the landmark films of Indian cinema, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. Here is the title track from Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (the third film in the Apu Trilogy). He also composed for Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala based on a short story by Rabindranath Tagore.
It is interesting to note that Panditji along with his first wife Annapurna Devi, his brother-in-law sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, was under the tutelage of Ustad Allauddin Khan who was the founder of the ‘Senia Maihar Gharana‘ of Indian classical music. His learning under Baba or Ustad Allauddin Khan was extremely rigorous and highly traditional (including physical beatings). Yet Ravi Shankar was able to find a way to break out of dogmas and connect to new audiences across the globe.
If Panditji hadn’t taken that step, I reckon that something like Shakti, which was a collaboration between Western, Hindustani and Carnatic musicians would have been delayed by at least a decade if not more.
John McLaughlin, one of the founders of Shakti, learnt Indian classical music from Panditji. McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra and was also instrumental in creating Shakti. With Shakti, fusion music’s path was set firmly towards the future.
While India has had great sitar exponents in the form Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, the mantle of being that great bridge between various musical traditions belongs to Pandit Ravi Shankar.
His story tells us, while we must be true to the tradition it musn’t come in way of getting new audiences. That’s the only way to keep something traditional, alive and relevant!
Go with God Panditji!