Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ravi Shankar: Strings of Power

On Sunday 1 August, 1971, a unique charity concert was organized at the most high profile centre of American music – New York’s Madison Square Garden. This concert, planned for the victims of a devastating cyclone and ongoing liberation war in Bangladesh, was the first charity concert ever to be held. The concert, a brainchild of Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, was initially planned at a much lower scale but enthusiastic response from fellow musicians forced them to look for a bigger stage. Among the participants that day apart from Ravi Shankar and Harrison were Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. A record crowd cheered them through the day, the organizers managed to raise huge amount of aid and for years afterwards, records of the concert continued on the top grossers’ list. But for India, there was a much larger gain. This concert was organized at a time when President Nixon’s administration was hardening its stance against New Delhi in the ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan over Bangladesh and despatched a US warship to Bay of Bengal. But this concert helped to change the perception – overnight everyone knew about the plight of Bangladesh and there was a discernible change in public mood. Decades before concepts like cultural diplomacy and soft power entered our foreign policy vocabulary, Indian classical music became one of India’s greatest soft power tools in the West and Pandit Ravi Shankar our most important cultural ambassador.
It, of course, should not come as a surprise for someone, who made his stage debut at the age of 11 in Paris, albeit as a dancer! Ravi Shankar's elder brother Uday Shankar was the original Indian cultural ambassador, pioneering Indian performing arts tradition in Europe and America. Uday Shankar presented the first vision of Indian classical dance to the Western audience in the 1920s in partnership with the celebrated Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Later on he established his own dance company Uday Shankar Dance Troupe with his signature creative dance along with noted French dancer Simkie and a number of classical Indian dancers and musicians. Their presentation of Indian themes along with typical Indian music and dance in European style ballet format was the first taste of Indian performing arts for the West. Ravi Shankar toured with this troupe from a young age as a dancer and got his exposure to Western art and classical music and of course cinema, which remained his lifelong passion.
Uday Shankar with Anna Pavlova

It was a time when Indian classical dance traditions - so far confined to temples and houses of pleasure - were being given a new respectability by two men - Rabindranath at Shantiniketan and Uday Shankar, first in Europe and then briefly at Almora (where among his students were Guru Dutt and Zohra Sehgal). Yet young Ravi decided to opt for instrumental music and shifted to Maihar with Baba Alauddin Khan, who was a part of the Uday Shankar's troupe. He re-emerged on the classical musical scene after a rigorous ten year long training at Maihar and joined IPTA and then worked as music director of All India Radio between 1949 and 1955. It was during this period he composed the now famous music of Sare Jahan Se Achcha. He was also the music director for Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and a number of Hindi movies including Anuradha and Godaan. Since 1956, he relentlessly toured around the world almost till the very end, often performing with famous musicians from other traditions like classical orchestra, Jazz, Pop and Rock. His association with the Beatles made him a household name in the West. From the 1970s, he was acknowledged as one of the greatest living cultural icons of the world.
Ravi shnakar and George Harrison
 Pandit Ravi Shankar was born in Varanasi as Rabindra Shankar Choudhury to his musician-philosopher cum barrister father Shyam Shankar and mother Hemangini Devi. He moved from Varanasi to Paris and then back to Maihar and then to Mumbai, where he founded his now world famous Kinnara School of Music, before embarking on a global career and settling down in California. His personal life has been controversial and perhaps unacceptable to many. As far as his art is concerned, it is for the experts to judge his original contribution to Indian classical music. But for India as a civilization, Ravi Shankar's greatest contribution has been to build bridges through his art. Not only during the time of Uday Shankar but even in the 1950s, when Ravi Shankar (and his fellow musicians, most notably his brother-in-law Ali Akbar) started touring the West, Indian classical music was still something exotic. It was his great ability to connect to a diverse range of influential people, particularly great musicians like George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin and above all his prowess as an extraordinary musical performer, which helped to popularize Indian classical music all over the world. His performance on the stage was always on the borderline of sensuality and spirituality - at the same time he was able to highlight the richness of Indian music and portray Indian spiritualism through his art. When his sitar finally fell silent after more than seven decades of performance, Indian classical music has become mainstream, accepted all over the world as one of the greatest cultural traditions of the mankind – this in turn hugely enhanced India’s soft power quotient and lifted her status in the committee of nations - this will remain Ravi Shankar's immortal legacy.