Ravi Shankar (1920–2012)

Ravi Shankar at the Monterey Pop Festival, June 1967.

BEFORE THE MID-1950S, the eternal drone and circadian rhythms of Indian classical music seldom reached Western ears. The unfamiliar scales and dynamics of the raga and the surging buzz of the sitar remained exotic and misunderstood feats of endurance. But while it was less likely to cause as much upheaval as Bill Haley & The Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock,” Ravi Shankar’s European and American tour of 1956 can be seen as an equally epochal cultural turning point in that year. While in London, he recorded the influential Three Ragas LP—the hip connoisseur’s introduction to Indian music—and within ten years, Shankar’s presence resounded across the musical landscape, from pop and rock to classical and jazz.

Born in 1920 in Varanasi, India, Shankar absorbed his instrumental skills and musical sensibility from the legendary Bengali music teacher Baba Allauddin Khan. Legacy and inheritance are key attributes of the Indian musical tradition; Shankar’s genius was to transfuse that previously hermetic lineage into the Western cultural bloodstream via performance, recordings, education, and the quietly insistent force of his personality.

The most famous instance of the Shankar effect occurred in 1967, when his four-hour onstage marathon at San Francisco’s Monterey Pop Festival helped set the countercultural tone for the remainder of the decade. In the audience were members of The Byrds, whose emerging raga rock sound was triggered after guitarist David Crosby attended a Shankar recording session in Los Angeles. Meanwhile George Harrison, who had studied the sitar with Shankar the previous year after its tentative tryout on “Norwegian Wood,” worked its sinuous tones into “Within You Without You” on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the first Western pop tracks to betray a decisively Indian influence. Shaking off associations with hippiedom, Shankar pursued his instrumental collaboration with English violinist Yehudi Menuhin and composed 1970’s Concerto For Sitar And Orchestra with the London Symphony Orchestra.

A true omni-musician, Shankar ably straddled multiple worlds. His vision of “West meets East” speculated how music might unite the planet’s scattered tribes, and made artistic categories redundant. He was the first to speak up for the dignity and serenity of Indian music, qualities that could equally describe his character. His death in December 2012 leaves behind a family dynasty and a recorded legacy, the impact of which can still be felt by all who expose themselves to Pandit Ravi’s sitar in full, untethered flight.

Rob Young is a writer, editor, and music critic who currently lives in Oslo.