Ravi Shankar's centenary must not be lost to lockdown

Beethoven is fortunate. His anniversary falls in December this year: which means, hopefully, it can be celebrated when a degree of normality has returned. Ravi Shankar is less fortunate. The centenary of his birth fell on April 7th, when the world had more important things to worry about. Which meant the anniversary passed almost unnoticed; with the major celebration at London's South Bank Centre postponed until April 2021.

But it is important that Ravi Shankar's centenary is not lost to lockdown. Not only because he was a master of the sitar, but also because he was a great humanitarian who broke down the barriers dividing music of different cultures. One example is his collaboration with Philip Glass. In 1965 the neophyte American composer was studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and he was hired to notate the film score for Chappaqua composed by Ravi Shankar. In 1989 the head of independent label Private Music Ron Goldstein brought Pandit Shankar and Philip Glass back together to record 'Passages'. This comprised two Glass compositions on themes by Shankar, two Shankar compositions on themes of Glass, and two original compositions from each musician, and the project was reprised by the Britten Sinfonia at a 2017 BBC Prom. (Related trivia: the autobiographical film Chappaqua is based on Conrad Rooks' experiences of chronic alcoholism and drug dependency and includes cameo appearances by William S. Burroughs, Swami Satchidananda, Allen Ginsberg, Moondog, Ornette Coleman - his score for the film was rejected, The Fugs, and Ravi Shankar himself. Rooks is best known for directing the 1972 movie Siddhartha).

George Harrison's collaboration with Ravi Shankar is more celebrated. The two first met in 1966 when the Beatle asked the Indian maestro for sitar lessons. The pupil/teacher relationship soon developed into mutual admiration, the product of which was three acclaimed studio albums, Chants of India (1997), Shankar Family & Friends (1974), Ravi Shankar's Music Festival from India (1976), and the triple album live Concert for Bangladesh (1971) which won the 1973 Grammy for Album of the Year. In 2010 the late Beatle's label Dark Horse Records released a lavish CD box of the three studio albums plus a DVD of a concert performance of Music Festival from India; this limited edition box now sells for many times its release price on the collectors' market. Ravi Shankar's pioneering of transcultural musical dialogues was recognised by George Harrison when he named him 'the 'Godfather of World Music'. Multi-instrumentalist Collin Walcott was Ravi Shankar's first American sitar pupil; he played in the influential Paul Winter Consort and went on to be a founding member of the pioneering World Music ensembles Condona and Oregon before being tragically killed in a road accident in 1984 while touring in East Germany.

One component of the anniversary celebrations that was, thankfully, not cancelled by coronavirus was the publication of Oliver Craske's authorised biography Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar. Oliver Craske worked with Ravi Shankar on his 1997 autobiography Raga Mala, and had a close association with him in his later years. Indian Sun is published by Faber & Faber, which has a distinguished record of publishing music writing and compositions. This fine book has been a beacon of light for me in the dark days of the global pandemic. Oliver Craske's lightly-worn erudition and Faber's typically high production standards are a sharp reminder of how publishing standards have plummeted with the advent of self-publishing, crowdfunding, print-on-demand, and social media-schooled authors. It is also a timely reminder that Beethoven is not the only anniversary game in town.

Central to the South Bank Centre's postponed Shankar Centenary was the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Fortunately one product of the LPO's Shankar advocacy survived the pandemic, in the form of a recording of his unfinished opera Sukanya. This was completed by David Murphy who conducts the LPO in the recording made at a 2017 concert performance. (More related trivia: the website for this year's cancelled Southbank performance states "This performance contains some strong language. Recommended for ages 12+".)

A valuable contribution to the Shankar recorded legacy is the 10 CD Ravi Shankar Collection originally released on the EMI label in 2012 and subsequently rebranded Warner Classics. This anthology illustrates Ravi Shankar's appetite for exploring beyond comfort zones. As well as the celebrated collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin, there are contributions from, among others, Gary Peacock, Jean-Pierre Ramal, Paul Horn, and Bud Shank, plus Ravi Shankar's two sitar concerto played by their composer and conducted by André Previn and Zubin Mehta.

Ravi Shankar once explained "I have always had an instinct for doing new things. Call it good or bad, I love to experiment", and his experiments crossed cultural boundaries and attracted new audiences in the 1960s and 70s. The first Ravi Shankar album released in the States had sleeve notes by the American-Armenian composer Alan Hovhaness. (Hovhaness wrote the concerto Shambala for violin, sitar & orchestra for the sitar master, but he declined to perform it.) Benjamin Britten was another early Shankar champion. During his visit to India with Peter Pears in 1955 Britten wrote the following to a neighbour in Aldeburgh after hearing Ravi Shankar play:

Yesterday we had our first real taste of Indian music, & it was tremendously fascinating. We had the luck to hear one of the best living performers (composer too), & he played in a small room to us alone – which is as it should be, not in concerts. Like everything they do it seemed much more relaxed and spontaneous than what we do. The reactions of the other musicians sitting around was really orgiastic. Wonderful sounds, intellectually complicated & controlled. By Jove, the clever Indian is a brilliant creature – one feels like a bit of a Yorkshire Pudd. in comparison.
Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of the leading figures at the 1957 International Summer School of Modern Music in Darmstadt. An 8.00pm concert of music by Arnold Schoenberg, Pierre Boulez, Edgard Varèse and Humphrey Searle was followed at 10.00pm by a Ravi Shankar sitar recital. Nine years later Ravi Shankar's soundtrack for Jonathan Miller's acclaimed BBC TV production of Alice In Wonderland was scored for sitar, tabla, tanpura, oboe, and piano. Léon Goossens played the oboe part, adding a Shankar premiere to a CV already including premieres of works by Bax, Bliss, Britten, Elgar, Rutland Boughton, Poulenc and Vaughan Williams.

Call me a boring old grouch if you want. But in those days diversity was driven by a preternatural intellectual curiosity, whereas today, with just a few exceptions, it is driven by dutiful box ticking. Those exceptions include the LPO's Shankar Centenary and the upcoming virtual BBC Prom with Anoushka Shankar, which enterprisingly eschews convention and pairs the sitar with with electronic artist Gold Panda and the Britten Sinfonia.

A prime example of that spontaneous diversity is Ravi Shankar's music theatre piece 'Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch' which was commissioned and premiered by Birmingham Touring Opera in 1989. One of the Shankar conundrums is that he was vociferously opposed to the drug ethos of the counterculture, yet actively but privately shared with the hippies the pursuit of free love. (Reading about his serial womanising in Oliver Craske's book left me wondering how Ravi ever found time to play the sitar.) In a later interview Pandit Shankar described his appearance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival as follows: "It was raining, there was mud all over. And who was listening to music? They were all stoned. Completely stoned". He once said - "Get high on the music, it is enough" and A Broken Branch was composed to express his deep concern about young people's preoccupation with drugs. The recording was originally released on CD in the early 1990s in a version edited to 60 minutes due to the then prevailing constraints of CD capacity. East Meets West Music, which is the record label of the Ravi Shankar Foundation, has re-mastered the original tapes and restored twenty minutes of music for a notable and sadly overlooked re-release.

Thankfully the audience for the 1993 Concert for Peace in London's Royal Albert Hall was more respectful to the music and less chemically inclined. For the concert Pandit Shankar was joined by a young Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Partho Sarathy (sarod). The double CD of the concert on Zakir Hussain's Moment Records label captures in excellent sound great musicians inspired to even greater heights by engagement with a truly receptive audience.

'Ghanashyam: A Broken Branch' was restored to the catalogue by the East Meets West Music label. This is doing invaluable work preserving the Shankar recorded legacy: among the gems from the label are Ravi Shankar: The Living Room Sessions, Part 1 and Part 2. These Living Room Sessions capture exquisite valedictory performances by the 91 year old sitar master at his home in Encinitas, California; with the first album quite rightly winning a Grammy in 2013, and the second earning a Grammy nomination a year later.

In My Music, My Life Ravi Shankar explained:
Often, I too am overcome by the hatred, the jealousy and envy, the wars, all the ugliness that is part of our world. I seek out all that has a quality of inner beauty, and I am immediately repulsed by anything ugly that sends out bad vibrations.
Today boundless inner beauty shines even more brightly through his recorded legacy. If I had to choose one from the many Shankar recordings in my collection it would be Ravi Shankar in Hollywood, 1971, which again comes from East Meets West Music. This captures a morning concert at Pandit Shankar's home on Highland Avenue in Hollywood in June 1971, and the tapes were only recently discovered buried in the Shankar archive. The double CD portrays the sitar master at the peak of his performing powers, but it also has a unique historic importance. The private concert took place as the tragic plight of refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was emerging following the Bangladesh Liberation War-related genocide. Before he performs a Bengali folk tune the great Indian musician and humanitarian is heard empathising with the Bangladeshi refugees, and in the audience was George Harrison. So Ravi Shankar in Hollywood, 1971 can truthfully be billed as the first and previously unreleased concert for Bangladesh. Boundless inner beauty and good vibrations emanate this album and all the recordings featured in this post. Our world has become an even uglier place since Pandit Shankar left us in 2012. Which is why Ravi Shankar's centenary must not be lost to lockdown.

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Oliver Craske said…
I love your enthusiasm for Ravi Shankar, and thank you for your warm words about my book Indian Sun. Glad you have been enjoying it.

Incidentally the one-off revival of his opera Sukanya is the one event in the Southbank Centre's centenary celebrations that has actually taken place (so far) - it was on 15th January.

As you say, the Southbank showpiece concert from 7th April has been rearranged for April 2021, and hopefully other elements can be rearranged, in London and elsewhere around the world. In the meantime, thanks for banging the drum for his centenary.

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