The man who made Indian classical music mainstream

Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar

Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar

By Oliver Craske

Hachette. 658 pp. $32

The shorthand summary of musician Ravi Shankar’s biography is that he brought Indian classical music into the very mainstream of Western pop culture in the 1960s. Ragas, the ancient and complex system of melodies performed for moods and times of day, became the soundtrack of the Summer of Love, the heady summer of 1967 when a freewheeling generation descended on San Francisco and unleashed a movement in politics and culture. The Beatles, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones were among Shankar’s many devotees. With his electric performances and sage-like persona, he introduced audiences worldwide to the beauty and possibility of Indian music.

By the time I had anything resembling a musical consciousness, Shankar had long moved on from pop festivals into formal concert halls. I achieved a dream of seeing him perform live in London in 2002 – his exalted reputation as the global torchbearer of Indian music matched by the grandeur in Covent Garden. He was enshrined in the highest echelon of classical musicians, far beyond the rambunctious, hippie aromatics of the 1960s. In the concert film of his last recorded performance just shy of age 92, he had a long white beard perfectly suited to his prophetic reputation and ethereal music.

Oliver Craske’s extraordinary biography “Indian Sun” grounds Shankar’s life on a more earthly plane. This is not a hagiographic portrait of a spiritual icon but a remarkably human life story, defined by familial failures, seething rivalries, physical frailty and relentless ambition. For anyone who has been moved by a Shankar recording, this is a portrait of the man behind the music and the unchartered waters of Shankar’s quest to save Indian classical music from extinction. With his elegant writing and extensive research, Craske manages to shatter Shankar’s cliche Eastern sage persona and rebuild his reputation as one of the giants of world music. “Indian Sun” transcends its subject by becoming something larger than a narrow timeline of an undeniably large life. In using Shankar as an axis, Craske has written a broader cultural history of music and hyphenated artists in the 20th century – a measured rumination on the possibilities and the price of artistic ambition. “Emerging at a time of flux for India and its arts, he bridged the old and the new,” Craske writes. “More than anyone else, he was responsible for establishing standards and practices for Indian classical music, and for creating a mass market for it – first in India, and then worldwide.”

Shankar began touring European stages with his brother Uday Shankar’s dance troupe in the 1930s. He was exposed at a very young age to international audiences and to the possibilities for Indian music beyond its borders. With the sun setting on the British Empire, India would become an independent democracy and its indigenous classical art forms, which had relied for generations on royal patronage, were facing a precarious future. Indian classical music is an oral tradition handed down personally from teacher to student, and Shankar studied with one of the great maestros of the sitar, Allauddin Khan. By the time of his pop culture breakthrough at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, filmed by D.A. Pennebaker in his iconic concert film “Monterey Pop” there was an almost perfect alignment of his prodigious musical gifts with an unprecedented moment in American politics and culture. He was the musician to meet the moment.

“There was a heady sense of a new age embodied by a mixture of rock music, mind-expanding drugs, communal living, free love, civil rights campaigns, Vietnam war protests and a revolt against authority.” In the ’60s, Shankar’s music became synonymous with the ecstatic, elevated and spiritual consciousness his audiences were seeking. At its peak, sitar strings could be heard streaming from East Village apartments; Shankar had been Billboard’s artist of the year and he’d shared concert billing with George Harrison, his friend and student. Shankar was grateful for the opportunity to bring Indian Ragas to audiences that could sustain his beloved art form but he also began to suspect the drug-infused fandom of some of his global listeners. Long before the contemporary language of appropriation and cultural erasure, Shankar complained about the lazy kitsch surrounding his persona and Indian spirituality. Instead of engaging in retaliatory backlash, however, he moved on from the “sitar explosion” by demanding rigor and regard from his listeners for what he considered sacred music. He shifted his focus to classical stages and experiments with deeply respected musicians such as Yehudi Menuhin and Philip Glass, and conductor Zubin Mehta.

For new generations of artists, Craske’s biography offers a kind of road map for those interested in drawing from other cultures but also for artists of minority backgrounds searching, at times meandering, through mainstream majorities that may not understand or see them. But as the book reveals, there were always critics and questions at home in India about Shankar’s ambitions and modification to the traditional style of performing. The extraordinary Vilayat Khan, his often rival sitar player, looked down on his experimentations. As Craske writes, following his first successful tours through Europe and the United States, Shankar felt frustrated by his return trips to less attentive Indian audiences and hostile contemporaries. That criticism produced tensions in his life as he sought ways to remain rooted in both India and elsewhere. But straddling geographies and his own duality became a part of his life. “He knew he meant different things to different people,” Craske writes. “Here an insider, there an outsider; here a purist, there a pioneer. A musical piece that was considered in the West to represent ancient tradition might be deemed as innovative or controversial in India. He was certainly intrigued by cross-cultural juxtapositions, which constituted much of his daily life.”

His virtuosity and his warm persona eventually won him the kind of admiration and adoration both at home in India and abroad that no other classical musician had experienced.

But Shankar’s creative ambition came at a personal cost. “The restlessness that had driven him to supreme heights of artistry and sensual experience had also left him lonely and unhappy,” Craske observes. “He had no partner; he had an awkward relationship with his son, and he was largely a stranger to his two daughters, neither of whom he publicly acknowledged. As it transpired, he would live for another twenty-six years, and there was so much more to come in this long final act.” In 1989, he finally found a sense of home with his second marriage, to Sukanya Shankar, who remained his companion and caregiver until his death in 2012. He began training and eventually touring with their daughter, the musician Anoushka Shankar. In his final decade, he also reconciled with his other daughter, the singer Norah Jones. The two sisters and musicians were slated to perform together for the first time this month in a tribute concert to mark their father’s centenary.

“Indian Sun” was published to coincide with Shankar’s birthday, and although those tribute concerts planned for the occasion are indefinitely postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Craske’s biography is a celebration easily experienced in the confines of home. With its annotated notes and its descriptions of specific recordings, Shankar’s music still holds the power to both electrify and soothe as it once did in the 1960s. Accompanied by easily assembled playlists from Shankar’s extraordinary back catalogue, this is a beautiful book, as resplendent as its subject’s music and life.

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