There’s no little irony in the fact that for many youngsters in India since the 1960s, any introduction to Ravi Shankar has been through western pop-rock music.
This would be akin to Bollywood music-loving youngsters in London or New York discovering the music of Yehudi Menuhin if the violinist had performed for Hindi movie soundtracks.
But irony apart, Shankar remains the biggest ‘crossover’ Indian musician who brought Hindustani classical music – and much of the exoticised, ‘groovy’ idea of India -- into a jiving pop arena in the West, something that the sitarist himself would later have mixed feelings about.
While Shankar’s first forays as a performer in the West were in his early teens when he would accompany his then more famous brother Uday’s dance troupe across European capitals, it was after his meeting with Menuhin in 1952 in Bombay which later resulted in tours across Europe and America that he – and his sitar -- first started getting noticed abroad.
Not too many classical music lovers in India cared much for his collaborations with the London Symphony Orchestra, saxophonist Bud Shank, flautist Paul Horn, guitarist Gabor Szabo and saxophonist John Coltrane in the mid-60s. But this was perhaps the space where Shankar’s music fitted best outside India: a jazz-classical, Occidental-Indian, improvisation-exploring musical bridgeway that was appreciated by the western afficionadi.
But it was the instrument he played, the sitar, that had started getting noticed by musicians in the far less rarefied world of pop and rock music. Bands like The Kinks and the Yardbirds were already experimenting with songs with an ‘Indian feel’. The droning sound would manifest itself in the sitar instrument being played by the Beatles in the song ‘Norwegian Wood’ from their 1965 album Rubber Soul. And when in 1966 the Rolling Stones had their guitarist Brian Jones strum out the sinister riff of ‘Paint It, Black’ on a sitar with the track becoming No. 1 on the charts, the Indian instrument was well on its way to becoming <the> fashionable prop to have among musicians in the Swinging 60s, along with the joss sticks and kaftans.
And it was in this ‘Have sitar will play’ climate that the Beatles’ George Harrison was introduced to Shankar at a mutual friend’s house in London in the spring of 1966. By becoming Shankar’s disciple and the news of Harrison’s interest to play the sitar spreading far and wide, the Beatle became the biggest endorser of Ravi Shankar in the more impatient world of rock’n’roll.
The Beatles connection opened up doors for Shankar. Tickets sales went up, which may have more to do with crowds hoping to catch George Harrison joining him on stage rather than being keen to be in rapt attention while the sitarist performed. Shankar used this new-found fame to publicise an Indian music centre he would found with Harrison’s help in Los Angeles.
But the raucous world of rock also started to unsettle Shankar. In 1967, Shankar performed at the Monterey Pop Festival about which he later said that he had liked Jimi Hendrix’s guitar play “but when [Hendrix] started being obscene with his guitar and burning it, I felt very sad.” The same year, he won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance for West Meets East, a collaboration with Menuhin. However, after that foray into the deep end of the Swinging 60s pool – that climaxed for him at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 where fidgety crowds gave him a polite applause for the sound check before his 40-minute performance – Shankar withdrew from the ‘hippie scene’.
It was in this ‘quieter’ period that Shankar found himself more at home with Hindustani classical students and fellow musicians with a similar set of musical and cultural aesthetics. He would reappear once in the rock-pop world when, with his most famous student Harrison, he organised and performed at the Concert for Bangladesh to raise funds for refugees in the country.
Shankar’s influence in the world of western pop and rock music, and therefore in the West at large, has been – thankfully -- limited, the sitar and the sitarist becoming a cultural, rather than a musical, landmark. But Ravi Shankar did play a big role in exporting a certain notion of India to the West that continues to run beyond music to this day.