Skip to main content

Ravi Shankar, emissary for world beat

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
December 13, 2012 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: Ravi Shankar brought classical Indian music to a global audience
  • He says he was legendary in India when he made cross-genre connections
  • The Byrds hip to Shankar before Beatles, but sitar could soon be heard on their records
  • Seymour: His sound transcended pop associations to carve out singular spot in music

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a jazz and film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. He is a contributor to "The Oxford Companion to Jazz."

(CNN) -- "Beauty" seemed somehow insufficient a description for the sounds that came from Ravi Shankar's sitar in a concert hall. It was as if nature itself were being replicated on the stage, whether it was gentle summer rain or late-autumn wind having its way with the landscape. There would be intense engagement between Shankar and his ensemble as they summoned into being tempests of interlocking phrases that seemed to coil and unravel at will. The audience would be enraptured, transported, energized into enthusiastic applause.

And this was before the actual performance started.

"If you enjoyed the tuning up that much, I hope you enjoy the music even more," Shankar can be heard saying on the recording of the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh addressing the appreciative, if nonplussed crowd at Madison Square Garden. It wasn't the first, or last time he gently (at times, not so gently) reproved audiences who, even with the benefit of his warnings, took the preliminaries for the actual recitals. Some learned, some never did -- and then there were those who really did enjoy the tuning-up as much as what followed.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Whatever his audience's reaction, Shankar, who died Tuesday at age 92 after undergoing heart surgery, seemed to accept it all with benign imperiousness and regal warmth. As emissary for a classical tradition of Indian music, Shankar was winning over global audiences for that music in greater numbers than could have been imagined when he started learning the music of raga almost 70 years ago.

He was already close to legendary stature in India by the 1950s as sitar virtuoso, composer, conductor and director of All India Radio in New Delhi. He had also written scores for several Indian films, notably Satyajit Ray's "Apu Trilogy" (1955-1959) whose international acclaim was a huge factor in increasing Shankar's worldwide profile.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



By the late 1950s, Shankar was making cross-genre connections with the likes of violinist Yehudi Menuhin and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, whose seminal 1961 recording of "My Favorite Things" was infused with modal inventions that carried the incantatory fervor of classic raga music. (Coltrane would name his son Ravi after Shankar. This year, by the way, Ravi Coltrane, who like his father plays tenor and soprano saxophone, released his finest album to date, "Spirit Fiction" on Blue Note Records.)

As all this indicates, Shankar was already well-known before the Beatles got involved. In fact, they weren't even the first rock group to get hip to Shankar. That honor belonged to the Byrds, who recorded in the same World Pacific Records studios as Shankar did for producer Richard Bock. They in turn got George Harrison hooked on raga and Harrison began plucking the sitar on his own. (Dial up "Norwegian Wood" from the Beatles' 1965 album "Rubber Soul" and you'll hear that instrument poking out the theme.)

Harrison and Shankar met the next year and the "quiet Beatle" went to India to study sitar with the master. Back then, whatever the Beatles were interested in, the rest of the world was interested in, too. Brian Jones picked up the sitar on the Rolling Stones' 1966 hit "Paint It Black" and the Byrds appropriated a sitar-sound (and a Coltrane riff) that same year for "Eight Miles High." "Raga-rock" lasted just long enough to make the sitar part of the shorthand soundtrack of what's often derisively labeled "the hippie era."

Shankar was at best ambivalent about such associations. But his reputation, as with his music, transcended fashion to become its own singular, lasting presence in the world's cultural firmament. Anyone who can make a sound check sound like genius packs substantial weight with the rest of the immortals.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT