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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT