Indian Musicians Remember Their Teacher, Ravi Shankar | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

Indian Musicians Remember Their Teacher, Ravi Shankar

Play associated audio

The world mourned the death this week of Indian maestro Ravi Shankar, whose name became synonymous with the sitar. Tributes eulogized Shankar as the great connector of the East and West who'd hobnobbed with The Beatles and collaborated with violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. Less has been said about the roots of the music he spent a lifetime perfecting and innovating.

Indians mourned the man they affectionately call Pandit-ji, or Teacher. I sat down with one of his disciples, 48-year-old Shubhendra Rao, a sitar star in his own right. Rao says that, forever the innovator, Shankar fundamentally changed the instrument that he introduced to the West.

The sitar is made of two large gourds set on each end of a long playing board of 19 or 20 strings. Shankar swapped one of the main melodic strings for a bass string to deepen the tone, stretching the sound from 2 half-octaves to 3 1/2.

Indian classical singer Shubha Mudgal says Shankar knew his sitar so intimately, it was like an extension of his body.

"It's not just resonance, but a radiant resonance," Mudgal says. "Of course there was speed, there was virtuosity, there was expression — his playing was expressive. There was very beautiful use of dynamics."

Cornerstone Of Indian Music

Shankar composed concertos, ballads, film scores and ragas — the melodic patterns that represent specific moods, seasons and even time of day. Mudgal says they are the cornerstone of Indian classical music.

Shubhendra Rao says that, as a young man, Shankar abandoned a glamorous life in Paris to study back in India with renowned instrumentalist Allaudin Khan and begin a lifelong love affair with Indian classical music.

"From the five-star hotels of Paris and New York and Los Angeles, finally he ended up in a small room infested with snakes and mice," Rao says. "And totally giving up everything and focusing on music."

By the mid-1940s, Shankar was building a reputation as a composer and conductor. He was appointed music director of All India Radio and, Rao says, began commanding adoring audiences even then.

"Here was this handsome, handsome man — girls would just go to see him, forget hear him perform," Rao says. "And this is all before the West. So he changed the whole approach to how an artist is perceived."

Elevating The Music

Shankar changed the nature of performance in India, too, highlighting tabla players and percussionists who had previously sat in the shadows. He's credited with elevating the respect and the pay that performing artists earned in India.

Rao says Shankar was simply alive to experiment. A student of the Hindustani classical music of northern India, Shankar embraced the south, as well. He played both from the Dhrupad style of temple music and Khayal, the more playful music of the court. Rao says Shankar composed one especially distinctive raga by combining two traditional ragas.

Ravi Shankar refused to fill the role of the graying doyen, performing up until his death. Rao says his teacher and musicologist was "92 going on 29."

"He was many things put together," Rao says. "On one side, he was spiritual. On one side, he was playful. On one side, he was a child with a great sense of humor and lived life to the fullest."

Some critics in India accused Shankar of commercializing India's classical music to make it more palatable to non-Indian ears. Mudgal says the Indian star collaborated with Western artists, but on his own terms. Shankar said he was not a practitioner of fusion; rather, he jealously guarded the heritage of northern Indian classical music, which he had learned as a young man.

In the radio story, sitarist Shubhendra Rao closes out the interview with a soulful song by his master and teacher. It's difficult to conclude, upon hearing it, that Ravi Shankar's music was anything other than a celebration of India.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

WAMU 88.5

Capital Fringe Fest's 'Bethesda' Hits Close To Home

The annual Capital Fringe Festival, which aims to bring new energy and artists to the D.C. area performing arts community, is back. This year's program includes one play that hits close to home.
NPR

Economists Say Inflation Is Tame; Consumers Aren't Buying It

On paper, inflation has been low this year. But consumers buying food or fuel may disagree. Prices for beef, eggs, fresh fruit and many other foods are much higher than overall inflation.
NPR

Germany Calls For 'Honest Foundation' In Relations With U.S.

The remarks by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier follow fresh allegations of U.S. spying on Germany and Berlin's request that the top U.S. intelligence official in the country leave.
NPR

NSA Implementing Fix To Prevent Snowden-Like Security Breach

A year after Edward Snowden's digital heist, the NSA's chief technology officer says steps have been taken to stop future incidents. But he says there's no way for the NSA to be entirely secure.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.